historian, author, film producer

Did Railroads Transform the World?

British railroad journalist and historian, Christian Wolmar has just published a new book on the ways railroads transformed societies across the world: Blood, Iron, and Gold: How the Railways Transformed the World. The Guardian and the Times have given Wolmar’s book very favorable reviews. Wolmar tackles not only the many changes that accompanied the railroads but also suggests the possibility of a revitalized rail transportation movement. He is right to do so.

Tony Judt in this week’s New York Review of Books also suggests that the recent history of railways in Europe demonstrate the failures and inadequacies of privatization movements. Many leading European nations and the United States have privatized whole areas of previously public services, sometimes surrendering vast sums of capital in the process. Railroads, Judt points out, are a social service, and act as a social good. While it might be inefficient to run railroad to rural areas, he points out, their service indicates and enables a higher level of of social intercommunication.

On a recent train trip to Chicago I was struck again by the huge investment earlier generations made in the rail systems and infrastructure of the U.S. Americans poured their creative energies, talents, and capital into the railroads–building and designing landmark architecture, most visibly, and erecting and improving complex networks of rails, bridges, and warehouses. Americans also of course poured out their sweat and blood to build the railroads. Even a casual look, however, at the architecture of Chicago’s Union Station or a trip to see the Burlington Zephyr at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry will reveal something of the scale of the railroad investment made in American society. When we consider the reach of these investments–into places such as Livingston, Montana, or Roanoke, Virginia, where world leading architects designed railroad depots–we begin to see how far-reaching and important these developments were for communities. We have privatized much of this investment and turned to other public endeavors. Judt and Wolmar are not the only voices suggesting we revisit these social commitments, but their recent contributions are exceedingly important and useful.