Book Review – Blood, Iron and Gold: How the Railways Transformed the World

A lot is being written on state of Indian railways and the need to change it. This book is a must read for those who are interested in railways beyond the usual LPG of Indian railways (liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation). Apart from many ways to figure economic and social history, one way s to pick history of some technology like railways in this case and see how it has evolved over the years. It tells you a lot about how things have transpired over the years.

This book is really an encyclopaedia on railways in just about some 300 plus pages. It hardly leaves a single country which built railways or a single technology which changed railways for the better (or the worse). The author even mentions the various railway stations built across the world which were showcased as a country’s strength back then (even now for that matter).

The opening of the world’s first railroad in Britain and America in 1830 marked the dawn of a new age. Within the course of a decade, tracks were being laid as far afield as Australia and Cuba, and by the outbreak of World War I, the United States alone boasted over a quarter of a million miles. With unrelenting determination, architectural innovation, and under gruesome labor conditions, a global railroad network was built that forever changed the way people lived. From Panama to Punjab, from Tasmania to Turin, Christian Wolmar shows how cultures were enriched, and destroyed, by one of the greatest global transport revolutions of our time, and celebrates the visionaries and laborers responsible for its creation

Apart from describing how railways was built, the author stresses on the ways it transformed our lives. This makes the book a thrilling read as one gets a good detailed overview of importance of railways in our lives. For instance, before railways, food supply from distant lands was a problem. Post railways, we actually started moving towards a just in time phase where food started travelling much quicker. More importantly, how politicians used railways to consolidate and integrate their nations is quite interesting. Like someone says america was all due to railways. Same with Germany where Bismarck used railways to build the country together.

There is a fascinating discussion on how each country built railway in different ways (our favorite fascination- was it due to govt or markets?). Barring UK and US, govt played  a crucial role in most countries. In countries like France and Germany it was mostly a state project. Americans were always sceptical of role of govt in anything, so was the case in railways. But even here, american politicians played a crucial role in influencing private sector to build trans-american rail. And then in countries like India, which was a British colony, the govt was a major player as it pumped and guaranteed capital in development of the railways majorly for their benefit. Indian politicians seeing the importance of railways had little choice than to criticise this build up of railways as it made it very east for British to move factors from India.

Then there is a discussion on railways infamous role in promoting wars. Railways made it much easier to transfer army and machines during wars leading to much more destruction and killing. For invading armies, Destruction of railway lines was as important a mission  as killing the enemy army.

Another really interesting mention is that of width of gauges. Early on British who pioneered rail set a standard – 4ft 8 1/2 inches for the gauges. Broader gauges provided more comfort but required more land. Narrower gauges were less costly but not as comfortable. Somehow 4ft 8 1/2 inches was just good enough to become a standard. However, some countries did not agree like Russia and Spain. This had both positive and negative consequences. Negative as it was difficult to integrate these countries while building a trans-Europe railways. Positive, as Germans found it difficult to use Russian rail system during WW-II slowing the former down.

This is just a very broad summary. The book has much more to offer.


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