Book Review — Locomotion: The Railway Revolution

Locomotion: The Railway Revolution (Kindle Edition) by Nicholas Faith is the companion book to the BBC series Locomotion. Faith is a distinguished veteran journalist, a former senior editor at The Economist and the London Sunday Times. He also founded and was chairman of the International Spirits Challenge, now the most prestigious event of its kind in the world. He has written twenty-three books, including The Winemakers of Bordeaux and Safety in Numbers: The Mysterious World of Swiss Banking.

When I was growing up in East Cleveland I always wanted to ride the commuter trains that I could see from my house.  In evenings my parents walk me down to the tracks and I would wait for freight trains to come on by.  When I was stationed in Europe the trains could take you anywhere. Now I spend half my commute on light rail, the other half on bike. There is something relaxing about riding the train as you zip by the gridlock on the highway and the anxiety that goes with it. In America, trains have been pushed far out of the picture of transportation. People would rather have more highway lanes than public transportation. Many put up the ridiculous argument that trains need subsidies and the highway system doesn’t. Amtrak in Texas takes seven hours to go from Dallas to Austin while the drive is half that time. The problem is the upkeep of the tracks and the limits on the speed they present. It has been said, with some truthfulness, that the United States has a train system that would embarrass Bulgaria.

Locomotion is a companion book to the BBC series so it is not a definitive history of rail. It does cover many of the concepts such as the relationship between government and private industry. Railways were perhaps one of the greatest developments of the late 19th century. Railways not only moved people but they also material. Coal, oil, grain, fish, and other food items could be delivered quickly and safely to industry and markets. Livestock was delivered to market without the weight loss of traveling cross country — trains replaced the cowboy cattle drives. Fish from the coast could be delivered inland overnight and fresh. On the darker side trains became a tool of war quickly moving troops and supplies at a much greater speed than a march.

Railways created the first instance where men had to conform to machines.  It is not the evil Skynet from Terminator, but rail systems created demands on people.  The standardization of time and clocks are a result of rail systems crossing various “time zones.” To have a train run on times across a country, like the US, standardized time zones were needed.   Trains also needed to be at a certain place at a certain time.  To get trains where they needed to be, it took almost military discipline.  This military discipline can be seen in many European train crews.  Uniforms of the German railway workers, for example, mimicked that of the military.

Locomotion looks at trains systems in the UK, US, Russia, China, Africa, South America, and Europe.  Each region had their own development. Chile and Argentina connected through the Andes. Russia built the trans-Siberian railroad.  Both the US and Canada joined their nations together with rail. China connected and was better able to distribute food.  Africa remains still colonial in the sense that its railways connect resources to ports rather than part of a growing infrastructure.  Railways spread across the globe and grew.  It wasn’t until the Berlin Airlift and later the Interstate highway system that cracks began to develop in the dominance of rails. Railways are making a turn around with high-speed trains in Europe, Japan, and China, but are still dragging in the US.  It is fairly easy to live without a car in urban Europe while still difficult in much of the US.

Locomotion, as I have said before, is a companion book to a TV series.  In this sense, it is an excellent book.  For those wanting a brief overview, it is also an excellent stand alone book.  However, for those wanting a definitive history of railways around the world,  it is lacking and is not its intended purpose.  Well worth the read as an overview.

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