The Glory of the Rails

Judt-1-122310.jpg
Fogg Art Museum/Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge/Art Resource
Claude Monet: Gare Saint-Lazare: Arrival of a Train, 1877

More than any other technical design or social institution, the railway stands for modernity. No competing form of transport, no subsequent technological innovation, no other industry has wrought or facilitated change on the scale that has been brought about by the invention and adoption of the railway. Peter Laslett once referred to “the world we have lost”—the unimaginably different character of things as they once were. Try to think of a world before the railway and the meaning of distance and the impediment it imposed when the time it took to travel from, for example, Paris to Rome—and the means employed to do so—had changed little for two millennia. Think of the limits placed on economic activity and human life chances by the impossibility of moving food, goods, and people in large numbers or at any speed in excess of ten miles per hour; of the enduringly local nature of all knowledge, whether cultural, social, or political, and the consequences of such compartmentalization.

Above all, think of how different the world looked to men and women before the coming of the railways. In part this was a function of restricted perception. Until 1830, few people knew what unfamiliar landscapes, distant towns, or foreign lands looked like because they had no opportunity or reason to visit them. But in part, too, the world before the railways appeared so very different from what came afterward and from what we know today because the railways did more than just facilitate travel and thereby change the way the world was seen and depicted. They transformed the very landscape itself.

Railways were born of the industrial revolution—the steam engine itself was already sixty years old when it acquired wheels in 1825, and without the coal that it helped pump to the surface the steam engine could not work. But it was the railways that gave life and impetus to that same industrial revolution: they were the largest consumers of the very goods whose transportation they facilitated. Moreover, most of the technical challenges of industrial modernity—long-distance telegraphic communication, the harnessing of water, gas, and electricity for domestic and industrial use, urban and rural drainage, the construction of very large buildings, the gathering and moving of human beings in large numbers—were first met and overcome by railway companies.

Trains—or, rather, the tracks on which they ran—represented the conquest of space. Canals and roads might be considerable technical achievements; but they had almost always been the extension, through physical effort or technical improvement, of an ancient or naturally occurring resource: a river, a valley, a path, or a pass. Even Telford and MacAdam did little more than pave over existing roads. Railway tracks reinvented the landscape. They cut through hills, they burrowed under roads and canals, they were carried across…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Online Subscription

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.

One-Week Access

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already subscribe to the Online or Print + Online Edition, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.