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Twenty years after I saw her, I still remember the young woman across the aisle from me on a train through a snowstorm in Pennsylvania. She was half visible in the overhead lamp, wearing a college sweatshirt and holding an open book on her lap. Whatever she was reading was making her cry softly. I couldn’t see the title and I was too shy to ask, but the sight of her wiping away tears—emotionally transported into one world as she was physically transported in another—made me feel my individuality dissolving.
Snowflakes struck the dark windows without a sound, but unseen wheels hummed, and outside realities could be subsumed for a while in this linear realm of motion and warmth, five hours from Pittsburgh and nowhere in particular. We were standing perfectly still, yet moving over parallel lines of steel, and she seemed like a ghost in the dim light. I can’t ride on a train at night without remembering her, wishing I had talked to her, strangely grateful that she remained a cipher.
Railroads anywhere, but especially in America, have the power to invoke odd spells like this, a feeling that might be called Train Sublime: the tidal sway of the carriages, the chanting of the wheels striking the fishplates (to me it sounds like dear-boy, dear-boy, dear-boy), the glancing presence of strangers on their own journeys and wrapped in private ruminations. These secret pleasures of a railroad summon forth a vision of a sweet pastness, a lost national togetherness. The train is a time traveler itself, the lost American vehicle of our ancestors, or perhaps our past selves.
We live in a society that was made by the railroads in ways we never think about anymore: our imported food, the beat of our music, our huge corporations and their methods of stock financing, our strong labor unions, our abstract notion of time and our sense of everyday connection with people who may live far out of sight but are made neighbors through mechanical means. Under the skin of modernity lies a skeleton of railroad tracks.
But in the light of the modern world, trains are not nostalgic playthings—not by any measurement. They serve unromantic needs and hard economies.
On an average weekday morning, approximately 100 million people across the world are boarding trains: from Paddington station in London, from the magnificent Victoria Terminus in Mumbai, from the tawdry and run-down Tirana Railway Station in Albania, the Baltazar Fidelis platform on the Jundial line outside São Paulo, the flying saucer of Beijing’s sparkling new South Station, tiny one-room depots or lonely platforms scattered in the countryside all over Argentina, Belgium, South Africa and Japan and eighty-six other nations, to say nothing of the 13 trillion tons per kilometer of cargo they haul each year. Global commerce would instantaneously crash without them.
And passenger trains are still alive and breathing even in America, though we have sacrificed most of them in favor of the long-haul plane ride and interstate car travel. A quasi-federal agency called Amtrak has kept overland trains in a state of reliable mediocrity since 1971, and it was on the creaky old Pennsylvanian when I first spotted the woman in the snowstorm. At least two dozen major cities have working commuter rail tentacles out to their suburbs—about 3 percent of Americans use them to get to work, mainly in the Northeast. I am one of those 100 million who ride the train as a matter of routine. And I do it from the famously car-happy city of Los Angeles.
My trip to my workplace takes a reliable forty-seven minutes, and I don’t do it as an act of rebellion against the oil companies or as an ideological protest against my car. I do it because it is relatively cheap and it saves me from the freeway. And while I usually tote a book, I more often stare out the window at one of the truly ancient vistas of California: a corridor lined with pipe-fitting yards, crinkled tin warehouses, oil pumpjacks and homeless encampments.
Anyone who rides an American train can see that old industrial hardpan where the money is made without pretense and which was often—especially in the West—the first line slashed on the map before any major population showed up. And in this case, it’s the tracks of the old Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe that came through in 1885 to steal some orange-hauling business from the Southern Pacific. This right-of-way is now leased by Metrolink, a perfectly decent commuter rail line that runs to three counties and is shockingly underused. When I tell people I take the train to work, I often get a confused look. Is that even possible? And then a look of envy. You can read. You can do work. You can listen to your iPod.
All of those things, yes. But the clacking motion of the train, the way it shudders as if being pulled by a spinnaker sail—its uncanny, unlikely grace—often compels me to watch the old light-industrial panorama spool past, and I feel transported into a lulling sense of mystery, a sense of past and present merging into a single continuum. This is a private feeling, but on the train one is almost never alone.
“The world was so much smaller than we thought,” wrote Charles Dickens at the dawn of the railroad era in Britain. “We were all connected. . . . People supposed to be far apart were constantly elbowing each other.”
The very first rail passengers felt a sense of oceanic awe, even verging into dread, at their first sight of a train. A locomotive was the world’s first true “machine” ever put on wide public display—a golem of gears that made loud gasps of expiration much like an animal’s breath. Watching it creep forward came as a shock to the psyche, for this wagon was not pulled by a living animal, which would have been readily understandable. This was a grotesque and ghostly apparition. When crowds gathered in 1825 to watch the debut of the world’s first real railroad—the Stockton & Darlington of northern Britain—the correspondent from the Morning Herald reported that multiple spectators “fled in affright” from the locomotive and others looked at the train with a “vacant stare,” as if in a trance.
This experience was repeated thousands of times. Wherever the train would be introduced, observers responded with confusion and even horror. The editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer saw crowds “dumbfounded at the strange and unusual spectacle” with “distended eyes” in 1846. Another newspaper said witnesses at LaSalle, Illinois, “stood dumb with amazement” when the first engine of the Illinois Central came through. “Many of them looked as though they had come out between the shakes of the fever and ague,” noted the reporter. The Bengal Hurkaru newspaper said the test of a locomotive near Calcutta astonished nearly all present with “its snort and its whistle and its fiery speed.” Some made motions to bow and worship. Others considered the whistle “the voice of a demon” and believed that its sound would curdle milk, its smoke would kill birds and its vibrations dry up women’s fertility.
Such a startling device required an entirely new word. In the mid-1820s, British journalists settled on “train,” a word derivative of the vulgate Latin traginare, “to drag along,” which had first entered the English language four centuries prior during the reign of Elizabeth I, who used to dazzle her subjects with royal parades through London streets.
The queen had only been borrowing from an older ritual of procession that dated to Babylonian emperors and has been used by leaders ever since to create a theater of power. Generals of the Roman Republic who had won a major battle were granted a lavish parade to the Temple of Jupiter. In the fourth century, Christian monks began to make a slow, trainlike movement through their chapels, accompanied by the bearers of crosses and candles. This kinetic mode of worship is present in today’s Catholic and Anglican masses, and wedding parties still march toward the altar in ceremonial “train,” which is also another name for the hem of the bride’s dress.
The linear motion of a train is as fascinating to the eye as the flames of a campfire. The University of Chicago professor William McNeill noticed an odd sensation while he marched in a trainlike formation during World War II. “It has occurred to me that rhythmic input from muscles and voice, after gradually suffusing through the entire nervous system, may provoke echoes of the fetal condition when a major and perhaps principle external stimulus to the developing brain was the mother’s heartbeat.” The hypnosis of the moving line, McNeill wrote, put him in a state of euphoria like that of early infancy. And now this primitive shape so special to the subconscious was powered by a beast that appeared to be alive itself, with a protruding nose, stack wheezing a white breath, boilers thrumming like a giant metal heart, and the pistons pumping like legs; a stout little man, a machine-king.
Riding on this vehicle brought another wave of incomprehensibility. Never before in human history had people been able to travel without the use of an animal or a boat or their own muscles. And here was the countryside passing at a steady rate of fifteen miles per hour, a speed that was fascinatingly alien to the consciousness. Searching for any comparison that would make sense, journalists determined that a locomotive was traveling at one-quarter of the velocity of a cannonball on the battlefield. Excited merchants in America and Europe began to pool their financing to connect their own cities and villages to the grand colossus of new tracks, but when the school board in Lancaster, Ohio, received a request to let a classroom be used for a chartering meeting, the official response was this: “If God had designated that His intelligent creatures should travel at the frightful speed of 15 miles an hour, He would have foretold it through His holy prophets.”
