Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World by Tom Zoellner, review by Carl Caton

Trains, railroads, and railroading have long fascinated people around the world. Although most countries have a railway system, only two of the major industrialized countries, the US and Russia, relied heavily on railroads to promote their transcontinental expansion and settlement. In America, trains became associated with Manifest Destiny and later the romance of trains was celebrated in literature, film and song.

In his new book, Train, Tom Zoellner has written a tribute to the train and to its role in history, in commerce, and in culture. From the first practical locomotive developed in England in 1825 to the high speed trains of Europe and the bullet trains of Japan, Train takes us on a journey across space and time while tethered to iron rails. In a style reminiscent of Bill Bryson, Zoellner takes the reader along as he travels by train in the US, Russia, Tibet, India, England, and Peru. Along the way, he tells us highlights of the history and development of trains, locomotives, and railroads, and illuminates the unique role that railroads have played in transportation.

Zoellner’s book helps explain the romance of passenger trains, which he likens to a mobile community of strangers. One of the trips he takes is the Amtrak Southwest Chief, running from Chicago to Los Angeles through Kansas, with stops at Newton, Hutchinson, and Dodge City. One of the few travel writers with positive comments about Kansas, he bemoans the fact that the Chief runs through Kansas almost exclusively in the dark, as he tells us that “the state has an exquisite feminine beauty of the kind best taken in long draughts that a train can provide”.

Other trips recounted take us along on the Trans-Siberian railroad, an adventure in comfortless travel which the author had to abort halfway after suffering a dog bite at a station stopover, and a trip to the top of the world on a Tibetan line constructed by China as a means of solidifying its tenuous hold on a region that wants to be left alone. In Peru, we tag along with the author on his journey from Lima to the high Andes zinc mines, and in India we learn that a major cause of derailments is the accumulation of human fecal matter on the tracks in poverty-stricken areas lacking sewage systems.

Train is an example of travel writing at its best, with digressions into the past that both inform and amuse, and with anecdotes from Zoellner’s conversations with railroad executives, conductors, engineers, politicians, and passengers, all of which helps us understand the economics, the culture, the romance, and the ironies of trains and train travel. All aboard.

Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World--From the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief Cover Image
ISBN: 9780670025282
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Published: Viking Books - January 30th, 2014