Friday, April 5, 2024

Railway Reads: A most unexpected book about railways

Tom Zoellner is a veteran journalist who worked throughout the United States with different newspapers before becoming a writer. His works span diverse territory, from his book about the end of slavery in the British Empire to his look at how uranium has shaped world history. Zoellner's work has appeared in countless publications. So it was with some surprise that I as handed his book Train a few years ago.

Officially titled, Train: Riding the Rails that Created the Modern World, Zoellner takes you on epic rail journeys across the United Kingdom, India, the United States, Russia, Spain and China. Each chapter deals with a separate journey, where the author speaks to the people on the train and gets an idea of what it means to them. Zoellner weaves this insight together with his own research on the railway systems in these countries. On each journey, you get a vivid picture of how trains have shaped the history and future of countries all over the world. For better or for worse, it's an innovation that continues to shape world history, long after it ceded its crown as the dominant form of transportation.

If you are looking for a book focused on the technical elements or the history of railways, this will not appeal to you. Zoellner does pack a fair bit of railway history into his travelogue, but his focus is much more broad than the names and dates of each country's rail history. His focus is very much on how these railways have shaped each society and how they continue to leave their social impact. 

Some moments that stand out are his conversations with Russians who are leaving Moscow aboard a train that will traverse the entire country, all the way to Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean. On that trip, he muses on the Russian Revolution and where Russia is now. Of course, the attack on Ukraine and the country's descent into outright authoritarianism makes this part of the book a bit dated, but the elements of Russia's discontent are still very much at play in his observations. It's actually quite interesting to read about his insight into the Russian psyche before the country took a hard right turn into dictatorship and widespread oppression.

Then there's the chapter about India where Zoellner attempts to explain why India's national railway system is impossibly bloated and overstaffed. He also touches on some rather unsavoury elements of the railways in India, including the ongoing practice of railway washrooms essentially dumping human waste on the tracks. As I mentioned, this is not your typical railway read.

The chapter about China's efforts to build a railway to Tibet is particularly poignant and heartbreaking. As impressive as it was that people figured out the complex engineering to build the line through a high plateau of permafrost, one can't help but shake their head at the sociological impact of a country using a railway to essentially wipe out a culture, which is what many believe is the true reason behind this money-losing line into this ancient land.

I couldn't put this book down. It was a riveting read that combined railways with a much more broad contemplation of the importance of railways to modern society. Zoellner is a gifted writer and talented journalist in ferreting out small details. The humanity he brings to his travelogue makes this a book that railfans and non railfans alike can enjoy.

As a former reporter myself, this is the type of story I wish I could have told or had the ability to tell. Anyone who has read the reportage of Chuck Klosterman, Charlie LeDuff or David Eggers will be very much satisfied with the insights Zoellner has to offer.


Eric said...

Nobody likes armchair anything more than I do. Even armchair rail travel. Maybe I'm the Lucius Beebe of Kingston.

Thanks for sharing this book with your readership, Michael.

Michael said...

Highly recommended, Eric. It's a great book that weaves geopolitics with trains, crime with travelogues, history with myths. It's a trip. Pun intended.

Canadian Train Geek said...

Based on your review, I borrowed this book from the library and I'm halfway through it now. LOVE it. Thanks for recommending it.

PS he doesn't have a lot of good things to say about railfans, does he? :)