No object out the window could be watched for very long. Trees, flowers, houses, horses, waving children—all of them receding as quickly as they were seen, gone down the backward-spooling time funnel. Travelers complained of headaches and nervousness, plus a new condition that doctors came to call “railway spine,” a disorder resembling fibromyalgia that nagged at people long after they disembarked. “The rapidity and variety of the impressions necessarily fatigue both the eye and the brain,” reported the British medical journal Lancet in 1862.
The flickering quality of the landscape made the foreground virtually disappear and brought a new method of “seeing” into the vocabulary of the brain. In many ways the advent of the railroad in the mid–nineteenth century helped prepare humanity for the coming of the motion picture at the end of the century. Henry David Thoreau noticed the accelerating speed of life even inside his cabin on Walden Pond, where he could not avoid hearing the daily passing of the Boston & Maine:
The startings and arrivals of the cars are now the epochs in the village day. They go and come with such regularity and precision, and their whistle can be heard so far, that the farmers set their clocks by them, and thus one well-conducted institution regulates a whole country. Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented? Do they not talk and think faster in the depot than they did in the stage-office?
The world has since accelerated to a velocity that would have astonished Thoreau. Gargantuan amounts of data are sent around the world in a millisecond, a kind of magic that staggers the imagination as much as the first sight of the train had startled the residents of Darlington in 1825. Yet underneath that electronic skin coating the world is a stubborn physicality—and a constant need to move people and things from place to place. The best tool for this purpose known to humanity does not require any reinventions.
The remarkable efficiency of rail is why nations like Spain and Korea have spent billions of dollars on a new generation of high-speed trains to get citizens from home to work: a mammoth savings of fuel. China has built a network of these same trains linking all corners of its vast territory, and Saudi Arabia is finishing a line to speed pilgrims to Mecca. Transportation planners have known for decades that rail corridors are far more elastic than roads for handling increases in population: they don’t choke up as quickly, they require far less maintenance and they can be more easily plowed into city centers than can a new freeway.
The American economy, meanwhile, is more dependent on overland rail transportation than ever before: an average freight train can carry the contents of about 280 trucks by burning far less oil. About 40 percent of the national cargo is carried on trains, which are envied around the world for their efficiency. Smooth wheels sliding down a smooth artery of steel is a trick of physics that remains the best-known way to move heavy material. A train is like a broom or a hammer: an object of elegant and simple design that never became obsolete. The farmers and merchants of the early nineteenth century were amazed that a long string of heavy carriages could carry up to twenty thousand tons of whatever material they desired. That function still powers the world.
And yet the value of trains remains obscured. The train suffered a blow to its image during the highway-building phase of American history, and it is still regarded as a charming antique, an object of art for eccentrics and a last resort for the poor. Approximately 98 percent of the American public has never set foot on a city-to-city train.
An incident out of Maryland could function as a parable here. A track crew for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was digging a trench in August 1898 when a worker’s shovel glanced across bone-white stone, too large and too smooth to be any ordinary piece of granite. The workers brushed away the dirt and saw it was a carved marble block about the size of a steamer trunk. Several layers of roadbed fill had been tossed over it and packed down by decades of spring rains. The block had been lying at a depth of six feet. Tombs of Egyptian pharaohs have been found lying closer to the surface. They brushed more dirt off the marble block and read an inscription on the side: FIRST STONE OF THE BALT & OHIO RAIL ROAD.
Here was a truly embarrassing discovery. Executives soon certified what the track crew suspected: this was the ceremonial cornerstone that had been laid on July 4, 1827, amid speeches, sashes, whiskey and marching bands to mark the launch of what had been America’s first true railroad.
On that day the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll, had been persuaded to put on his top hat and knee breeches and come out to make what proved to be the last speech he ever delivered. He was one of the richest men in America, a prominent lay Catholic and a plantation owner who had introduced a bill in the Maryland Senate calling for a gradual end of slavery (though he never freed his own slaves), and he had also strong-armed the B&O’s charter through the same body—an act of legislative aggression that marked the first use of the term “railroading.” Like thousands of other Baltimore citizens, he was an investor in this plan to extend iron strap rail over the Allegheny Mountains toward the rich farmlands of Ohio and to use this bizarre-looking specimen from the British coalfields as an alternative to digging another canal.
The morning of July Fourth had been sunny and warm, and a crowd of fifty thousand people gathered to watch a band play a song that had been specially commissioned for the occasion, “The Rail Road March.” In the rich and lengthy history of music associated with railroads, this ranks as the very first train song:
Here are mountains to be leveled,
Here are valleys to be filled,
Here are rocks to be blown and bridges, too, to build!
And we’re all hopping, skipping, and jumping
And we’re all crazy here in Baltimore!
The crowd gathered around a pavilion decked with red, white and blue bunting—this was the Fourth of July, after all—to watch a group of Masonic elders ritually measure the First Stone with their rulers and sprinkle its surface with wine and oil. Nobody commented on the irony of a stone’s being laid as a stationary symbol of a moving system (a cornerstone of what, precisely?). Carroll was handed a shovel, and he placed his buckled shoe onto the lip, pressed it down and made a turn of the soil for the First Stone.
“I consider what I have just now done to be among the most important acts of my life, second only to my signing the Declaration of Independence, if indeed it be even second to that,” he said, a sound bite for the ages. And while he spoke it in a moment of promotional fervor, he was not far from wrong. America was a young country wealthy only in wilderness at the time of his speech, but the railroad created the financial strength of a rising world power.
The tracks of the B&O wouldn’t reach the Ohio River for another twenty-seven years. And at some point—probably during the frenzied rebuilding after the Civil War—the cornerstone was covered up in heaps of dirt by a careless track crew near the Mount Clare shops and was lost underground for seven decades.
Our connection with railroads is like that First Stone: a submerged national foundation, covered with the residue of time and forgetfulness, waiting for rediscovery.
Already there are strong signs of a railroad revival. Thanks to high gasoline prices and the inconvenience of air travel, that old lumbering dowager Amtrak is enjoying some of its most profitable years in a generation, and state legislatures are demonstrating a willingness to reinvest in dormant train corridors. Cape Cod in Massachusetts is now seeing its first rail service since 1995, and plans are being made to extend new lines to places like New Bedford and Springfield in hopes of triggering a real-estate boom. The state of New Mexico built a commuter train from Albuquerque to Santa Fe that sees nearly a million one-way passengers a year, and Amtrak’s Hiawatha Express from Chicago to Milwaukee now runs full seven times a day. The Obama administration committed $8 billion to fund a new generation of high-speed trains, and California has already started construction on a line that will whisk passengers from L.A. to the Bay Area in just 160 minutes. If the train is an artery into the past, it is also a route into the future, especially in a world of shaky oil politics and potential climate change. There may be no more exciting time to be railroading than today.
I wanted an up-close view of this underappreciated marvel, and I could think of no better means of getting one than by boarding trains across the world—especially the long-distance ones—and talking to fellow passengers all along the way. I wanted to see the flickering landscape through their eyes, to understand how the world’s rails continue to exert a formative influence on how people live and how our cities, economies and mentalities still bear the watermark of the first real “machine” unleashed on humanity. Each of these journeys had something important to say about the past and future of railroads; each was a physical road that led to the heart of an idea.
I began by riding a series of trains all the way across Britain, the birthplace of the steam engine, and I chose to do what is still possible there in this motherland of railroads: to travel from tip to tip by train, from the northern shores of Scotland to the southwestern corner at a spot in Cornwall called Land’s End.
Then I went to India to see the inner workings of the state railway company, an astonishingly vast enterprise that stands as the eighth-largest employer of humans on the globe. I went out with track-repair crews, almost wandered into the path of a stray locomotive and rode with pilgrims and myriad other souls on an express from the capital at New Delhi to Hinduism’s holiest city at Varanasi.
