Book Review Published in Transportation Journal Summer 2011
Blood, Iron, and Gold
How the Railroads Transformed the World
By Christian Wolmar
Perseus Book Group
New York, NY
376 pp. $28.95
Christian Wolmar is a writer who specializes in the social history of railroads and other modes of transport. This unique perspective provides the reader with information about railroad history not usually found in other works. The narrative takes a global approach, including anecdotes about the construction and operations of most of the major railroads in the world. The book consists of 13 chapters and is well researched with 17 pages of notes.
The first three chapters describe the construction and early operations of railroads in Britain and on the European continent. British technology and capital led development of railroads in Europe and later, through the influence of the Empire, India and Latin America. Railroads in all countries began as a force for economic development. Less obvious was their military utility. European monarchs certainly recognized the efficiencies in moving troops and supplies by rail. This new form of military transportation also allowed rulers to keep a firm hand on their subjects. In the short term railroads served to consolidate royal power. In the long term, as the author notes, railroads were a democratizing force. Wolmar provides many interesting anecdotes and facts about the effect of faster transportation on the human race. Isolation and privation gradually give way to urbanization and improved standards of living.
As railways developed gage standards became an issue for debate. Wider gages increased costs of construction and land but resulted in a more comfortable ride for passengers. Narrower gages lowered the cost of construction but resulted in lower speed operations and reduced capacity. By the mid 19th Century the Stephenson Gage of 4’ 8 ½”, named after the British engineer George Stephenson became the standard. Another topic of much discussion was the “loading gage” which is the size of the envelope needed to accommodate trains, tunnels, platforms, and equipment.
The role of government in establishing railroads differed between Britain and continental Europe. Nations such as Italy and Germany were fragmented and not completely unified in the 19th Century. As a result railroad planning was controlled by the monarchies in an authoritarian manner. In Britain and later the US, railroads grew more organically as drivers of economic development aided by public policy.
Chapter 4, The American Way, is lengthy, describing in detail the history of US railroads, especially the transcontinental. As Wolmar explains, the size of the US continent and challenging terrain made railroad construction, especially the transcontinental road, a monumental task. Size and scope alone require devoting a large portion of his book to the US experience. The author contrasts the building of US railroads with earlier projects in Europe. He provides a thorough examination of the new mode of transportation including finance, government involvement, construction, technology, land costs, and military utility. The great champion of the transcontinental railroad was Abraham Lincoln. Even during the Civil War he insisted that planning go forward. Government involvement in the US was mostly limited to finance and land grants for right of way. Operations of railroads were left to big corporations. As expected, the huge financial sums involved in building the infrastructure resulted in corruption and insider deals. According to Wolmar another distinction between US and Europe was that in Europe the railroads were servants of big business while in a younger US the railroads were creators of business.
While construction in the US was challenging due to distances and terrain, land costs were much cheaper than in Europe. Crews were able to choose direct routes and avoid obstacles resulting in lower costs per mile and fewer tunnels and bridges than in other countries. This was crucial since less capital was available.
Emerging telegraph technology provided a major improvement in railroad scheduling and operations. As we have already seen in Europe, railroads became a strategic military asset. During the US Civil War trains were used to move troops and supplies. This was a bigger advantage to the union forces because they controlled more miles of track and equipment.
By the late 19th Century railroads in the US had gained an unhealthy amount of power over business and the public. Discriminatory and arbitrary practices led to the establishment of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887. An interesting anecdote about this era describes tactics used by American farmers against the railroads. One such tactic was to feed their cows alongside tracks in order to slow or stop trains. Railroads retaliated by installing “cow catchers” on the front of the engines.
By itself, this chapter is a complete and interesting history of railroad development in the US. It is no exaggeration to say that the transcontinental railroad transformed the US from a North/South oriented nation to an East/West nation.
The following three chapters describe epic projects on other parts of the world such the Trans Siberian Railroad. Motivation for such tasks was both economic and political. The more remote the geography the more political will and public financing was necessary. The economic lure was often resource extraction which would not have been possible without railways.
Railroads continued their global expansion with no competition from other modes. Economies transformed from agricultural to industrial. The lives of people all over the world changed dramatically. Diets improved due to greater availability of fruit and vegetables. Before the existence of railroads most people never traveled more than a few miles from home but would soon be able to expand their horizons. All of this had a democratizing effect as the middle class grew worldwide. The negative effects of railroads included near monopolistic power over prices, land values, and routes.
In the final chapters, Wolmar catalogs the post WWII decline of passenger traffic and the financial problems of railroads. Mergers and consolidations lead to big railroad systems in the US and around the world. Intermodal transportation becomes essential to replacing lost passenger revenue enabling railways to survive and prosper in the late 20th Century.
The author’s goal as stated in the Preface was to draw together the history of railways and demonstrate their social impact across the world. Having met this goal in a relatively short book is an impressive piece of writing. The result, however, is a narrative so densely packed with detail that the reader is tempted to skip over large sections in order to maintain interest. The book is, however, greatly informative and a good addition to any transportation library.
Mitchell G. Kostoulakos, CTL