Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Train: riding the rails that created the modern world : from the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief by Tom Zoellner

Train, by Tom Zoellner.  New York: Viking, 2014.  346 pages.  

Reviewed by William Wade

Reading Train by Tom Zoellner has given me a fresh appreciation of our Bristol train station.   It is indeed a treasure, and we should all feel a deep sense of gratitude for those who worked to bring about its restoration some years ago.  In a spirit of whimsy I feel the only thing lacking at the station is a sign across the front door that reads “Passenger service suspended indefinitely.”

Both the train station and Zoellner’s book are nostalgic reminders of train travel that was possible in America in the early 20th century.  And for those of you too young to remember what it was like to go by rail I feel a sense of empathetic regret.  For most of us travel today is a choice between the automobile and by air. It’s a hassle either way.  If you choose the former, you subject yourself to wrestling with the eighteen wheel behemoths of our interstates; choose the latter and you must arrive two hours early at the airport, subject yourself and baggage to scrutiny, and fit yourself into a seat that a sardine would find unacceptable.

By contrast, travel by rail was a relaxed adventure. The station was in the center of town, and tickets were purchased immediately before departure.  The train was at hand, its engine snorting steam and smoke, panting with impatience for the trip ahead.  Entering your car, you found the seats were spacious and comfortable, and your window provided a constantly changing panorama of the passing landscape.  No wonder rail fans seek a return to a more civilized and gracious form of travel.

Each chapter of Zoellner’s book provides a vintage ride in an attractive setting.  You can choose a tour of the English countryside, a trip across America from the Atlantic to the Pacific, a ride on the new Chinese rail line to the heights of Tibet, or a high speed run in Spain on the vaunted Alta Velocidad Española.  For each Zoellner is your companion, providing you with historical commentary on how these lines were built, the sites to be seen, and all kinds of interesting tidbits that add to the pleasure.

You can read just those chapters that appeal to you.  But if you are a true rail fan you’re likely to take in the whole book.  I read first the chapters that dealt with American rail and found that it brought back many happy memories of past trips that were in the deep recesses of my brain.  Whichever you choose, I suggest you get Zoellner’s book from the library, take it home and find a chair that’s good and comfortable.  Relax. Begin to read and imagine that you are taking one of the trips laid out in the book.  Happy travel times!

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