In America I stepped on in New York and stepped off in Los Angeles, following the routes of the long-vanished carriers that built up a younger country. There is a movable mini-city of people who go to sleep every night on American trains—an invisible shadow country—and their late-night conversations in the club car are like echoes of an old national exchange. We think of railroads as if they were a Disneyland exhibit (in fact, the famous theme park was almost completely inspired by a train—more on that later), yet they are anything but a nostalgic toy. A culture of tremendous vitality and wealth lies within the American train, waiting to be unlocked.
I went to Russia to experience the immense tedium—mingled with danger—of the Trans-Siberian Railway, a project of Czar Alexander III that cemented the nation’s status as a two-continent power and sent millions to the prison gulags of the country’s far east. I never did get to finish this journey because of a stupid and unexpected wound incurred halfway through, but even that incident felt in step with the violent history of this train, as well as the darker side of railroading in general.
In China I rode the bullet trains that will cost the quasi-Communist government up to $400 billion in an all-out effort to make their nation the leading transportation power of the world, which poses a formidable challenge to the United States. I also became a passenger on the staggering line up to the heights of the Tibetan plateau, the highest railway in the world. Surveyors called it impossible. The Dalai Lama considers it a tool of cultural genocide. And it has effectively killed the dream of Tibetan independence.
The journey next led to Peru, to the prow of a locomotive on the second-highest railroad in the world—a corkscrewing path through the Andes that had been the brainchild of a charming con artist who nearly brought this South American country to bankruptcy. A burst of new capital has made it the latest of the old freight roads being reinvigorated across the world to accommodate a new economy dependent on physical logistics.
The book concludes in Spain, where an audacious gamble on a system of high-speed trains has changed the way an entire nation travels and helped inspire a similar gambit in the United States, one whose outcome is still uncertain.
Writing about the railroad has seemed at times like a pursuit from Herodotus: that capturing the true historical and contemporary impact of the railroad is to risk writing about the entire modern world and everything inside it. No one book on this subject will ever carry the authority of an encyclopedia, and I have had to mercilessly limit my scope. Paul Theroux once wrote that every country’s railroad functions as a rolling metaphor for that country, and it was mightily tempting to ride as many trains in as many places as I could, but time, money and space limited me to seven of the most important. The building of the transcontinental railroad in the United States has received exhaustive scrutiny elsewhere, and I chose to mention it only as a matter of context. City subways and trolleys descended from the same common ancestor, but they occupy an entirely different ecosystem and deserve books of their own. The result is a narrative history–cum–travelogue—and not anything that should be mistaken for comprehensive treatment. And there certainly will be even more to be said about railroads in the coming years.
This series of journeys may have been inspired by that nameless woman in a Pennsylvania snowstorm, but it also happens to touch a recollection from childhood. Many intellectual questions can be reduced to a sensory element if you look hard enough, and my interest in the train is rooted in a sound as much as a sight.
I can recall being taken to see my grandmother in the small town of Frankfort, Kansas, and being laid to sleep in an upper room of a white house with tall elms outside, a place far removed from where I had grown up in the throwaway strip-malled fringes of Tucson, Arizona, where cars were the only game in town. Frankfort was one of thousands of American towns that owed their existence to the railroad, having been created as a watering stop on the prairies nearly overnight in 1867 by the executives of a start-up called the Central Branch.
The curtains swayed in the open window, and it was raining outside. From the tracks of what was now the Union Pacific five blocks away came the horn of a coal train heading through town, past the grain elevator, past the one bar with its lighted beer sign, past the lumberyard and over the iron trestle that crossed the river and away out into the fields still trailing that one lonely note, which seemed to me one of the most beautiful and mysterious sounds I’d ever heard, the lowing call of another world of the already-past that came back to me when I saw a woman crying quietly in her book during a snowstorm and which I still feel today when I hear the sound through windows at night.
Pentland Firth to Land’s End
The village of Thurso on the northern coast of Scotland has had a train station since 1874, the day when the tracks arrived here near the shore of the North Sea and could go no farther, and the scene at the stone depot at the end of town has been more or less ageless ever since. A time traveler from that year would find almost nothing foreign here today, except perhaps for the plastic chairs in the waiting room and the padlocked bathrooms out on the platforms.
Thurso looked to me like an Alaskan fishing village: there was a squat Anglican church also made of stone, a village green the size of a shuffleboard court, a hotel that sold single-malt scotch for three pounds a glass, a few chip shops, a dock for cod boats, a shingle of beach shaped like a scythe blade. This outpost on the edge of Pentland Firth is the topmost point in the British rail system, same as it was during the reign of Queen Victoria, and still lonely enough that a stranger waiting here under the wooden shed in the first light of the morning is considered an unusual sight.
“Your first time here?” a younger woman asked me, and I acknowledged that it was.
“Oh, you’re going to like this train,” she told me. “The toilets often freeze over this time of year.”
“Just cross your legs and you’ll be fine,” a middle-aged man next to her suggested.
“I’ve been stranded on this line before,” said the woman. She had a ponytail and a slightly upturned nose. “Snow blew over on the tracks, and we stalled out. They had to rescue us with a snowmobile. But I don’t think it’s going to snow today.”
The temperature was a few degrees above freezing, but I was grateful for the first rays of sunlight shining on the platform. I had spent part of the early-morning darkness trespassing on a lonely tip of grass called Dunnet Head—the northernmost point on the British mainland—and now was heading for Land’s End, 595 miles to the south, which was the southwesterly tip of the island. I wanted to cover as much of Britain as possible on the rails. And truly, any logical assessment of the railroad must start in Britain, where the train was invented in fits and starts by several restless and talented people at the beginning of the nineteenth century who all happened to be working on the same problem—namely, how can we keep water from seeping into our mine shafts? Out of this nuisance came a brilliant accident: a new coal-fired vehicle of astonishing power that would kick-start the industrial revolution and change almost every aspect of modern living.
The British were the champion railroad builders of the nineteenth century, shipping their locomotives and steel rails all over the globe and especially to the places where they thought it could make them money or win their wars. They built trains to miserable sugar plantations in Jamaica, sweltering rubber farms in Malaysia, lonely cattle stations in Australia. British rail surveyors opened vast wheat fields in Canada. The queen’s hardy subjects unified her domains in India with railroad rivets, fought the Crimean War with jerry-built tracks to the front and dominated eastern Africa with a ridiculous imperial railway from the Indian Ocean into Uganda, a line known as the “Iron Snake” or the “Lunatic Express,” which killed twenty-four hundred African laborers and Indian coolies shipped over to a jungle teeming with mud, disease and marauding lions. “If a Briton wished to swagger—and at times this duty is incumbent upon him—he might challenge the world to match our achievements in this line,” bragged Rudyard Kipling.
Britannia may have ruled the waves, but it was also master of the timetable. And while today’s rail system back at home in the United Kingdom—a shrunken version of what it used to be—might no longer be the subject of swaggering, the train still plays a life-giving role in forgotten villages like Thurso. The train is a diorama for what Britain used to be, and what it still may become.
The 8:41 train pulled up precisely on time, and it was not an auspicious entrance. The Far North Line was just two cars long: a “diesel multiple unit,” or DMU, powered by a petroleum engine that sounds like a lawn mower. These are not elegant vehicles. But they are nevertheless the standard workhorses of the British rail system, especially on the rural routes. Conductors nicknamed them “flying bricks” when they were introduced in the 1950s. The end of the front carriage is a cockpit for the driver, about the size of an outhouse. There are but two controls: a throttle and a brake. In the carriages there are twin rows of bucket seats sheathed in purple upholstery and an overhead luggage rack that looks barely large enough to take a handbag.
About a dozen morning passengers shuffled into the frigid cars and soon we were off into the grasslands, Thurso retreating behind us.
