Late Tony Judt was a professor at NYU. He wrote a wonderful essay on railways in New York Review of Books. The essay comes in two parts. First is The Glory of the Rails and second part is called Bring Back the Rails!
In the first part he explains how railways grew in importance and their role in urban development. Urban cities came up with importance of railways and railways stations in particular. Moreover, unlike other industries which become modern over a period of time, railways changed technology at a much faster scale. It bought distant towns closer to mainstream cities and helped bigtime in commerce.
More than any other technical design or social institution, the railway stands for modernity. No competing form of transport, no subsequent technological innovation, no other industry has wrought or facilitated change on the scale that has been brought about by the invention and adoption of the railway. Peter Laslett once referred to “the world we have lost”—the unimaginably different character of things as they once were. Try to think of a world before the railway and the meaning of distance and the impediment it imposed when the time it took to travel from, for example, Paris to Rome—and the means employed to do so—had changed little for two millennia. Think of the limits placed on economic activity and human life chances by the impossibility of moving food, goods, and people in large numbers or at any speed in excess of ten miles per hour; of the enduringly local nature of all knowledge, whether cultural, social, or political, and the consequences of such compartmentalization.
It then goes on to tell you how railways have brought about this economic revolution:
Railway tracks were purpose-built: nothing else could run on them—and trains could run on nothing else. And because they could only be routed and constructed at certain gradients, on limited curves, and unimpeded by interference from obstacles like forests, boulders, crops, and cows, railways demanded—and were everywhere accorded—powers and authority over men and nature alike: rights of way, of property, of possession, and of destruction that were (and remain) wholly unprecedented in peacetime. Communities that accommodated themselves to the railway typically prospered. Towns and villages that made a show of opposition either lost the struggle; or else, if they succeeded in preventing or postponing a line, a bridge, or a station in their midst, got left behind: expenditure, travelers, goods, and markets all bypassed them and went elsewhere.
Railways led to developing timetables in our lives. The railway stations were a major attraction around which towns developed:
The railway station became a new and dominant urban space: a large city terminus employed well over one thousand people directly; at its peak Penn Station in New York employed three thousand people, including 355 porters or “redcaps.” The hotel built above or adjacent to the station and owned by the railway company employed hundreds more. Within its halls and under the arches supporting its tracks the railway provided copious additional commercial space. From the 1860s through the 1950s, most people entered or exited a city through its railway terminuses, whose size and splendor—whether seen at close quarters or at the distant end of a new avenue built to enhance its significance (the new Boulevard de Strasbourg ending at the Gare de l’Est in Paris, for example)—spoke directly and deliberately to the commercial ambitions and civic self-image of the modern metropolis.
The second article talks about the decline in railways as a mode of transport because of cars and airports. The reason which made railways popular became its demise as well. As people came from villages to cities they moved to faster and personal mode of transport. Great insights…
Then there has been a revival because of rising oil prices and railways seen as a safe and least costly mode of transport.
The cost of oil—effectively stagnant from the 1950s through the 1990s (allowing for crisis-driven fluctuations)—is now steadily rising and unlikely ever to fall back to the level at which unrestricted car travel becomes economically viable again. The logic of the suburb, incontrovertible with oil at $1 a gallon, is thus placed in question. Air travel, unavoidable for long-haul journeys, is now inconvenient and expensive over medium distances: and in Western Europe and Japan the train is both a pleasanter and a faster alternative. The environmental advantages of the modern train are now very considerable, both technically and politically. An electrically powered rail system, like its companion light-rail or tram system within cities, can run on any convertible fuel source whether conventional or innovative, from nuclear power to solar power. For the foreseeable future this gives it a unique advantage over every other form of powered transportation.
It is not by chance that public infrastructural investment in rail travel has been growing for the past two decades everywhere in Western Europe and through much of Asia and Latin America (exceptions include Africa, where such investment is anyway still negligible, and the US, where the concept of public funding of any kind remains grievously underappreciated). In very recent years railway buildings are no longer buried in obscure subterranean vaults, their function and identity ingloriously hidden under a bushel of office buildings. The new, publicly funded stations at Lyon, Seville, Chur (Switzerland), Kowloon, or London Waterloo International assert and celebrate their restored prominence, both architectural and civic, and are increasingly the work of innovative major architects like Santiago Calatrava or Rem Koolhaas.
Why this unanticipated revival? The explanation can be put in the form of a counterfactual: it is possible (and in many places today actively under consideration) to imagine public policy mandating a steady reduction in the nonnecessary use of private cars and trucks. It is possible, however hard to visualize, that air travel could become so expensive and/or unappealing that its attraction for people undertaking nonessential journeys will steadily diminish. But it is simply not possible to envision any conceivable modern, urban-based economy shorn of its subways, its tramways, its light rail and suburban networks, its rail connections, and its intercity links.
In the end he says, if lose railways it will be a major loss:
If we lose the railways we shall not just have lost a valuable practical asset whose replacement or recovery would be intolerably expensive. We shall have acknowledged that we have forgotten how to live collectively. If we throw away the railway stations and the lines leading to them—as we began to do in the 1950s and 1960s—we shall be throwing away our memory of how to live the confident civic life. It is not by chance that Margaret Thatcher—who famously declared that “there is no such thing as Society. There are individual men and women, and there are families”—made a point of never traveling by train. If we cannot spend our collective resources on trains and travel contentedly in them it is not because we have joined gated communities and need nothing but private cars to move between them. It will be because we have become gated individuals who don’t know how to share public space to common advantage. The implications of such a loss would far transcend the demise of one system of transport among others. It would mean we had done with modern life.
Superb stuff. Read both the pieces for more interesting stuff like how railways led to formation of classes etc..
Railways surely play a great role. We are now seeing more advanced versions of railways like metros and monorails in cities. They are seen as a major way to decongest and clean/green the cities.
Apart from this they play a role in society as well. People in India usually ponder on the high adjustment qualities in people of Mumbai compared to other cities. I would think the local trains here have played a major role. So many people travel with same train everyday and have their own set of friends where they play cards, music and entertain themselves. These people become their extended families as well.
So, there are some interesting aspects as well apart from economic development.