Leading transport journalist Christian Wolmar has claimed that the railway was the most important invention of the second Millennium. This statement is surrounded in as much as controversy as the bedroom tax, and one would be hard pressed to suggest what the definitive invention of the second millennium was, what with there being so much to choose from. However, it is undeniable that the railway has aided mankind in immeasurable ways, in both voyages of commerce and discovery.
In Britain, many people had experimented with steam locomotives from the beginning of the 19th Century, the first successful example being that built by William Hedley in Northumbria to aid coal transportation in 1813. The first rail network that relied purely on the power of steam was the Liverpool and Manchester railway that was completed in 1830. The building of this network was commercial in its conception, allowing for raw cotton to be transported from Merseyside to Manchester. The development of this rail link was of great benefit to Manchester, allowing for quick and efficient transportation of cotton. Manchester boomed in the period following the building of the rail link. Thanks to the cotton industry, Manchester was transformed from a small town into a city of great commerce and industry, quickly becoming known as ‘cottonopolis’.
Enhancing industry was also the motivation for the building of railways in India, which was also for the benefit of the cotton trade in Britain, allowing for cotton to be transported to the port in Bombay. The progress of the railway was not to offer travel to the masses, but in order to enhance industry. The building of railways in India became a symbolisation of Imperialism, attracting the wrath of Ghandi many years later. Indeed, the only mass building of railways around the world that allowed for the mass transportation of people was done in the name of industry where they were needed to extract raw materials. These same lines could then be used to transport the raw materials back to the ports once they had been extracted by the workers. Of course, this was not for the benefit of the worker, but allowed for industry barons to increase profit margins. Far from being vessels to carry people in their voyages of discovery, the railways had a much more cynical value in allowing for increasing profit margins and re-enforcing colonial rule, challenging the romantic image portrayed in modern popular culture most recently by Michael Portillo.
Whilst the building of the railways was industrial in its conception, they did of course become valuable sources of leisure. The prime example of this would be the Trans-Siberian Express. Work began on the line, which travels through seven different time zones, in 1891 and is still being added on to up to the present day. Initially built to improve links across the vast area of Siberia, the network had great benefits for Russian Agriculture in spite of the industry itself being in dire need of mechanisation, as the Nazis discovered during the Second World War. Today, the Trans-Siberian express is viewed as one of the great railway journeys. The journey features on many bucket lists, and has most recently been exposed in popular culture by Karl Pilkington in An Idiot Abroad. Whilst failing to please the lovable travel-weary Manc, it still attracts tourists from all over the world. The railway equivalent of watching a Lord of The Rings of Trilogy, the quickest journey on the Trans- Siberian express from Moscow to Beijing takes 8 days which includes no stops. One can only hope that it is more entertaining than Peter Jackson’s yawn inducing dirge.
Whilst Karl Pilkington has done little to fuel desire for great voyages of discovery on the railways, Michael Portillo has done much to restore the romance of the locomotive. In his BBC series, Portillo has travelled the great railways of Britain and Europe. Accompanied by Victorian guidebooks, Portillo demonstrates how the railways have changed in the past 150 years or so. Stopping off in several areas of beauty or intrigue, Poritllo’s documentaries also highlight the convenience, romance and intrigue of rail travel.
Today, the railways are still a popular form of transport. In Britain however, with rising ticket fares, poor services and debates over efficiency and running costs, one questions their sustainability. However, given their environmental benefits one would imagine they will be with us for many years to come.