The northern reaches of Scotland are expansive and bleak; they reminded me of Arctic prairies. The only real mountain I saw was a single high lump with a pooling of clouds at its summit that looked like a hat. Speckled here and there were puddles in the grass, and the woman who had earlier warned me about the freezing toilets now gestured out at the damp plain.
“See that?” she asked me. “That’s a proper peat bog.”
She said her name was Dani, and she worked as a warden at a nature reserve. Part of her job was getting rid of the nonnative trees that sucked water from the ground and turned the fragile peat to dust. And every tree out here in this part of Scotland was an invited guest.
“The government encouraged people out here to plant them to make better use of a barren land,” she said. “And it’s been a disaster.” Some of the poorer locals still harvested the peat in tufts to burn in their stoves when they couldn’t afford electric heat, but there wasn’t much of it to go around.
I wanted to talk to her longer, but she had to get off at Forsinard. The train wound through more peat bogs and then started to follow the course of the river Thurso* through a valley that the conductor told me had been the scene of a minor gold rush fifty years before. And before that, it was the 1871 route surveyed by the old Sutherland and Caithness Railway, whose original path we were following today through the far north. I paced the length of the train and back, stretching my legs for the journey. WE LOVE OUR BABY BUMPS, said a headline propped in front of somebody’s face. The papers that month were obsessed with the pregnancy of the Duchess of Cambridge.
Sprawled in a window seat across the aisle was a fortyish man with a buzz cut and an earring. His hands were stuffed into his pockets, and he looked miserable. I decided to talk to him anyway. Ray was a martial-arts instructor who was traveling to Inverness, four hours away.
“I like this train,” he said. “Except it’s effing freezing in here!” This comment was aimed at a passing conductor, who smiled and muttered vaguely about repairs coming next week.
Ray was ethnically Irish but living on the northern shore of Scotland in his ex-wife’s hometown, mainly due to the kids. He was out of the house today to pick up a four-wheel-drive Jeep that was for sale on the Internet; it was decrepit and shabby-looking, but it would get him through the winter. After he relaxed a bit in my presence, he told me a uniquely Irish story about a death in the family.
Six days before Ray was to be married, his father was run over and killed by a nun on an errand. The nun, of course, was horrified, and Ray, of course, was devastated. But forgiveness was a part of his vocabulary even though he wasn’t a practicing Catholic. At the funeral he went up to her and said, “Hey, accidents happen.” Then he went to embrace her, and she went stiff as a flagstone. “I don’t think she had ever been touched by a man. She didn’t know what to do. I thought she’d explode. Then I had an evil thought: maybe I should have given her butt a little squeeze.”
“No. I just now thought of it. It is kind of an evil thought.” His eyes wrinkled at the corners as he giggled.
The train passed a field of frost-covered grass and a few hillocks where fat-butted sheep were grazing. Some of the ewes bore purple lines on their backs. This was a marker to tell the farmer when to expect lambs; the rams all wore leather harnesses around their bellies affixed with thick stubs of chalk, and every time one mounted a ewe, he left a trail of purple.
We were creeping past a stand of lichen-coated trees—the apparent scourge of the Scottish grasslands—when a text came beeping in for Ray. It was from the guy who was selling him the four-wheel drive: the roads are treacherous. And he didn’t feel safe driving to Inverness.
Ray’s face went pink, then darkened. The whole trip had been a waste, and it was barely sprinkling outside. “Treacherous?” he fumed. “What does that mean?”
He spent the next twenty minutes staring out the window and sighing loudly, and I let him be, looking at tufts of red-colored weeds choking the valleys of frigid creeks and then onto a plain dotted with pine trees and the wreck of a stone castle, a physical remnant of the people here who had struggled to raise barley against the rain and who were now a part of the soil. One particular hill covered in bleak grass stood poised against the gray clouds in a way that made my heart leap a little; a seeming infinity of space lay behind the hill and the sky. At Lairg there was a stone cottage, a row of Quonset huts, a few oil tanks and a warning sign: NO MATCH, NO FLAME.
Ray eventually perked back up, and we spent the last twenty minutes to Inverness talking about the perils of buying cars, watching the scrap-metal yards and oil docks go by. He had decided to make the best of the squandered journey and do some Christmas shopping at the mall, which was the only one operating in the Scottish Highlands. We crossed the river Ness and scooted under the canopy of the train shed. And then we shook hands and said good-bye. I hoped he would eventually get his Jeep.
On the afternoon train to the oil-soaked harbor of Aberdeen, I sat across from the retired headmaster of a school for special-needs children. She had a helmet of white hair and earrings in the shape of a sheriff’s badge. “I suppose you’ve seen how good our country’s railways are?” she asked me. “I’m speaking sarcastically, of course. The delays are unconscionable.”
We passed duplex cottages with tiny yards, and as we got closer to the city, a glassy British Petroleum tower and a series of Georgian town houses with their chimney flues marshaled tight, as neat as cigarette packs. The next train out of Aberdeen wasn’t for an hour, and I stepped outside to look at the ships in the harbor. To get there I had to pass through a shopping mall that smelled of pizza and cinnamon. The jewelry stores were doing a fine pre-holiday business among the petro-rich. There was a hill covered with official medieval buildings of lead-colored granite, and in a clearing was a thirteenth-century stone cross a few paces away from a set of hideous Harold Macmillan–era council flats and a plaque on the wall marking the place where the city gate once stood. It has been locked, said the sign, IN TIMES OF PLAGUE, PESTILENCE AND PERIL. I checked the time and had to run back to the station, darting between rush-hour traffic
I made the Edinburgh train with one minute to spare and found myself sitting across a table from an attractive brown-haired woman wearing a business-casual sweater and shiny black shoes. She was holding a thick binder of what I came to learn were tax documents. This train was stuffed with people who looked like fresh escapees from a cubicle farm; this was primarily a business commuter route. As we crawled out of Aberdeen, the descending sun made burnt-orange patterns on the rooftops.
“You’re coming from work?” I asked the woman across the table.
“The start of a new job, actually. We were just at a training session.” After a few years on the queen’s payroll as a revenue official, she had become a consultant advising companies how to pay as little tax as possible.
“The revolving door,” I said.
“Indeed. A long tradition here.”
The trip was long, and the twilight had disappeared into full night, and she spent the rest of the journey telling me about her life: how she had read literature and French at St. Andrews and not really mixed with the posh class (she missed Prince William by a year), then worked for the EU in Belgium for a while but disliked its politics. She asked thoughtful and bemused questions about what I did for a living and what I hoped to find in Britain.
I liked the way she laughed and her soft accent, and I thought of what it had been like to be twenty-five in a suit-and-tie job and feeling simultaneously pleased with the grown-up accessories and yet feeling vaguely like an impostor. She dropped a studiously casual reference to a boyfriend—lucky man, I thought—deep into the conversation as we were approaching Edinburgh, and it might have depressed me in another context, but this was the train, which has its own set of mingled desires and cruelties. The limited journey, the purring rhythm of the rails, the intimate anonymity, the pulling power of an unseen locomotive have always given rail carriages an atmosphere of flirtation. Victorian pulp literature, especially the underground variety, was obsessed with the railroad and the possibilities it offered for assignations and stolen kisses; the moving parlors of the coaches were an escape from the routines of ordinary life. The 1945 movie Brief Encounter depicts a doomed three-week unconsummated affair between a married doctor and a suburban housewife who have a chance meeting in a railway depot. But the rushing of steam locomotives in different directions functions not just as a symbol of unbound libido but also of frustrated yearning. To be sharing a train with a charming stranger is to be set free for a short time but also to be enchained by the realities of what lies outside the timetables.
