Seduced by Trains

Sometime during the mid-nineteenth century, writers discovered that traveling could be a lark. Disease might prevail in the tropics, but many of travel’s other hazards had disappeared: reliable marine engines protected ships against currents and capricious winds, railway companies built sanitary hotels, rooms could be booked by wire, banditry was on the wane, and there were far fewer postillions to be struck by lightning.

Nobody had more success with this idea than Jules Verne in his novel Around the World in Eighty Days, published in 1873, in which Phileas Fogg circumnavigates the globe at unprecedented speed to prove to his wagerers in the Reform Club that “the world has grown smaller.” Verne himself was not a great traveler—apart from a week in New York and a few European excursions he never left France—but he wrote the book at a desk facing the railway tracks at Amiens and the dreamlike promise of passing trains excited him, as it still excites strangers to the great European terminals who see expresses pull out with destinations such as “Praha” or “Brindisi” pasted to their windows. Fogg leaves London with very little luggage other than a copy of Bradshaw’s Continental Guide under his arm, as though that preeminent railway and steamboat timetable would be enough to see him safely across every sea, desert, swamp, and ravine.

The world’s first passenger railway opened in Britain in 1830. By the end of the century trains reached almost everywhere. No physical challenge seemed insurmountable. Lines looped up the Alps and the Himalayas and drove straight across the Florida Keys. Faced with unbridgeable water—the English Channel, the Kattegat, Lake Michigan—engineers devised ferries equipped with railway tracks so that whole trains could be shunted on board. There seemed no limit to the railways’ advance, the luxury of their trains, or the grandeur of their architecture. Trains brought British troops to the mouth of the Khyber Pass and hauled coal across the Arctic ice of Spitsbergen. In England, village stations charmed gentlefolk with flourishes of Gothic stone and Tudor brickwork; in America, majestic city terminals reminded the commuter of cathedrals.

And then the fever abated. Automobiles and aircraft broke the railways’ monopoly on land transport. The years of decline began in the 1920s, and though the decline was not universal (railways continued to expand in India and China), by the 1960s the passenger train was widely regarded as an outmoded means of travel other than for shuffling commuters in and out of cities. Nowhere was its fall steeper than in Britain and America, the countries that had once embraced railway travel more fervently than any other. The railway maps of both countries (but especially that of America) shrank from a dense summer thicket to the branches of a winter oak. New York’s Penn Station, a monument to neoclassicism spread over eight acres, was demolished in 1963 after only sixty years of useful life. Two years earlier, the wrecker’s hammers had broken down …

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