Train, By Tom Zoellner

"Train" is written by Tom Zoellner and provides interesting accounts of what it was like to ride aboard them in several different countries while providing a philosophical perspective about how we here in the United States should approach into the future.  The author keeps the stories colorful and fascinating so whether you enjoy trains or are just after a good book you shouldn't have trouble staying engrossed.  Railfans, in particular, may enjoy Mr. Zoellner's work more than they might think as Train is filled with facts and tidbits about the history of railroads both in the United States and abroad from the earliest background on the steam locomotive to how India's rail system was constructed and the current efforts in China to build a massive high-speed network.  Whatever the case the book is a great read and provides a captivating look at trains around the world.

In a scene that still appears as if it's from the Santa Fe era Amtrak's "San Diegan" rolls south through Miramar, California led by F7A #43C during May of 1973.

"Train" begins with a short introduction of rail travel worldwide, brief snippets of history related to American railroads, and the author's own experience riding the rails over the years.  As someone who enjoys studying the industry in this great country I learned many interesting facts, particularly in relation to the Baltimore & Ohio.  The B&O is one of our most fabled railroads and the first common-carrier ever established, originally chartered on February 28, 1827 and officially incorporated and organized on April 24, 1827.  One of the B&O's most important events was the laying of the first stone on July 4th of that year.  However, as Mr. Zoellner notes in his book this important artifact was incredibly lost, neglected, and ultimately buried amid new construction over the years.  More than 70 years later it was rediscovered during August of 1898 by crews performing standard maintenance.

The point of this story was to highlight how railroads have largely been forgotten amongst the general public despite the vast importance they still hold and offer.  For instance, no other mode of transportation can move people or freight as efficiently as railroads.  However, considered outdated and superfluous in the years after World War II tens of thousands of miles of trackage was been abandoned since that time.  An interesting statistic in Mr. Zoellner's book points out that only 2% of the American public today has ever ridden an intercity train and few (in comparison to the population), who have the option, use commuter trains.  The rest of the introduction briefly discusses where the author traveled around the world exploring other rail systems including in Britain, India, China, Russia, Peru, Spain, and of course here in the United States. 

Amtrak's notorious SDP40Fs, two of which lead train #5 here through Andover, California during April of 1974 symbolized the carrier's reliability problems. Purchased new, all were sold within a few years after issues were discovered during higher speeds while in service.

"Train" opens with a chapter appropriately named, "Beginnings," and looks at the British rail system where the author rode the train from "Pentland Firth to Land's End" or more specifically from Thurso situated along Scotland's northern coast to Penzance near the shores of the Celtic Sea.  I'm sure Mr. Zoellner chose Britain as his book's opening for more symbolic reasons; railroads were born in this country. Throughout the chapter he interweaves its history with the creation of the steam locomotive while enjoying his southward rail journey, talking with locals all along the way.  This becomes a common theme within the book as the author mixes a country's rail history with its current operations while providing the reader with fascinating anecdotes of those he speaks with during the trip.

The history of steam here is an interesting one, and as the author provides in great detail was brought about as a means to more efficiently mine coal.  Without going into great detail, the idea of converting water into a powerful vapor that could then be harnessed was first conceived by Denis Papin of France in 1675.  It was later adopted by Thomas Savery who used what he termed the "Miner's Friend" to pump water.  Still others improved upon this design, names like Thomas Newcomen and James Watt during the late 17th and mid-18th centuries before George Stephenson was born on June 9, 1781.  And here is one of the interesting facts about rail history many probably are not aware of; while Stephenson often receives a great deal of credit for the steam locomotive's invention (and made a successful career in the field) an eccentric fellow by the name of Richard Trevithick actually developed the first working example.

Stories like this are what help make "Train" such an interesting read.  Moving into chapter two India is covered, a country's whose railroads were constructed by the British and remain a vital asset to its economy despite the harsh working environment of its workers (which the author covers in fine, and for some perhaps unpleasant, detail).  The bulk of the book is the third chapter; entitled "Bound For Glory" detailing Mr. Zoellner's trip across the United States from New York's Penn Station to Los Angeles Union Station (originally known as Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal) via Amtrak.  While taking a long journey by train is no longer the first-class service it used to be such a trip still provides a level of comfort and relaxation not afforded by either a car or the cramped spaces of an airliner.  The author discusses what it was once like to travel by train years ago and provides further historical perspectives concerning our country's railroad industry.  The book concludes with chapters highlighting operations in Russia ("Blood On The Tracks"), China ("The Roof Of The World"), Peru ("Over The Mountain"), and Spain ("Faster"). 

A more modern Amtrak scene illustrates a Bombardier-built HHP-8 electric crossing the Susquehanna River Bridge near Havre de Grace, Maryland with a southbound consist on March 4, 2006.

The final chapter speaks as much about the current rail environment in the U.S., and its potential future, as it does Spain's.  While I have never held much of an interest in railroads outside of the United States it was nevertheless fascinating to not only read about these systems but also the importance they hold within their respective countries.  And, just like here they are depended upon elsewhere for moving both people and freight thanks to the efficiencies they provide.  Seeing the importance others place on their infrastructure it is truly a shame we have allowed so much of ours to fall by the wayside.  Overall, "Train" is an engaging title that will hopefully make the reader think as much as it teaches.  Where should railroads take us moving forward and what role should they play?  Mr. Zoellner argues articulately how they should hold a more prominent role here in the U.S.

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