Which came all too soon. We trundled over the Firth of Tay on the graceful curve of the Tay Bridge—a replacement for one that had collapsed under the weight of a train in a wretched 1879 disaster—and then passed the runway lights of Edinburgh Airport and luminescent cones of security light outside the air-cargo warehouses. The hillsides were terraced with firefly winks that each signaled a comfortable town house and a family within. The tax girl lived in a neighborhood close to the Haymarket station but rode with me all the way into the main Waverley station. I had an impulse to ask her to dinner and miss the next train to Newcastle. But she had a boyfriend. And who knew what she was thinking, if anything, about this random traveler across from her? So I kept it to myself.
The tracks passed underneath the volcanic plug that was the base of the Edinburgh Castle, a multilayered fortress built there to repel invaders in the twelfth century. Suspected witches used to be dunked into the loch below the castle, and it became a reeking garbage pit, but it had been drained in 1759 to accommodate a public garden and then a row of railroad tracks eighty years later. The tracks seemed to snap perfectly within the valley, as though Scotland had been waiting for them to appear all along. The occasional loose chunk of lava still tumbles down from the castle heights, and the railway has had to mount netting to keep the rocks from hitting the trains.
“My dad always used to have a joke,” she told me. “‘Why would they build a castle like that next to a railroad track?’”
We collected our bags and walked out under the roof of Waverley station, which looked like a greenhouse. There were hundreds of plate-glass triangles overhead.
“Good luck with the tax man.”
“Thanks. Good luck crossing Britain.” After the banalities a smile that lasted a few seconds longer than it should have. And then she was gone. Maybe in another time, another life, I thought lamely, and silently wished her well. Then I went over to the next platform to board the Newcastle train.
Out of Scotland then and into England and into the dark Northumbrian countryside; past Berwick-upon-Tweed, Alnmouth and Morpeth; toward the river Tyne and into the coal-bearing regions that had blackened British skies for six hundred years. It was this coal, in fact, that made the railroad possible.
Early Victorian writers who didn’t quite know what to make of the snuffing, chuffing, fire-eating locomotives they saw often reached for satanic imagery. One of them was the historian Thomas Carlyle, who never forgot his first rail journey. “To whirl through the confused darkness, on those steam wings, was one of the strongest experiences I have experienced,” he wrote. “Out of one vehicle into another, snorting, roaring we flew: the likest thing to a Faust’s flight on the Devil’s mantle.”
These metaphors were dramatic, but they were correct in naming the railroad as an essentially chthonic machine, born underground. The primary fuel for its engine, the most important cargo, its entire economic reason for being—all of these critical elements were a direct result of the velvety rock that lay in shallow deposits under the soil of northern England.
Bizarre-looking plants covered the surface of the landmass that would eventually be known as Britain, which was then located somewhere near the equator. The steamy climate of the Paleozoic era of 360 million years ago created ideal growing conditions for a palmlike tree called the Lepidodendron, which had scaly bark and grew as high as a ten-story building. Its leaves were typically the length of a tennis racket.
When it fell into the swamp and died, as they all did, it disintegrated with other plants into a spongy mass of decaying pulp that was attacked by bacteria like micrococcus and streptococcus and transmuted eventually into oxides of carbon, pressed into ebony bands. The temperature and time required to make coal is remarkably feeble by geological standards. According to some estimates, two hundred degrees and thirty years is all it takes to start the transformation from dead vegetation to fuel.
These black folds would lie there until peasants around the mouth of the river Tyne in northern England in the twelfth century noticed that the strange ebony rocks made an uncommonly good substitute for wood. As the easy surface deposits of coal disappeared, the people of Scotland and northeast England sank shafts to tap new veins. The work was supervised mainly by priests of the Roman Catholic Church, which owned most of the land. A team of diggers known as hewers would shovel away the turf and then pickax a hole in the shape of a square, which would be broadened into an octagon if the seam proved rich.
A coal mine in the sixteenth century was a dizzying series of slopes and passages, with wooden planks covering surprise drop-offs. Tunnels called “drifts” could zigzag in multiple directions. Visibility was limited to what could be seen by the weak glow of a candle, and workers had to learn to half swing their picks while crouched in a flickering crawl space less than four feet high. Women were often employed to tote the coal up to the surface in baskets that could weigh as much as 170 pounds; this journey was repeated possibly two dozen times a day.
Children suffered most. They were customarily taken into the pits at the age of eight, often clinging to their fathers’ backs and made to pull coal carts out of the grim maze of drifts. The child thus became the “locomotive” in a primitive type of railroad.
“Chained, belted, harnessed like dogs,” was how an angry parliamentary commission described colliery children in 1842, “saturated with wet and more than half-naked—crawling on their hands and feet and dragging their heavy loads behind them.” The vision was “disgusting and unnatural” to the author. The typical punishment for perceived laziness was a “purring,” which meant being kicked in the ribs.
The air in London grew thick and nasty as coal’s popularity increased, and the central part of the city became a smoke-choked rookery of breweries, dye houses and lime burners, all of which had come to depend upon a healthy stream of Newcastle coal to keep their cauldrons flaming. But the hazards of breathing the aboveground smoke were nothing compared to the air quality inside the mine shafts. The labyrinths underground were roosts for all varieties of deadly gases, of which the most feared was called “firedamp.” Coal is perpetually emitting a low level of flammable methane gas, sometimes called “marsh gas,” which is harmless in small quantities and blows away in the open air. But the new caverns became traps for these invisible fumes that built and built until the moment they touched a candlewick. Small explosions of firedamp could scar a face; larger ones could snuff out hundreds of lives.
Sometimes a brave employee—known as a “fireman” and justly paid fivefold wages—would walk halfway down a suspect corridor and dig a grave-shaped trench with a pick. He would then lie in the hole, pull a wooden board over himself, shove a lighted candle through the front crack and hope for the best. Another delicate test was to raise a candle to the ceiling ever so slowly, until the top of the flame danced a telltale blue, known as “the ghost.” The candle was then quickly pulled away and snuffed out.
The average life span of a miner was hard to calculate, but in that profession forty was considered old and seeing sixty was almost unknown. “Toiling underground was made even more hellish by the miners’ dread that the inexplicable disasters that plagued them were due to demons and goblins haunting the mines,” wrote the historian Barbara Freese. “It could not have helped that the mines were filled with eerie signs of past life—like the perfect imprint of a fern deep below the surface—that defied everything the miners believed about the history of the world.” The itinerant Anglican preacher John Wesley found some of his most eager converts in the unhealthy demimonde around Newcastle in the eighteenth century. Fires burned for years in some of the galleries, and the snow melted in strange patterns up above. The editors of the Newcastle Journal sarcastically told their readers in 1767 that coal-mine disasters were becoming routine, “yet, as we are requested to take no particular notice of these things, which, in fact, could have very little good tendency, we drop the further mentioning of it.”
One peril that mine owners did happen to take seriously was flooding. Some of the bigger mines had punched nearly one thousand feet below the surface, far underneath the aquifer, and so the walls themselves were bleeding water, to add to the torrents that came during the rains and invaded every twist of the honeycombing passages. Bucketing the water out of these rooms was a task even more despairing than hauling coal, because the water had no end.
This cursed water also came loaded with an intrinsic trick, familiar to anyone with a teakettle. When it boils, it transforms into a gas and balloons to several times its prior mass as liquid. A powerful spasm of energy results: not just from the freakish blossoming of the steam but also the sucking power of the empty space that it leaves behind. As the saying goes, nature abhors a vacuum. But in order for steam to do any effective work, it had to be imprisoned inside a tight chamber. Otherwise it just melted away into the air.
Among the first to grasp the idea was Denis Papin, a Protestant who had been chased out of Catholic France. He published a 1675 article with the name “A New Method of Obtaining Very Great Moving Powers at Small Cost” and dropped hints* that he was working on “a little model of a carriage.” But he could not find a strong enough metal to keep steam from leaking away. The model was apparently lost.
