A Railway Journey With These Fabulous Books About Trains

One gives credit to the railways for laying the foundation for all the changes in society brought about by the Industrial Revolution and the other captures the time when steam engines were being phased out
Books about the transformation of the railways and the world with it
Books about the transformation of the railways and the world with itShutterstock

I suppose I like railway travel books because I like travelling by train. The modern master of train writing is, of course, Paul Theroux, and his The Imperial Way Making Tracks from Peshawar to Chittagong is a short classic of the 1980s. That period was more important in the history of the Indian Railways than the '70s of Theroux's better-known Great Railway Bazaar because the '80s were the last days of steam.

A rail engine in 1980 at Old Delhi station
A rail engine in 1980 at Old Delhi stationFlickr

In this age of the car and the aeroplane, the contribution of the railways to the changes in our lives over the last two centuries is all too often forgotten, and the contribution they can make to the future ignored. Christian Wolmar - a renowned writer on transport issues and a passionate railwayman - sets the record of its contributions straight, and makes it clear that where governments invest in them, the railways have a great future.

Wolmar argues that railways laid the foundation for all the changes in society brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Cars only intensified those changes. In 1853, India's first railway, the line between Bombay and Thana, was opened and the Illustrated Weekly of London appreciated how momentous the occasion was. Wolmar quotes the magazine as saying that the recent battles the British had fought to bring India into the Empire "seem tame and commonplace" in comparison to the coming of the railways. The railways did indeed enable Britain to tighten its hold over India. Ironically, they also enabled the leaders of the independence movement to spread their democratic message.

A Peek Through Time

Wolmar argues convincingly that the railways played an important role in stimulating the conditions for the spread of democracy elsewhere. That is why autocratic rulers, such as the Austrian Emperor Francis II, opposed their development. Of course, they also gave autocrats the means to move troops rapidly when revolts broke out. Some argue that the railways broke down barriers between classes, but others maintain these were heightened by the railways' own class system. In India, railways challenged the unofficial colour bar.

A steam engine train leaving the station in 1980
A steam engine train leaving the station in 1980Flickr

Wolmar tells the story of a white planter who protested against the presence of an Indian lawyer in his compartment by throwing the lawyer's sandals out of the window while he was asleep. The lawyer retaliated by throwing the planter's jacket away while he was asleep. When the planter awoke and asked about his jacket, the lawyer said, "Your coat has gone to fetch my slippers." It is sobering to be reminded that, until the 1960s, there was separate, inferior accommodation for black people on American railways.

But although railways didn't necessarily unite people, they did unite countries. Wolmar describes the role it played in uniting Canada and Italy, and quotes a writer who suggested that America became a nation when the lines from the East and West coasts met.

Indian railways don't come out too well here. Wolmar says that conditions in the third class caused complaints throughout British rule and nothing was done about them until the Raj ended. Nowhere in the world was the contrast between first and third class so great as in India. On the conditions for workers who built the Indian railways, Wolmar quotes one historian's estimate that 25,000 people lost their lives building the railway up the Western Ghats. Many of those died of diseases such as cholera.

From India's point of view, the most important part of this book is the last chapter, where Wolmar argues that a new era of train travel has begun. He points out that the high-speed trains operating in many countries, including India's neighbour China, are proving more efficient than aeroplanes over considerable distances. But rail cannot compete with road or air transport unless it's faster than any Indian train.

The Imperial Way Making Tracks from Peshawar to Chittagong
The Imperial Way Making Tracks from Peshawar to ChittagongAmazon

Stressing the importance of government investment in railways, Wolmar says, "Predictably, it is the two bastions of privately built railways, the United States and the UK, where the state has least involvement, that have missed out on the high-speed revolution." But that should not be taken as offering comfort to the mandarins of Rail Bhavan. Government support doesn't mean shackling the railways to an old-fashioned, outdated, bureaucratic system of management at the mercy of politicians' whims and fancies. If India is to speed up its trains and make the best use of its magnificent railways, it needs to give the management freedom. The railways should be converted from a department of the government into an independent autonomous public corporation. Then in India too there will be the "railway renaissance" Wolmar describes.

Theroux says, "The railway seems so profoundly part of the subcontinent's culture that it hardly seems related to the industrial age, but instead seems as ancient as India itself." He goes on to say, "The roads and airports can come and go but nothing seems so indestructible as the railway."

"Hear, hear", say I, and may it not be too long before the bitter legacies of Partition and the childish enmity between subcontinental neighbours pass away, and the railways are restored to their former glory so that passengers can board a train running all the way from Peshawar to Chittagong.

Title 1 The Imperial Way: Making Tracks from Peshawar to Chittagong

Available on Amazon

Price: INR 3000 for Hardcover

Title 2 Blood, Iron, and Gold: How the Railroads Transformed the World

Available on Amazon

Price: INR 2000 for Paperback and Hardcover

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