Great Fortunes from Railroads

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The most poignant thing I uncovered in my research was the fate of many of the Chinese workers.

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They were cut off from home, in difficult conditions, and many were going through opium withdrawal. They committed suicide en masse, in some cases asking other workers to cut off their heads with their machetes, or by simply walking into the sea. You hear more about the work of the Chinese on the American railroad. Not long after the episode in Panama, they made a fantastic contribution to building the transcontinental railroad across North America, which changed everything for the United States.

Did railroads really, as your subtitle puts it, transform the world? No one had traveled faster than a horse could gallop, and going more than 20 or 30 miles was a long journey. It was rather quick. Within a short period of time from the beginning of the railways—in 20 to 30 years—you had tens of thousands of miles of track crossing the North American continent. Obviously, you could suddenly travel long distances quite easily.

If you lived in a smaller city or town, you could travel miles to a big city for business in a day, whereas before railroads that trip could well take a week. It changed life in other ways as well. People in New York and London suddenly had access to fresh milk, for instance. No longer did you have the sad situation of cows being kept in cellars in the middle of the city.

Among other things, it really enabled the holiday industry. Here in Britain, around the late s or s, you started getting connections to seaside resorts. Before that, not many people were able to visit the sea. Trains have this aura of something out of the past. Do they really have any advantages today over other forms of transportation? They have great advantages.

One driver can take a couple hundred containers on the back of one train, whereas it would take trucks. In London we have 3 million journeys a day on the London Underground system. If all those people got in their cars, it would be permanent gridlock. Railroads were a unifying force for European nations. Neither Germany nor Italy were unified countries before the advent of railways. In both cases they helped create those nation states.


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In Belgium, they were seen as an important way of guaranteeing independence from Holland, from which the country had just broken away a few years previously. In America in particular, railroads are a fundamental uniting force. They started out allowing faster travel in the East and the South, but when they made that big jump across the continent, linking the two coasts, they became more important even than railroads were to Europe. They really created a United States that stretches from sea to sea. At its high point, America had one-third of all the rail mileage in world.

Why do railroads in other countries so dramatically surpass those in the United States? America realized that too late, and tried to compensate by creating Amtrak. Amtrak is a sad political construct.


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From D. Track conditions really limit the speed of the trains in most places. There are perhaps parts of the West Coast and Midwest as well where passenger rail could be expanded. The Europeans have invested in high-speed rail, but until now America has not been willing to do that. But Obama has announced a big rail program, and perhaps now that will be reversed in a very historic way, and maybe America will get the rail program it needs.

Chris Carroll lives in Maryland.

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