The next man to pick up the idea was an energetic self-promoter named Thomas Savery, who borrowed from Papin’s drawings and marketed his own water-pumping device he called the Miner’s Friend. “Though I was obliged to encounter the oddest and almost insuperable difficulties, I spared neither time, pains, nor money until I had absolutely conquered them,” he bragged. This was economical with the truth. The Miner’s Friend was notoriously fickle, breaking down as often as it worked because its joints literally melted in the coal fires that it took to heat it. And only the most opulent mines could afford it because it gobbled up so much fuel.
A competitor named Thomas Newcomen made a much better model in 1699 by injecting cold water inside the cylinder to dissipate the steam, and these engines became the gold standard of water removal for six decades. But then came the moment when a Scottish technician named James Watt took a walk around downtown Glasgow on a Sunday in May 1765, a year after he had been assigned to repair one of Newcomen’s engines. He reflected on how too much of the energy was leaking away as the cylinder was being reheated. “I was thinking upon the engine at the time,” Watt recalled later, “and had gone as far as the Herd’s house when the idea came into my mind, that as steam was an elastic body, it would rush into a vacuum, and if a connection were made between the cylinder and an exhausted vessel, it would rush into it. . . . I had not walked further than the Golf house when the whole thing was arranged in my mind.”
As soon as the Sabbath was over, Watt threw together a model of an engine with a separate condensing chamber, jerry-rigged with a thimble from the sewing basket of his wife, Margaret. It worked. Watt moved to Birmingham and formed a partnership with the entrepreneur Matthew Boulton, whose iron shop, at a place called Soho, was a premier skunk works of its day. They sold engines all over Britain, and especially in the mining regions.
Watt later said (prefiguring Henry Ford) that he tried to make his engines “cheap as well as good,” foreseeing a demand from cotton mills, which could now turn their spindles with something other than a river.
James Watt did not invent the steam engine per se. He had only made a slight modification to an idea that had been percolating in Western civilization for more than eighteen hundred years. The basic ingredients—fire, iron and water—had been in the hands of blacksmiths for centuries, but it took the coal-drunk economy of seventeenth-century Britain to bring steam roaring into the world. “Nature can be conquered if we can but find her weak side,” said Watt.
The train arrived at the Newcastle station just after 9:00 P.M., and I checked in to a backpackers’ hotel before taking a night walk around the neoclassical streets, which were tangled and town-housed and full of statues. This city was like the Silicon Valley of the early nineteenth century, in what must have been an exhilarating time to be young and idealistic. A small group of brilliant men had been gathered with one of the great secrets of nature now at their disposal—namely, that the sudden expansion of vaporous water can tear down a mountain when used properly. And the best way to create steam was by burning coal, which was lying all over the river Tyne and its tributaries.
A 1787 map of the region shows a crazy-quilt pattern of rutted tracks leading from the coal mines to the Tyne. These were called wagonways, and some of them were simple dirt paths for the convenience of an endless procession of draft horses pulling wagons laden with coal chunks. The most efficient of them, however, were on wooden sets of rails. Teamsters had known for centuries that easing the friction between the cart wheels and the ground made the load go a lot smoother.
The flagstones of ancient cities in Greece and Egypt had been scarred with cart paths, worn deep by generations of laborers pushing wagons. These depressed “rails”—the antecedents of the railroad—were typically spaced about five feet apart, the width of the natural outstretch of a man’s arms when he was at labor, as well as the width of his livestock. One of the most ambitious of these early railways was the route across the neck of land near Corinth in Greece, a route called the Diolkos, where warships could be wheeled across tracks, saving their captains a trip around the Peloponnese.
Late-medieval miners had also known that running a cart along a smooth path was far easier than trying to push it over open turf. The Bohemian physician Georgius Agricola worked in the silver camps near St. Joachimsthal in the sixteenth century and described open carts linked together with iron pins* to keep the procession steady. These primitive trains made their way to England, where they were used only by those aristocratic pit owners who could afford it.
One of the most heavily traveled of these cart paths ran alongside the river Tyne, and a baby named George Stephenson was born alongside it on June 9, 1781. As the son of a mine fireman, he would sit outside the house and watch the passing horses drag cars full of coal, knowing it was his imminent fate to drag that coal himself. By fifteen he was tinkering with James Watt’s new engines and had taught himself to read by firelight, an act that would enchant many of his later biographers.
In 1805 Stephenson met a brilliant but unstable inventor from Cornwall named Richard Trevithick, who had been conducting experiments with high-pressure steam inside chambers so tight that they could kill a man if they burst apart. These ventures were considered hazardous enough that not even James Watt would touch them. The man from Cornwall had recently mounted one on top of a wheeled carriage and made it climb a hill at ten miles per hour. There is almost no documentation of what was said at this meeting, but within a decade George Stephenson was building the individual parts of a locomotive within a blacksmith’s forge. Trevithick meanwhile was on his way into obscurity.
I took a commuter train down the river Tyne to see the cottage where George Stephenson had grown up. In the newspaper that morning was a brief little squib that noted the nineteenth anniversary of the closure of the very last operating coal mine in the region. The bulk of them had died when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher broke the dominance of the National Union of Miners in a failed 1984 strike. She called the agitating miners “the enemy within,” and the pits were sold off and closed in rapid succession. What happened? “Maggie shut them all!” a man had roared to me in a pub the previous night. It was hard for me to tell from his accent if he’d said “shut” or “shot,” but the effect was the same: the British now import their power-plant coal from Russia, Indonesia and Colombia.
The 13:54 to Hexham was yet another set of boxy DMUs that sounded like lawn mowers. We sputtered over a bridge that crossed the river, and it afforded a fine view of Newcastle, which has undergone a Pittsburgh-like reinvention from a grimy industrial hive to a smart and fashionable city. But the suburbs still retain a joyless character, with militaristic rows of Georgian terraced houses marching up the valley slopes. They suggested a clock-ordered way of existence that must have colored the daily routines of all the families who had lived here and were fed by the engine and the wheel.
The village of Wylam has turned the old coal path down to the Stephenson cottage into a public walkway, and a few ladies were out walking their dogs along a lane fringed with birch and chestnut trees, their branches lightly frosted over. After a half mile, I came to a lone cottage that had been painted white and is managed as a tearoom by the National Trust. The house was locked up tight. There was a plaque on the side bearing Stephenson’s name and a crude rendering of an engine. Beyond it was a hay field with patches of iced-over water trapped in its furrows. Children on a recess from a school up the hill shouted from far away.
I stood outside the garden gate for a few minutes, thinking about peering through a window, but then heard the gathering, rushing sound of a train. It was the 14:54 to Hexham coming through on the other side of the river. Coal has been a dead letter in George Stephenson’s hometown for at least a quarter of a century, but the village has been remade into a commuter burg for young families with jobs in Newcastle. I stepped out to the edge of the Tyne—a perfect wintertime tableau of frosted trees and a placid river—to watch the DMUs rattle by on their hourly transit. From here they looked like a toy railroad running through an imagined landscape.
Stephenson’s invention quickly became an indispensable part of British life, and just as quickly it brought about a great social embarrassment: people were suddenly forced to talk with strangers. The earliest train carriages were built like stagecoaches with benches facing one another, which might mean the horror of prolonged eye contact. The silences could be excruciating. And so the habit of reading a book while traveling—as an escape from boredom and awkwardness—led to a literacy explosion among the bourgeois classes as low-cost books became widely available within the railway stations.
A young man named W. H. Smith earned the license to sell newspapers and books along the Birmingham Railway and later opened a stall in London’s Euston station; the chain now blankets the nation. In France, Louis Hachette copied Smith’s success and opened a “railway library” in 1852. Romance novels, detective thrillers, travel essays, children’s fables—all could be picked up for pennies in the fleeting minutes before departure. In 1936 a publishing executive named Allen Lane took a train to visit his superstar author Agatha Christie and became dismayed at the lowbrow selection in the station kiosk. Lane was convinced there was a market among train riders for quality fiction and prose, and he went on to found the publishing house Penguin in a church basement in London.
