Sitting on Crewe station on a wet afternoon waiting for a train makes it difficult to believe that railways had once, and will continue, to transform the world. Blood, Iron and Gold revived my faith in the power that is the railway. Wolmar’s new book is a breathtaking vision of its past, present and future impact.
This book provides an overview of international rail development; an expert explanation of why railways reached every corner of the globe. In Wolmar’s words, “the impact of the railway is almost impossible to exaggerate”, “a catalyst for a whole range of other changes” and “the railways helped create the world we live in”.
After considering early railway development, Wolmar reviews the influence of British, American and other nations’ railway enterprises on international rail systems. Railway development in every nation is considered. A complex interplay of economic, social and changing political factors is revealed. In Europe the need to create national unity initially led to the development of a shared standard railway gauge. Later, fear of invasion brought the adoption of different gauges in other nations. The relationship between state and railway differed from nation to nation. So did their means of finance. But governments needed the money of ‘Railway Kings’ such as Hudson, the Rothschilds and Strousberg.
Railways could make or break nations. Those slow to adopt them lost out. The battle lines of railway building were often unexpected. Some of the most conservative powers, such as Pope Pius IX, were leading advocates of rail development while the more liberal were not. Wolmar points out that railway policies adopted in one nation did not always work in another.
Beyond Europe and America, reasons to build a railway were even more blatantly political. Western-sponsored railways across the world were “naked imperial projects” and “get rich quick” schemes. By the final quarter of the 19th century practically every continent had a coast-to-coast railway. These aimed to consolidate western imperial power, (eg Cecil Rhodes’ Cape to Cairo railway), or build new nations. When the colony of British Columbia joined Canada in 1871, the promise of a transcontinental railway was key.
Just a few nations initially lost out in the world’s railway race. Australian states adopted different gauges that delayed journeys as passengers changed trains. Those arriving late for the opening of one Aussie railway found that the locals had not only eaten all the pies but had consumed tonnes of meat and gallons of beer too!
Wolmar’s book is very far from being the ‘nuts-and-bolts’ technological history that he characterises many earlier international railway histories as being. People, from politicians, and financiers to engineers, rail workers and passengers, are part of his story. ‘Heroic’ engineers are given their human face. For instance the famous builder of lines in the Republic of South Africa, George Pauling, believed that excessive eating and drinking protected him from the African climate and disease.
Wolmar is not uncritical of the railways. The terrible human cost of railway building and operation is remembered. On the Cape to Cairo line, 60 per cent of white workers and 500 Indians succumbed to fever. Presumably the fate of many black workers went unrecorded by the railway company. Huge numbers of Chinese died constructing the Panama railway, some committing mass suicide because of the miserable conditions they were forced to work under.
From establishing the phenomenal impact of railways in the past, Wolmar examines their benefits in the future. These can be readily seen in the later chapters of the book, especially ‘Decline but not Fall’ and ‘Railway Renaissance’. This book is a richly entertaining vision of the world’s railways. It acknowledges the influence of leading writers on the topic, including Michael Robbins, Anthony Burton and Nicholas Faith. Recent in-depth studies of railway development also play their part.
This is not just an excellent history of the world’s railways, it is an understanding of their impact and importance too. Wolmar’s arguments should be recognised by politicians and policy makers – then I might not wait so long for a train in Crewe.
Dr Diane Drummond is associate principal lecturer at Trinity and All Saints College, Leeds