Train of Thought

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   August 19, 2021

Many people seem to forget that the automobile was not the first “horseless carriage.” For most of the 100 years before motor cars began to appear on our roads, self-propelled vehicles originally powered by steam, had been crisscrossing the world’s continents. The main difference was that “locomotives,” as they were called, required a very special kind of road, consisting usually of steel rails. Without rails, they were helpless — which is why soldiers and saboteurs have specialized in demolishing train tracks.

By the time of the American Civil War, railroads had become so important that a feature of General Sherman’s notorious “march” across Georgia was the destruction of rail tracks by heating and twisting, so as to make them virtually impossible to straighten and use again. The resulting shapes were known derisively as “Sherman’s Neckties,” or “Mrs. Lincoln’s Hairpins.”

Fifty years later, in World War I, the chief exploits of “Lawrence of Arabia” consisted of ambushing Turkish rail lines in the Arab territory, which was then still part of the Ottoman Empire, allied with Germany.

But long before then, it had been discovered, especially in the United States, that trains were ideal targets for robberies. While in motion, a passenger car was virtually sealed off, and the passengers’ easy pickings. More valuable cargo was also more vulnerable and accessible than it would have been in a bank. So, it is hardly surprising that when movies began to attract wide audiences, one of the first feature-length film epics was called The Great Train Robbery.

Strange as it seems, despite the advent of automobiles and aviation, trains on rails — including streetcars, subways, and elevated systems — have continued to feature prominently in the culture of transportation around the globe. Indeed, there are more “bullet trains” and monorails still in the planning or construction stages.

And inevitably, people continue to write, sing, and dream about trains, often nostalgically, because they have been so much a part of our lives.

Melodrama soon seized upon such possibilities as having a helpless heroine tied to the track in the face of an oncoming train.

But real tragedy has also in many ways ridden the rails. In fact, the opening celebration of the world’s first inter-urban rail line, between Liverpool and Manchester in England in 1830, was marred by a terrible accident, in which William Huskisson, a member of Parliament and former Cabinet Minister, was killed by a train which ran over him.

Trains naturally often require bridges, and one of the worst train disasters occurred in 1879 in Scotland, when a bridge crossing the River Tay collapsed in a storm, killing all 75 people aboard a train crossing at the time.

But there have of course been much happier train-related occasions, such as that which took place at Promontory Summit in Utah Territory in 1869, when the rail line being built west from Omaha met the one coming east from Sacramento, thus uniting the continent, many years before the first transcontinental highway.

My own most memorable train ride was in 1969, across what was then still the “Iron Curtain,” from Vienna to Moscow, together with a group of fellow-attendees who had been at the Vienna “World Youth Festival,” an event sponsored by the Russians, but frowned upon by the U.S. State Department. One memorable stop was in Bratislava, then in Communist territory, but just over the border from prosperous Austria. We were allowed an hour off the train, and, taking a short walk into the town, I saw one memorable sight — a group of people gathered around the carcass of a horse which had apparently died in the street. They were cutting off strips of meat, presumably to supplement their diets.

Two weeks later, I was coming back across on a different train, which stopped at the border between the USSR and Finland. Walking beside the train, I observed how carefully the underside of the train was being inspected, to make sure that no desperate person was trying illegally to get out of the country.

But of course, there are, and have been, many brighter sides to train travel, as it has been celebrated in song and story. One of my favorite poems on this theme, is by Edna St. Vincent Millay. It is called “Travel,” and I’ll leave you with the last stanza:

My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.


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