In Train, author Tom Zoellner rides the rails of the world. He discusses the history, the current state, and the future of rail. Growing up in suburban St. Louis, I rarely saw trains. Now I live 100 feet from active rail tracks and walk along them every day. I take the Amtrak to DC and Baltimore and New York. This summer, I went to the O. Winston Link rail photography museum in Roanoke, Virginia. So I was eager to learn more about the history of rail– such a backbone to our economy, but often viewed as an anachronism.
I was disappointed by Train. It was a pleasant enough read; I didn’t have trouble turning the pages as I basked at the pool. But it felt like junk food.
At its best, the book gave interesting perspectives on the psychology of rail: how we have stories of hero sea captains, drivers, and pilots, but not of train conductors. That we both love and hate the rail, such an engine of commerce, but also hugely representative of collectivism that’s been dominated by robber barons.
I enjoyed the chapters on foreign rail much more than the ones about the U.S. and Britain. The chapter on India was fascinating and horrifying. Some rails in India corrode ten times faster than normal because the tracks are constantly covered in human excrement. This is because the trains don’t have storage tanks for the toilets, but also because people living by the tracks preferentially potty on the tracks. As you can imagine, the job to replace the tracks isn’t nice; Zoellner’s conversations with the workers are interesting. Zoellner suggests that India wouldn’t be a single country without the railways installed by the British. This chapter solidified my view that I would rather read about India than visit it.
Overall, too much of the text was devoted to Zoellner’s conversations with random train passengers, upon which he congratulated himself loudly and often. I didn’t care about the guy taking the train to West Virginia hoping to find work in a coal mine, nor did I care about the young man reuniting with his estranged mother. I would have tolerated some of this, but the chapter on American rails was a bloated 90 pages, compared to 30 pages each for Russia, China, and Peru. The chapter on America wasn’t more informative; it was more pointless. The chapter on Britain was also packed full of useless conversations.
When I was preparing to write this review, I noticed that Zoellner is an English professor. And that’s what the book feels like: an English professor waxing nostalgic about the majestic railways and their heroic riders, with sprinklings of historic details. I hoped to read something more focused on history. Train passes the time nicely, but I found it unsatisfying. Maybe it would be a better read for someone who already knows the history and wants to read the stylish praises of another rail enthusiast.