Reading while on the train is an enduring custom in Britain and throughout the world. In fact, that long-ago woman in the Pennsylvania snowstorm was reading when I first spotted her: a nameless woman absorbed in a nameless book. When they aren’t nose-deep in their reading, British rail travelers typically put on their moodiest expressions, looking as though they’ve just received a baptism in vinegar. But I discovered they would brighten if I plopped down beside them with a map and looked confused. This is a nation not just of shopkeepers but of champion direction givers, which is how I started talking to a retired butcher named Bob MacKenzie. I asked him how to get to Stockton, and that was all it took.
“This is me day out,” he said, slightly beaming. He patted the breast pocket of his leather jacket. Underneath it was a carefully knotted purple tie and a package of Christmas cards for his sister to mail. “Me brother-in-law will pick me up at the station.”
Bob told me he had worked for thirty years in a Newcastle butcher shop, chopping up joints and steaks, “but I never was a slaughterman.”
The DMUs were loud and clanky, but they were warm, and a proper lady next to me set her paper cup of tea down on the vented heater at our feet. The train passed over a baluster bridge above the Tyne and then into a region of low hills before settling onto a coastal shelf with an unobstructed view of the North Sea. Sailing ships full of Newcastle coal had once traveled down this coast before the railroad killed the business. The sea looked tranquil, though rain was brewing to the west.
I had fallen silent, and Bob started narrating the landscape in one- and two-word bursts to keep the conversation going. “New estates,” he said as we passed by a construction crew putting up row houses. “Shallies,” he said, pointing to a bunch of metal trailers down by the water. “Rain,” he said, pointing to the clouds. “Rugby stadium.” “Cows.” “Dunes.” “Ships.” This was a railway he had been traveling for more than sixty years—he was born in Hartlepool—and he was happy to show it off for a visitor. “Picture show,” he said, pointing to a cinema named Vue as we came close to the Hartlepool station. What turned out to be the last of the day’s sunshine was filtering through a set of powerful-looking cranes on the docks.
“I must be leaving you now,” he said, standing up and offering me his hand. I shook it and wished him a merry Christmas.
As soon as we departed Hartlepool for Middlesbrough, a strange fog settled in and the visibility dropped to about thirty feet. At the same time, it appeared as though a light snow had come in the night before and had failed to melt. The grass blades seemed coated in an angel-food topping, and the trackside trees grew indistinct, a J. R. R. Tolkien vision come to life. Sunlight seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
The DMU crawled through this eldritch scene for another half hour before alighting at Stockton, a depressed, coal-haunted town whose streets were mostly deserted and bereft of Christmas lights and where a pawnshop’s poster urged the reader to USE THE TREASURES YOU OWN TO SECURE A HANDY CASH LOAN. But there was access here to the Wear River, which had once made it a vital coal port in the 1820s.
So vital, in fact, that it was chosen as the termination point for the world’s first true railroad: the Stockton & Darlington, a brainchild of George Stephenson, who had convinced a local Quaker merchant named Edward Pease to invest his fortune not into a canal but in this untested new machine and the tracks that it required.
This had been an expensive proposition, which Stephenson never could have paid for himself. Ridges had to be blasted away, embankments had to be laid, an arched bridge had to be erected over the Skerne River, and—most challenging of all—the rail bed had to traverse a swamp known as Myers Flat Bog that seemed to devour all the dirt that Stephenson’s laborers could shovel into it. A farmer named John Potts took great delight in taunting the crews: he told them fairies were eating the gravel at night and would come back in the day to eat the men themselves, and their relatives after them. In those days public-works projects required the approval of Parliament, and Pease had to use his political clout to silence the Duke of Cleveland, who feared losing his favorite fox-hunting fields.
Stephenson treated the opening day of September 27, 1825, as a gigantic social event with an extravagant luncheon at the end, and he invited every person of note within a hundred miles. Correspondents from the big newspapers had been persuaded to attend, and the man from the Newcastle Courant reported “an immense concourse of spectators” lined up to see the new device, with “the fields on each side of the railway being literally covered with ladies and gentlemen on horseback and pedestrians of all kinds.” There were five wagons full of coal, another full of flour sacks, an open carriage for the surveyors, a bespangled coach named Experiment Locomotion with padded seats for the financiers, another fourteen cars for the workmen—who all stood—and six more coal cars bringing up the rear, each of them draped with flags and banners. Heading up this strange parade: a wheezing locomotive belching coal smoke and bearing a nameplate that read LOCOMOTION. Every railway* employee wore a blue sash over his right shoulder. The colored procession was accompanied by a man on horseback carrying a banner that proclaimed PERICULUM PRIVATUM UTILITAS PUBLICA, which meant “Private Risk for Public Benefit.”
Mounting a steam engine on a track took more than just technical skill. The creator also had to find a suitably dramatic way to sell this strange-looking golem on wheels to the public. And that was the historical role played by George Stephenson, who was quickly lionized by journalists charmed by his up-from-coal-dust story and called him the “Father of the Railway,” even though his contribution was more that of a promoter and a project manager than an actual inventor. “In science,” noted Charles Darwin, “credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not the man to whom the idea first occurs.”
The rail bed once traveled by the Stockton & Darlington is still used today—with almost no pomp whatsoever—as a dead-end branch for a set of hardy old DMUs run by Northern Rail. I had taken this line a few years before in the company of Richard Wimbury, a sixty-six-year-old former schoolteacher with a hawk nose and salted hair.
“Now, over there,” said Wimbury, pointing out the window to a junction called Heighington, “is where they unloaded Locomotion. They took her down from Newcastle on a horse and cart.” I could see nothing but a lonely pub, a line of trees and a crossing bar dutifully bowed over a lane. But this was holy ground indeed: the spot where the first locomotive on a scheduled railway had been fired into life. Locomotion was a strange-looking, elephantine device on wheels, and there was a minor problem getting the coal aflame that day.
An elderly laborer named Robert Metcalf, who sometimes used a magnifying glass to light his pipe on sunny days, came forward and trained the sun’s beam on the kindling, called oakum. Metcalf later wrote down his recollections without punctuation.
“I took me pipe glass and let me pipe I thought to myself I would try to put fire to Jimmy oakum it blaze away well the fire going rapidly lantern and candle was to no use so No. 1 fire was put to her by the pour of the sun.” Kindled by the sun’s rays, a curl of smoke rose and grew from the coal pile; the chamber warmed, the fire spreading; water bubbled in the iron belly, rose to full boil, and steam gathered in the top dome. Locomotion began to sputter and hiss.
Some of those who came to watch had cowered at the sight of the machine puffing with what might have seemed agony and menace, as if its keg-shaped belly were about to rupture. Travel by a machine was an entirely new idea in the human consciousness in 1825, and it seems that many of those watching the first run of the Stockton & Darlington could not quite fathom what they were seeing. The engine might as well have been a creature from another planet. It chugged over the Skerne River on a huge stone bridge with white Romanesque arches, and the smoke pouring out of the stack came laced with embers that fell into the crowd and burned little holes in some of the women’s parasols.
“Those people must have wondered what those locomotives bellowing steam were going to do,” Wimbury said. “There was a sense that people were not meant to go faster than horses. Fire and steam were seen as destructive. And yet, steam locomotives had all the aura and frisson of atomic power or the space shuttle.” Our velocity on this poorly used branch was somewhere near twenty-five miles per hour, which was not very much faster than the top velocity of Locomotion.
Wimbury wore black-framed glasses perched on that aquiline nose and was chatty and enthusiastic about the importance of the Stockton & Darlington, even if others in town were not as concerned, and he viewed this indifference with bemused exasperation. He drew a detailed map in my notebook, complete with numbered legend, showing me how I could find the house where George Stephenson first hatched the plan with his great Quaker benefactor Edward Pease. “Now pizza takeaways!!” he scrawled indignantly in the margins.
