One of the many things to be learned from this entirely terrific book is that people who actually work on railroads are not exactly enamored of amateurs who are bonkers about trains. These are “hard-core train fanatics — middle-aged or elderly men mostly — who call themselves ‘railfans’ but whom Amtrak conductors call ‘foamers,’ as in one whose mouth starts to foam at the sight of a locomotive.” Tom Zoellner writes: “The term is not charitable, and most Amtrak employees regard them as nuisances. Railroad crossing signs and engineer caps decorate countless workshops across America. I once visited a friend who owned a home in Protection, Kansas, that had been made from a restored depot; the doorbell was rigged to sound like one of the lonely horns in the night that had first enchanted me as a child.”
Me too. I well remember lying in bed in a small town in Southside Virginia around 1950 and hearing those horns rise and then fade as trains made their way from Lynchburg to Danville or vice versa. It is one of the pleasantest memories of a boyhood lived when such things were still possible, and I treasure it. But I am not — most emphatically not — a foamer. I have spent too much time on bad trains, especially the commuter ones that run between Washington and Baltimore, to have anything approximating unconditional love for them. Though I do recall fondly the dining car with its white-linen tablecloths on the New York, New Haven and Hartford, I also remember the ratty trains of the Southern Railway lurching southward from Washington, always late and dependably uncomfortable. I am old enough to have memories of the American passenger railroad in its glory days but young enough to know all too well its decline into a taxpayer-subsidized mess that is of little use anywhere outside the Northeastern Megalopolis.
Still, Zoellner’s wonderful book has me thinking fond train thoughts once more. “Train” is not a history, though there is much history in it, but a series of a half-dozen railroad journeys that add up to “a narrative history-cum-travelogue — and not anything that should be mistaken for comprehensive treatment.” Beginning with a rather slow trip from north to south through Britain and ending with a very fast one from Barcelona to Madrid, Zoellner gives us an intimate look at some of the innumerable ways in which trains have altered the world in which we live and in which they continue to serve vital purposes, even as airplanes and automobiles hog our attention.
A “central truth about the railroad,” Zoellner writes in his chapter about a freight train lugging ore out of the Andes in Peru, is that “there remains no better mechanism for hauling heavy commodities.” A few pages later he adds: “We hopped off the train so the cars could be filled with the pulverized grit of the Andes, and it occurred to me I was watching an act that was as close to the heart of railroading as it ever came: this blunt function, the carting of stone to where it could be sold for higher sums, the insistent rearrangement of the physical world.” This is true wherever trains operate, especially here in the United States, where a “reasonably healthy” private freight network far eclipses the remnants of the once-great passenger lines.
No doubt a measure of provincialism affects my judgment, but to me the best chapter in “Train” is Zoellner’s long account of his journey from New York to Los Angeles. He begins by evoking George Gershwin’s great “Rhapsody in Blue,” inspired in significant measure by the rhythms of the train, and points out that one subject of the composition is “the America connected by steel rails and locomotives, the empire of railroads that America had once been, the astonishing steam-powered device that could carom from New York to Chicago in eighteen hours and had transformed a seaboard republic of small farmers and merchants into a continental power of speed and industrial might.” Today, nearly a century later, “the vast majority of Americans have never once been on board a passenger train, except perhaps the toy steam railroad that circles the edges of Disneyland and Disney World,” yet “that old identity — American Train Sublime — still dwells in the collective unconscious of who we are: our prodigious growth, our faith in business, our love of velocity, our confidence in technology, our capacity for seeing beauty in the newcomer.”
Zoellner may be a borderline foamer, but he’s no sentimentalist. He is quick to emphasize that the American railway system grew out of corruption on a massive scale: The rail barons “owned newspapers that were little more than propaganda sheets, bought off entire legislatures, threatened their enemies, placated critics with offers of free tickets.” Even today, railroads cannot escape serious and damning criticism, when one takes into account that one of their chief sources of revenue is carting coal. Zoellner writes:
“There is a terrible irony at the heart of this enterprise. Since the 1990s the nation’s railroads have been trying to position themselves as the more environmentally pure method of transportation when compared to their exhaust-spewing, gas-guzzling brethren in the trucking business. ‘We help ease gridlock by taking trucks off the roads, saving you time and fuel that are being wasted in traffic’ is a line from a television commercial put out by Freight Rail Works, a group sponsored by the American Association of Railroads. But they are playing an enabling role in a business responsible for chuffing more than 2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, thickening the layer of greenhouse gases above us, not to mention emitting heavy plumes of lead, mercury, methane, uranium, and sulfur dioxide.”
All of which is merely to underscore that in the complicated world we now inhabit almost everything, including good things, comes at a cost. If you can manage to put coal out of mind, which isn’t exactly easy, then you might consider that trains can move weight — whether animal, mineral or human — at a minuscule fraction of the cost of moving it by car or plane; that in every country where they operate, rail systems have played a central role in tying together people in places that previously were unaware of or even hostile to each other; that the passenger car, especially the coach-class car, is a democratizing environment and “the perfect environment for conversation”; and that trains have made indelible impressions on every culture in which they exist.
Trains made it possible for African Americans to flee Southern bigotry and oppression, though what too many of them found up North wasn’t much better. Trains were also very convenient vehicles for the Nazis, who used them to transport thousands upon thousands of innocent people to their deaths in the charnel houses of the Holocaust. Leo Tolstoy, in “Anna Karenina,” gave expression to “an idea that had lurked in the subconscious of nineteenth-century writers almost since the birth of the train: the sense that it housed death — metaphorical and actual — in its bellows and cranks,” the flip side being that “even as the first generation of rail passengers saw death in the wheels, they also could not help but find sexual energy in the hum and rumble and rush of the coaches sliding upon the rails and in and out of tunnels and the brute force of the engine barreling forward.”
To cap things off, just where would American music be without the train? It’s almost impossible to imagine. From “Casey Jones” to “The City of New Orleans,” from W.C. Handy to Woody Guthrie, from the blues of the Mississippi to the jazz of Chicago, American music moves to the beat of the train. However little we may now be aware of the trains still in our midst, that particular beat goes on, and on, and on.
Riding the Rails That Created the
Modern World — From the Trans-Siberian
to the Southwest Chief
By Tom Zoellner
Viking. 346 pp. $27.95