TRAIN: RIDING THE RAILS THAT CREATED THE MODERN WORLD — FROM THE TRANS-SIBERIAN TO THE SOUTHWEST CHIEF
By Tom Zoellner
Viking, $27.95, 346 pages
This is one of those all-too-rare books that have so much to them. Not just about trains either, although there is plenty about them yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Science writer and academic Tom Zoellner is a train buff. He totally gets them, loves them, has a special affinity for them, especially in his own country.
"Railroads anywhere, but especially in America, have the power to invoke odd spells like this, a feeling that might be called Train Sublime: the tidal sway of the carriages, the chanting of the wheels striking the fishplates (to me it sounds like dear-boy, dear-boy, dear-boy) ... secret pleasures of a railroad summon forth a vision of a sweet pastness, a lost national togetherness. The train is a time traveler itself, the lost American vehicle of our ancestors, or perhaps our past selves."
Fear not, though, that this is just one of those endless wallowings in nostalgia that have a certain charm but soon becoming cloying. Mr. Zoellner's account of traveling in a pricey but cramped and uncomfortable sleeper across the United States leaves no doubt that there were better days. He tantalizingly describes the luxurious Super Chief of yore with its gourmet, locally sourced meals and glamorous movie stars on their way to and from Hollywood, a sad contrast to the microwaved meals and shabby dining cars of today.
However, he firmly asserts the continuing value — nay, importance — of rail travel for commerce and as an alternative to air and road travel, and he is good at finding enduring aspects of beauty.
Returning by rail to his hometown of Los Angeles, he walks "into Union Station, a soaring hall of terra-cotta and travertine marble in a Mission Revival style, finished in 1939 and called 'the last of the great railroad stations' ... . The walls in the waiting-hall are lined with cork, which creates a strange hush, and sunlight streams through the front doors in the afternoon for a reddish-golden effect."
If Mr. Zoellner has a special native's feeling for America's railroads and their history, he is nonetheless a globetrotter experiencing trains crossing Great Britain, India, Russia and the Andes. In a chapter called "The Roof of the World," he travels at an altitude so great his compartment comes with an oxygen dispenser, on the train built by the Chinese at great expense and difficulty as an instrument of binding Tibet.
Not one to seek out luxurious attempts to re-create past splendor like today's vastly expensive Orient Express or their imperial-era equivalents in Southern Africa and India, he encounters levels of comfort that might make one pine for even Amtrak. If you think adventure when traveling by rail is a thing of the past, you'll think again after reading why Mr. Zoellner was not able to reach Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian Express.
Mr. Zoellner is particularly good at describing the impact trains made as they burst onto the scene as a part, as well as a booster, of the Industrial Revolution. He is adept at finding apt quotes from poets as diverse as Emily Dickinson and W.H. Auden and by novelists from Dickens to Tolstoy. Always a vivid writer, he makes the reader sense the impact of railway speed, in its time unprecedentedly exciting or alarming. In her first experience of it, Queen Victoria found it thrilling, her husband less so: "Not so fast next time" were his words on detraining. For Mr. Zoellner, their importance cannot be underestimated.
"Man had never traveled so fast before, and at such a risk of sudden and devastating stop ... . A journey by train was an existential distillation of life itself, a thoughtless glide through time and space over which always hung the possibility that everything could be cut short by a force the rider was utterly helpless to affect, all the while tugged along by a dynamo that could not be seen except for trails of smoke and cinders."
In the next century, air travel would bring a similar watershed. Mr. Zoellner is an advocate of 21st-century high-speed rail as it exists in Spain and Japan and perhaps will come to pass in California despite enormous hurdles of cost and terrain. However, hurtling along at what many times so shook early 19th-century travelers cannot induce similar effect on a more jaded populace. Perhaps only when significant numbers of people begin to undertake space travel will something top the sheer thrill of early trains.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.