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Book Review: Train (Tom Zoellner 2014)

Rating: 3/5

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.

Technology and art in the rail photography of O. Winston Link

If you are interested in rail photography, or if you’re like me and really never gave it a thought, the O Winston Link photography museum in Roanoke, Virginia is a fascinating visit. O (short for Ogle– I think I’d go by the initial too) Winston Link photographed steam locomotives in the 1950s, at the very end of their widespread use. The Norfolk and Western rail lines he snapped ran through Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and other parts of the coal belt of Appalachia.

In his photographs, Link captures the end of a powerful technology, but he also captures life in 1950s Appalachian rail towns. People play in a pool twenty feet from a roaring locomotive. People read in their living room with a cat sleeping on their lap as a train passes the window. Folks chat on a porch as the N&W rolls past. In the image below, the train passes a drive-in movie.

Hotshot Eastbound, by O. Winston Link.

Link captured images with such technical precision that they would still be difficult shots today, barely possible without rare equipment until very recently. Link was a civil engineer, hired out of college as a photographer; during World War 2, he used his scientific and photographic backgrounds at the Airborne Instruments Laboratory.

Link’s railway shots rely heavily on both science and photographic techniques– in order to better control the lighting and thus the composition of his photos, he often shot at night. Because, he said, “I can’t move the sun — and it’s always in the wrong place — and I can’t even move the tracks, so I had to create my own environment through lighting.” This required the use of flash bulbs, one-use bulbs that burned metal to produce brief, intense illumination. According to the museum, one of his shots alone used illumination equivalent to 10,000- 100 watt light bulbs, although that light only lasted for a moment. Reading that, I wondered what the experience was like for the train conductor, driving through nearly black rural Virginia, when light so bright it might as well be lightning flashes. His first power source was too unreliable, and so he designed his own power source. Link invested $25,000 into the unpaid project, closer to $125,000 in today’s currency.

As someone who dabbles in photography, the difficulty of Link’s task and the quality of his work (60 years ago!) deeply impressed me. Bear with me as I explain some technical details of modern cameras to convey the awesomeness of Link’s work. Today, we might just be able to reproduce such shots without flashbulbs due to advances in digital photography. Flash bulbs (using combustion) are still brighter than any modern flash (using capacitors). A single flashbulb produced about 1 million lumens (the unit that measures the brightness of light) while a modern camera-mounted flash produces about 100,000. Many flashbulbs may be used at once, so the flashbulb is great for extreme illumination. Only one manufacturer of flash bulbs still exists. Their photo gallery is pretty neat.

Today, we have cameras that are more sensitive to low light, called high-ISO cameras. Camera speed, whether digital or film, is measured in a system called ISO-sensitivity. In this system, a film with double the ISO requires half the exposure time; a two-second exposure with 200 ISO film would take 1 second with 400 ISO film for the same level of exposure. In the 1950s, the fastest film was ISO 400-640. The Sony Alpha 7S, releasing in July, has up to ISO 409,600, 1024 times  faster than ISO 400. A shot requiring 30 seconds of exposure on ISO 400 would require roughly 1/30 of a second on ISO 409,600. This is really new technology; as of 2013, no ISOs above 10,000 existed.

So, in short, Link’s work is a beautiful hybrid of science and art, a testament to their combined power. Link’s scenes of rural 1950’s Appalachian life are beautiful, and remind us of the era of the man behind the lens. New advances behind the lens are happening today. What new wonders will they capture?