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Bring Back the Rails!

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H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Everett Collection
Penn Station, New York City, 1940s

The Railway and Modern Life

Ever since the invention of trains, and because of it, travel has been the symbol and symptom of modernity: trains—along with bicycles, buses, cars, motorcycles, and airplanes—have been exploited in art and commerce as the sign and proof of a society’s presence at the forefront of change and innovation. In most cases, however, the invocation of a particular form of transport as the emblem of novelty and contemporaneity was a one-time thing. Bicycles were “new” just once, in the 1890s. Motorbikes were “new” in the 1920s, for Fascists and Bright Young Things (ever since they have been evocatively “retro”). Cars (like planes) were “new” in the Edwardian decade and again, briefly, in the 1950s; since then and at other times they have indeed stood for many qualities—reliability, prosperity, conspicuous consumption, freedom—but not “modernity” per se.

Trains are different. Trains were already modern life incarnate by the 1840s—hence their appeal to “modernist” painters. They were still performing that role in the age of the great cross-country expresses of the 1890s. Nothing was more ultra-modern than the new, streamlined superliners that graced the neoexpressionist posters of the 1930s. Electrified tube trains were the idols of modernist poets after 1900, in the same way that the Japanese Shinkansen and the French TGV are the very icons of technological wizardry and high comfort at 190 mph today. Trains, it would seem, are perennially modern—even if they slip from sight for a while. Much the same applies to railway stations. The petrol “station” of the early trunk road is an object of nostalgic affection when depicted or remembered today, but it has been constantly replaced by functionally updated variations and in its original form survives only in nostalgic recall. Airports typically (and irritatingly) survive well past the onset of aesthetic or functional obsolescence; but no one would wish to preserve them for their own sake, much less suppose that an airport built in 1930 or even 1960 could be of use or interest today.

But railway stations built a century or even a century and a half ago—Paris’s Gare de l’Est (1852), London’s Paddington Station (1854), Bombay’s Victoria Station (1887), Zurich’s Hauptbahnhof (1893)—not only appeal aesthetically and are increasingly objects of affection and admiration: they work. And more to the point, they work in ways fundamentally identical to the way they worked when they were first built. This is a testament to the quality of their design and construction, of course; but it also speaks to their perennial contemporaneity. They do not become “out of date.” They are not an adjunct to modern life, or part of it, or a byproduct of it. Stations, like the railway they punctuate, are integral to the modern world itself.

We often find ourselves asserting or assuming that the distinctive feature of modernity is the individual: the unreducible subject, the freestanding person, the unbound self, the unbeholden citizen. This modern individual is commonly and favorably contrasted with the dependent, deferential, unfree subject of the pre-modern world. There is something in this version of things, of course; just as there is something in the accompanying idea that modernity is also a story of the modern state, with its assets, its capacities, and its ambitions. But taken all in all, it is, nevertheless, a mistake—and a dangerous mistake. The truly distinctive feature of modern life—the one with which we lose touch at our peril—is neither the unattached individual nor the unconstrained state. It is what comes in between them: society. More precisely civil—or (as the nineteenth century had it) bourgeois—society.

The railways were and remain the necessary and natural accompaniment to the emergence of civil society. They are a collective project for individual benefit. They cannot exist without common accord (and, in recent times, common expenditure), and by design they offer a practical benefit to individual and collectivity alike. This is something the market cannot accomplish—except, on its own account of itself, by happy inadvertence. Railways were not always environmentally sensitive—though in overall pollution costs it is not clear that the steam engine did more harm than its internally combusted competitor—but they were and had to be socially responsive. That is one reason why they were not very profitable.

If we lose the railways we shall not just have lost a valuable practical asset whose replacement or recovery would be intolerably expensive. We shall have acknowledged that we have forgotten how to live collectively. If we throw away the railway stations and the lines leading to them—as we began to do in the 1950s and 1960s—we shall be throwing away our memory of how to live the confident civic life. It is not by chance that Margaret Thatcher—who famously declared that “there is no such thing as Society. There are individual men and women, and there are families”—made a point of never traveling by train. If we cannot spend our collective resources on trains and travel contentedly in them it is not because we have joined gated communities and need nothing but private cars to move between them. It will be because we have become gated individuals who don’t know how to share public space to common advantage. The implications of such a loss would far transcend the demise of one system of transport among others. It would mean we had done with modern life.

—This is the second part of a two-part essay.

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