Book review: ‘Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World’

Los Angeles TimesMarch 1, 2014 

  • Nonfiction

    Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World – From the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief

    Tom Zoellner

    Viking, 384 pages

The routes American railroads follow were laid out almost exclusively in the 19th and 20th centuries, when trains were symbols of modernity and industrial power. And today, riding a train – especially in the U.S. – can feel like stepping into a time machine.

Tom Zoellner visits this time machine in his highly entertaining, lucid and perceptive “Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World – From the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief.” It’s an account of Zoellner’s travels on six legendary rail lines and a celebration of the great epic story of rail travel itself.

Railroads were invented, quite by accident, by 18th century Britons trying to keep water out of underground mines. But they have shaped our notions of time and space more than any other technology in human history.

“We live in a society that was made by the railroads in ways we never think about anymore,” writes Zoellner. We owe to railroads, he says, “our abstract notion of time and our sense of everyday connection with people who may live out of sight but are made neighbors through mechanical means. Under the skin of modernity lies a skeleton of railroad tracks.”

Zoellner begins by taking a ride across Great Britain. Along the way, he sees the places where steam engines first made locomotives run and tells how railways captured the British imagination in the mid-1800s.

One of the first of many subtle cultural shifts triggered by train travel, Zoellner writes, was the “great social embarrassment” of people taking seats in rail cars and finding themselves “suddenly forced to talk with strangers.” From this very British discomfort, a new habit was born – reading on the train.Zoellner doesn’t do much reading himself as he rides modern-day trains in Britain, India, Peru and Spain. Instead, he engages the random passengers that take seats next to him in conversation. Sometimes, these passages feel like inconsequential small talk.

Zoellner never fails, however, to quickly bring us back to the ongoing story of train travel. In India, the trains are a legacy of British imperialism, but have been transformed into a uniquely Indian institution that unifies an ethnically and linguistically diverse country. Just outside New Delhi, Zoellner crafts a funny and poignant scene at the brick hut that is the workplace of gateman Sita Ram.

Ram’s job is to lower a gate, stopping “all the cars and motorbikes and cows and people” from crossing the tracks until a train passes. For this, he earns $3 a day. “The national system of hand-operated gates is primitive and ponderous, but it all works somehow,” Zoellner writes.

Funny thing: Here, in the U.S., the system is not working well at all, Zoellner discovers.

He travels from New York to Chicago, recounting the early, glory days of American railroads. Then he pays $900 for a sleeping berth in a Chicago to Los Angeles train – an outrageous sum for a ride whose speed rarely tops more than 60 mph. The food is all microwaved, but it’s not the cuisine he’s come to enjoy. We see hills leveled and continent spanned from the Atlantic to the Pacific. And historical figures make unexpected cameos, including George Gershwin, John Cheever and Langston Hughes.

After an ill-fated trip to Siberia and a few other places, Zoellner ends back in California, which occasions a brief account of the fight to bring American railroads into the 21st century by constructing a high-speed line across the Golden State.

Zoellner concedes that not many locals are excited by the idea and writes that “making way for a new railroad was one essential American art form that had fallen out of favor.” After reading Zoellner’s wonderful account of the past and present of train travel, you too might vote for the next big rail bond.

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