Train: Riding the Rails
That Created the Modern World

Tom Zoellner's 'Train' looks for the railroad's place in the past and present
Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World

Following in the tracks of Paul Theroux, journalist and English prof Tom Zoellner succumbs to the lure of railroad travel, even if it can be slow, late, cramped and dangerous. He calls our ongoing love-hate relationship with trains "Train Sublime," and waxes rhetorical about "the tidal sway of the carriages, the chanting of the wheels striking the fishplates, the glancing presence of strangers on their own journeys and wrapped in private ruminations."

In Train, Zoellner embarks on long-distance journeys across England, India, America, Russia, China, Peru and Spain. Less cranky than Theroux, the author eagerly welcomes the phenomenon that railroad brought to the world in the early 1800s, when "people were suddenly forced to talk with strangers."

He strikes up impromptu friendships with fellow travelers, relishing the conversational possibilities; the train, he writes, is "always a hot herbarium of stories." More than once, his romantic tendencies lead him to read a little extra into the sight of a beautiful stranger. In the introduction, Zoellner confesses that he has never forgotten, after 20 years, the vision of a young woman across the aisle of a Pennsylvania train: "We were standing perfectly still, yet moving over parallel lines of steel, and she seemed like a ghost in the dim light."

The flipside of romanticism is a solid grasp of the historical, political and social upheavals that trains made as they ushered in the industrial era. Zoellner deftly interleaves fascinating asides about Chicago's meatpacking era; the resource-sucking design of the Trans-Siberian ("The train was basically a straw through which to suck money into St. Petersburg"); the demographic effect of China's high-speed rail system on Tibet; and the economic significance of the sprawling Indian rail system, a "giant Keynesian jobs juggernaut."

The final chapter looks at Spain's successful high-speed trains, and then asks if the United States has the same will to build, particularly in California. The proposed S.F.-L.A. link is fraught with cost overruns. In addition to budget complaints, some conservatives (Zoellner cites George Will) recoil at the whole idea of trains, which they consider collectivist and anti-individualist. Zoellner remains optimistic, but the book was finished before Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom threw some cold water on Jerry Brown's (and Arnie's and Gray Davis') pet project.

Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World—From the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief

By Tom Zoellner

Viking, cloth, $27.95

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