The click-clack of wheels on rails, the whiff of coal smoke and oil, a whistle in the distance, the feeling of anticipation and excitement at the start of a long journey …
Railways capture our imagination. They speak to our soul. The elemental attractions of fire and steam, the fascination of technology, and the glamour of connecting faraway places have all helped cement the place of railways in human hearts. For more than 200 years, trains have fuelled ambitions and attracted ground-breaking engineers, inspiring them to create inventions that tapped into the human desire to move forward and open up a world of possibilities.
Most importantly, railways have contributed to modern history in prosaic, practical ways. Arguably, no single tool has influenced today’s industrial world more. From the first stuttering experiments in Cornwall and Wales in the UK to the building of railways that opened up whole continents and helped create nations, as they did in North America and elsewhere, to their capacity to make modern warfare feasible – the invention of the locomotive has shaped the globe, for good and bad.
Before the railways, life moved at a different speed; most people travelled only short distances from where they lived – there were no cars, no planes, no modern roads. Until the arrival of trains there was no unified time and no compelling reason to introduce it.
Towns and cities set their own time until the need for rigid timetables on the railways called for standardization. The new technology fuelled urbanization – growing conurbations were fed by railways, delivering people cheaply from ever farther afield. Rail networks moved commodities that previously could not be transported long distances – perishable fruit, newspapers, flowers, and fresh milk were delivered to the masses in a timely manner.
In these many ways, railways became essential to the creation of modern life, and achieved it with panache. Companies gave their locomotives and services evocative names; they came up with attractive colour schemes; and they worked hard on aesthetics to make their engines graceful, imposing, or dynamic, as well as functional. The drive to move ever forwards shaped the railways too.
As new technologies developed, builders of new routes climbed higher, dug deeper, and went farther, taming the most inhospitable ground. The push to be ever faster, ever safer, and ever-more efficient drove that progress too.
Across the globe, railways put great effort into achieving higher speeds, into selling the luxury of their most exclusive trains, and into persuading people to use their services both for business and leisure. Modern marketing, public relations, the seaside holiday – in all these areas, the railway has been an instrument of change and a driving force.
It is no wonder that schoolboys have dreamt of becoming locomotive drivers, that authors as diverse as Leo Tolstoy, Émile Zola, Agatha Christie, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have bound railways into their dramas and mysteries, or that popular train-based songs like “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and “The Loco-Motion” have stood the test of time.
In the “Golden Age” of rail travel, newspapers and newsreels breathlessly reported the latest advances – as well as the gory details of smashes. New express engine designs were described in detail, drivers and designers became heroes, and there was fierce competition for headlines.
Locomotives such as the huge “Big Boy” class in the US, or Britain’s Mallard – which broke the speed record for steam in 1938 and still holds it – became famous the world over. Half a century after steam disappeared across large parts of the globe, it is still an emotive force – even among those who are too young to remember it in service. Dedicated enthusiasts chase the final survivors of the steam age in the most inaccessible places, or restore and preserve engines, coaches, and even entire lines.
It’s not all been positive, and there’s no denying the darker deeds that were made possible by railways. They offered an opportunity for mass transport that enabled huge armies to be moved and supplied across continents, as well as the deportation of millions of people to Hitler’s extermination camps during World War II. War became global and more deadly, and it was inevitable that rail networks would themselves become targets and face huge destruction in modern conflicts.
Yet while railways entered increasingly difficult times – and after World War II a period came when they were often seen as bland, monotonous, and outdated – they always resisted becoming merely a thing of the past. In recent years there’s been a renaissance as countries have directed energy into building new high-speed routes and reducing their reliance on the motor car.
Today, long container trains are still a vital component in freight delivery, rumbling across continents as the pioneering trains did more than 200 years ago. Passengers speed across borders without having to leave their seats, and the idea of moving people quickly over long distances in comfort is once again in vogue.
Technology forges ahead, the glamour has returned, and, for many, railways are once again perceived as the civilized way to travel. Two centuries on from the pioneering moves of the first “iron horses”, rail’s exciting journey continues.