When the conductor that morning had come by to collect our fare, Wimbury asked him if he knew the significance of the short line we were traveling.
“I can’t say I’ve thought of it much, really,” the conductor replied. “Five pound fifteen, please.” Wimbury drew his lips tight and shook his head.
I rode the line back to Darlington and walked back through the core of the old Quaker merchant town, which had been the victim of a bad concrete makeover. At the height of the railway age in the late nineteenth century, this had been a hub for the construction of locomotives, iron bridges, rails and, of course, the mining of coal to power it all. But that economy was gone. A former Lutheran church near the main rail station is covered with signs that advertise an appliance dealership called Bathroom World; toilets are now sold where worshippers used to kneel. And sure enough, when I went to visit the decrepit old row house where Edward Pease used to live, there was a brightly lit joint called Best Kebab at street level. The upstairs windows disclosed a room full of junk, a refrigerator tipped on its side.
The 16:56 to York was punctual and sleek: a high-speed electric train manufactured by a French multinational company named Alstom that zipped away through the darkened fields at the speed of 110 miles an hour. I found a seat near an older man in a green sweater nodding off in front of a book of crossword puzzles. Across the aisle a beautiful young woman in a stylish coat and high boots was texting a message: . . . AND THEN I WILL BE HOOOOOOME. A light rain had begun to fall. At York the floors were slick with it, and the staff had put out signs warning people not to slip.
This was one of the most graceful railway stations in England, the tracks curving past the platforms and out of sight at a pleasing elliptical sweep. The structure had been bombed into smithereens by the Luftwaffe on April 29, 1942—Hitler had used a Baedecker railway travel guide to pick his targets and chose York because it earned more than three stars as a cultural site. The British rebuilt the station completely after the war. Inside the foyer were a group of eight well-dressed and shivering children singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” A man ringing a bell next to a pot explained that they were raising money for a local charity. “Yes, we’ll sub these kids out for another choir here in a few minutes,” he said.
The next day I went to keep an appointment with a man named Jonathan Tyler. His office was on the top floor of a sixteenth-century building with a staircase kinked at odd angles from hundreds of years of water damage but with a dazzling skylight view of the York Minster cathedral spires. The screen saver on his computer is a photo of the Ribblehead Viaduct, a colossal train bridge of stone arches across the Yorkshire Dales. He proposed to his wife under the twenty-fourth arch.
Tyler is a nattily dressed man with a white beard and the slight air of an elf. He now works as a highly paid transportation consultant, but he got his start at British Rail in the early 1960s, working as a junior economist under a director who would come to be called “the most hated man in Britain” and the personification of all that was heartless and wrongheaded with the modern railroads.
This man was Richard Beeching, a former metallurgist who produced a 1963 fiat called The Reshaping of British Railways, which concentrated traffic into four major trunk lines emanating from London like bicycle spokes. At the same time, it eliminated half of the passenger network and shuttered about four thousand country depots. Within the decade peaceful little crofts with names like Chilsworthy, Wadebridge, Nanstallion and Bridestone lost their trains forever, along with Sandplace, Downton, Templecombe, Whimple, Fishponds and Pill.
A certain way of life seemed to disappear along with the trains. The mass amputation—which has since become known as the “Beeching Axe”—was resented by those who didn’t own a car as well as those many Britons who simply loved trains for aesthetic reasons. “I suppose I’ll always be looked on as the axeman,” Beeching wrote later, “but it was surgery, not mad chopping.”
Tyler also thinks history will view his old boss more kindly, as he was only bowing to economic reality. But he isn’t so sure about this current state of British rails, which he sees as the shabby residue of a great heritage.
“As you will have no doubt noticed, the franchise system is in total disarray,” he said as we sat for coffee. “We’ve recently seen reports detailing unbelievable incompetence on the part of the Ministry of Transportation. In many ways we’ve got the best railway we’ve ever had, and it is being gutted at the same time.”
Almost every problem is rooted, said Tyler, in a decision made for free-market ideological reasons in 1993 in the last days of the premiership of John Major.* The railroads had been state property since the end of World War II and were run by a doddering national corporation called British Rail, which was perceived as a prime candidate for a sale. The government kept ownership of the tracks but let companies bid for the rights to run regional monopolies. “It was a scheme,” wrote journalist Andrew Murray, “only a lawyer could love.” The Labour Party protested the deal but did nothing to reverse it when they won power under Tony Blair the following year.
More than twenty companies now have their own piece of the British mainland—with one giant called FirstGroup as the king among them—but without a coordinated vision and with taxpayers funding most of the repair and improvements. Britain’s rails are now routinely more expensive than plane flights, and government subsidies have doubled since the privatization, leaving many to wonder what was ever “private” about the idea.
“There is no sense of a national network anymore,” said Tyler. “This diminishes the appeal to people who don’t think of traveling by rail and whose mentality is that of the bus. The rail share of the market between the large cities is in the single digits. The focus on the marketing is ‘Here’s a cheap ticket, wouldn’t you like to go to Edinburgh?’ instead of a sustained campaign to make it an everyday experience.”
And yet despite all this, he acknowledged, the railroads are still an important part of the British collective unconscious. “There’s no doubt a majority of the population wants to keep it,” he said. “They may complain about it. But they would never tolerate the abandonment of the rails.” Britons will stomach the trouble as they always have, just as they muddled quite effectively through the Luftwaffe bombings and unemployment doldrums and cold water baths. “Mustn’t grumble,” goes the old saying, but that’s a lie. Everyone whines here—quite professionally—but serious reform happens rarely. Communism never stood a chance here, as Bill Bryson has observed, because while the British have a genius for ridiculing those in authority, they never get outraged enough to mount a true revolt. Hitler thought he would have an easy surrender because Britain was a nation shot through with moldy class resentments, unhealthy boozing and economic inequality, but the people rallied for their island with Shakespearean ferocity. Deep in their sarcastic hearts, the British crave order and hierarchy. Maybe that’s why they love railroad timetables so much.
After saying good-bye to Tyler and making my way down his crazily warped staircase, I went over to the York Minster to hear a Christmas concert. The nave was jammed with holiday tourists clutching shopping bags. I leaned my green backpack against a side wall and listened while a woman in front of me in a red sweater and duck boots got up and paced around near the transept as the uniformed band played and the choir sang “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” I was getting restless myself and envied her freedom of motion but didn’t want to draw attention to myself.
About an hour later, I saw the same woman pacing back and forth on a platform at the York railway station. A balding man carrying some sort of musical case came up to her a few seconds later: it looked as though we were waiting for the same 21:23 train to Leeds.
I asked them if they had been at the concert, and they acknowledged that this was so. “My back hurts,” she said, a little sheepishly. “I can’t remain sitting for long.”
Her husband’s name was Simon, and he had been a trombonist in the band, and though he was an agnostic, he always found himself inside multiple churches in the winter due to the concert schedule. Agricultural fairs were the big thing in the summer. Simon was a music tutor who had mustered out of a career in the Royal Navy after managing to miss every British overseas conflict since the Falklands War. He lived with his wife, Philomena—she of the restless pacing—near the small town of Ganforth, twenty-six miles away, and always took the train because both hated to drive, especially in York’s twisting medieval streets.
“Oh, this railway is going to rot, don’t worry,” said Simon as we settled into seats.
“Don’t get him started,” said Philomena.
“Too late already,” he said. “If there’s no leaves on the tracks, if there’s no rain, no snow, no congestion, no landslides—oh, and if the driver’s there and not late from the 13:45 from Peterborough or something daft like that—then maybe it’ll be on time.” He went on for a while before Philomena interrupted him.
“Isn’t this the town with the funny name?” she asked, pointing out the windows.
“Lower Poppleton, yes.” They both giggled. It was clear they had been married a long time.