I fell into book writing by accident. In all my career, I have done everything a bit late, which is perhaps why I am still working full-time – and happily – in my 70s. While the economics I learnt at Warwick has proved very useful for my work as a journalist, broadcaster and author, it was the experience of editing the University newspaper, then called Campus, which got me my first employment after graduation as a features sub editor for the Retail Newsagent.
I soon rose to slightly more challenging jobs with various magazines and newspapers, such as Marketing and The Hampstead and Highgate Express, and later with The Observer and The London Daily News, a short-lived evening paper launched by Robert Maxwell to challenge the Evening Standard. It was not until I was 40 that I got my dream job as a reporter on The Independent and soon became its Transport Correspondent. I went freelance after nearly a decade there and my expertise in transport, particularly the railways, has provided the basis of my income ever since.
I left The Independent as I had the offer to write a couple of books with advances sufficient to make it worth my while. So at the age of 50 I embarked on a book writing career that has involved, over the subsequent two decades, producing one book approximately every year. I have, too, continued my journalistic freelance career, which has included countless media appearances on TV and radio to talk about transport, and occasionally other issues.
It is, however, the railways in particular that both fascinate me and provide me with much of my income. It is not that I am a trainspotter, or gricer or foamer, as they are called respectively in the UK and the US. I barely know one end of a steam engine from the other and standing on platforms taking down locomotive numbers is not an appealing prospect, even though I did so in my early teens. Rather, it is the social, economic and historic role of the railways that I find so fascinating and that fills my books.
My series of history books covers subjects as varied as The London Underground (The Subterranean Railway), Britain’s railways (Fire & Steam), the Indian railways (Railways of the Raj) and the Transsiberian (To the Edge of the World). But what they have in common is their emphasis on the central role that railways have played in creating the world we live in today.
Picture, for example, the changes that came after the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, the world’s first modern railway, in 1830. Before that no one had travelled on land faster than a horse could gallop and journeys of more than a few miles took days if not weeks to accomplish. Within less than a generation that had changed completely as by 1850 Britain had more than 5,000 miles of railway, which had completely transformed patterns of work and the way of life of many people. The Great Exhibition of 1851 attracted more than a million visitors, something that would never have been possible without the railway.
There is so much more too. The railways stimulated the development of modern capitalism in numerous ways. The railway companies in both the UK and the US were for a time the largest such concerns in the world and the service they provided, both for people and freight, allowed an unprecedented amount of trade and travel. The railways enabled the spread of the Industrial Revolution, which had started in the north of the UK in the 18th century, to become a world-wide phenomenon.
One statistic that I unearthed when writing my book about American railroads (The Great Railroad Revolution) remains with me: the American network grew from zero miles in 1830 to 254,000 miles in 1916. That means – doing the maths – that eight miles of line opened every day during that 86 year period. That is such a staggering figure given the amount of capital, labour and organisation required to build railways – and then to operate them – that I check it every time I quote it!
Much of this has been forgotten. Indeed, many historians fail to notice the role of the railways in numerous aspects of the history of the past two centuries. This is particularly true of those writing about wars. In my book Engines of War I describe how the advent of the railways changed the nature of war by allowing far more people and much more material to be transported rapidly to the front.
I explain the difference between the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, which was effectively over in a matter of hours, and the Battle of the Somme a century later which lasted for months – that was very much because of the supply lines created by the railways.
My next book will focus on another aspect of the forgotten history of railways in warfare – how the rebuilding of the railways after D-Day enabled the Allied troops to sweep through France, Belgium and Holland far faster than would have been possible if there had only been lines of communication by road. Two thirds of the supplies for the troops went by rail and yet in the numerous accounts of D-Day that I have read, there is barely a mention of the rail network in the index.
My goal, therefore, has been to spread the message of the role of the railways in history and to correct many misapprehensions about them. But there is more to my interest in railways than simply revising history. I love them too as they are the best form of transport – one that enables people to travel long distances without the detachment that is such an integral part of flying. Railways created the modern world and thankfully this 19th century invention thrives in the 21st century, having overcome the post-war period when many thought it was a technology that was as outdated as the horse and cart. The railways are thriving across the world today, not least because they are an enjoyable form of travel, but because they are far more sustainable than any of the alternatives.
Christian Wolmar graduated from the Department of Economics in 1971 and can be reached via Christian.firstname.lastname@example.org.