Book Review: The Great Railroad Revolution

The Great Railroad Revolution:  The History Of Trains In America, by Christian Wolmar

There is a great danger when historians of a given subject, like the history of rail transportation in the United States take off their historian hat and become advocate for various rail solutions, such as increased subsidies for rail transportation that hardly anyone wants to use.  The author tries to argue, using various dodgy means, that trains are an ecologically superior solution to transportation than private motor vehicles, but this book stumbles badly in serving both as a warts and all discussion of the corruption that went into the development of rail infrastructure and the general unwillingness of freight-dominated railway conglomerates to cater to the scheduling, safety, and comfort desires of the traveling public as well as a promotion for more expensive building of railways that simply will never be profitable and will always require government support.  Quite frankly, I wish the author would have focused far more on the history and far less on advocacy, because the history of railways in America is interesting, but I have no interest in joining the author’s idiot parade in advocating for high-speed railway subsidies in America.  The author could easily have written an enjoyable and enlightening straight history and left the advocacy for his own private blog posts on some website for people who support subsidized passenger rail, and the world would be better for it.

This book is a bit more than 350 pages and contains twelve chapters of material.  After beginning with a list of maps and illustrations, maps, and an introduction, the author starts this book with a look at American transport at the beginning of the 19th century and shows how it was that railroads won out over canals and early turnpikes (1).  After that the author talks about the passionate affair that Americans originally had with trains as cutting edge technology (2), and the way that railroads took hold through public-private partnerships and a good deal of subsidization (3).  The author then discusses the role of railroads in the Civil War and how the importance of railroads dictated a great deal of operational and strategic concerns because of the logistics advantages they offered (4).  The author then looked at the growth of railroads in the postwar period (5) as well as the late 19th and early 20th century phenomenon of there being a large network of railroads to (almost) everywhere (6).  The good times for railroads (7) ended in a public turn against railroads in the early 20th century when safety concerns and problems with corruption were tied to more convenient forms of transportation like airline and motor vehicle travel that, especially in the latter case, did not have the same collective aspect (8).  The author then looks at various train technologies (9), the roots of the decline of railway travel (10), and the near extinction of railways in the middle of the 20th century (11) before ending the book with a discussion of a supposed renaissance of freight railway while passenger rail in Amtrak struggles without many passengers (12), before notes, a note on sources, and an index bring the book to a close.

One of the ways this book is frustrating is that the author both knows and recognizes the reasons why the American people turned on the railways but yet simultaneously and naively believes that a subsidized government solution can get America back into riding the railways on a regular basis.  The poor service and safety record of many railway companies, their inveterate corruption in seeking to fleece the public for private profit, and the way that they forced passengers to travel in an often spartan, deeply inconvenient, and highly collectivized form of transportation all led to a dissatisfaction of passengers with the railway companies.  When you add to this the fact that railway companies themselves did not develop an ethos of customer service and were happy to get rid of passenger service when it was no longer remotely profitable, and when one compares how much faster planes are and how much more convenient cars are than railway service, it is no surprise that passenger rail has largely been abandoned except by hipsters who all apparently wish to write books to support their outmoded and corrupt form of transportation.  It would be better if people like the author could either write histories without trying to insert themselves into the story and promote a pro-rail agenda, or just stop writing altogether if they cannot do so.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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