Of awe and horror.

Tom Zoellner’s book Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World – From the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief is a must read for any train enthusiast. Riding some of the world’s most iconic railroads, Zoellner chronicles the promise and fear trains have induced since their introduction in the 18th century; a sense of awe and dread that continues to this day.

Zoellner and I are very much on the same page when it comes to trains: there is something romantic about them. About the opportunities of meeting strangers they offer, the slowly changing scenery and rhythmic tugging along, the (sometimes) beautiful old stations at the heart of metropolises, about adventure, opportunity. As Zoellner outlines, trains also play a crucial role in enabling economic growth, particularly through transportation of coal and minerals. Indeed, the need to transport coal from mines was one of the reasons railways were first developed.

This, however, is a double edged sword. While bringing economic development and opportunities, railroads have in many cases also been enablers of destruction, from environmental to cultural. China’s remarkable high altitude, high speed train to Tibet is rapidly contributing to a form of cultural genocide, while trains figured prominently in the Nazis’ final solution and in the transportation of dissidents to Russia’s Siberian gulags. Heavy mining in otherwise inaccessible regions has been made possible by the transportation opportunities offered by trains, causing significant environmental destruction from Peru to the US.

There is thus a contradiction at the heart of railways; trains are more environmentally friendly than most other means of transportation, yet they often play a significant role in exploitation of the natural environment to enable less efficient means of transportation. Zoellner writes about “the sociopathic urge of the railroad to haul as much coal as possible.”

Sociopathic or not, trains are both the mode of transportation of the past, and of the future. High speed rail, particularly in Europe and Asia, is connecting cities like Barcelona and Madrid, easing business while also opening up new commuter towns along the tracks and cutting down on car and air travel. As Zoellner notes, this is a trend the US is falling behind on. The country’s only high speed track, between Los Angeles and San Fransisco, remains largely on the drawing board, while residents rely on wasteful flights to get from place to another.

Zoellner’s book is an ode to trains, with a heap of realism thrown in. Trains are described as a means for both good and evil, both in what they have enabled in the past, and what they will enable in the future. What’s beyond question however is that railways have fundamentally shaped our existence by expanding the size of our 60 minute comfort zone, and that as we move forward with more and more high speed trains, they will continue to do so.