Blood, Iron, and Gold

How the Railways Transformed the World


By Christian Wolmar

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The opening of the world’s first railroad in Britain and America in 1830 marked the dawn of a new age. Within the course of a decade, tracks were being laid as far afield as Australia and Cuba, and by the outbreak of World War I, the United States alone boasted over a quarter of a million miles. With unrelenting determination, architectural innovation, and under gruesome labor conditions, a global railroad network was built that forever changed the way people lived. From Panama to Punjab, from Tasmania to Turin, Christian Wolmar shows how cultures were enriched, and destroyed, by one of the greatest global transport revolutions of our time, and celebrates the visionaries and laborers responsible for its creation.


Also by Christian Wolmar
Fire & Steam
The Subterranean Railway
On the Wrong Line
Down the Tube
Broken Rails
Forgotten Children
The Great Railway Disaster

Dedicated to my wonderful Deborah,
who puts up with my obsessions and foibles,
and inspires me to keep going.

Trying to draw together the history of the railways across the world and to demonstrate their enormous impact globally in one relatively short volume has been a daunting task but one that is eminently worthwhile. Of course, it means I have made no attempt to be comprehensive and have found enormous difficulties in selecting which stories to tell from the myriad accounts that the 180-year history of the railways has generated. Certain tales, however, had to be included, such as the genesis of various railways, the development of the major European networks, the influence of British technology in so many countries, the creation of the huge systems in India and, much later, China, as well as the building of the great transcontinental lines in Russia and the United States. It was essential, too, to outline the way that the railways progressed, becoming faster, more comfortable, and safer.
I have eschewed nostalgia. Although this book inevitably evokes the past, occasionally even wistfully, it is about the way the railways transformed people's lives and were a catalyst for a whole range of other changes. The impact of the railways is almost impossible to exaggerate. To understand the way they changed the world, put yourself in the position of a person who had never seen a large machine, nor traveled in or witnessed anything faster than a galloping horse. Their horizons were necessarily limited, and the arrival of the iron road changed that forever.
There are many books with titles like The World's Railways or Tracks Around the World, but most either celebrate the technology of trains or only give cursory accounts of their social impact. I have attempted to show how the railways helped to create the world we live in and stimulated development and change in virtually every country. It has been a gargantuan task, but hopefully this book will at least give a taste of the importance of the iron road and of the very enduring nature of an invention that went completely out of fashion in the second half of the twentieth century but is enjoying a fantastic renaissance.
It is easier to list what the railways did not change than to set out their achievements. Quite simply, between the first quarter and the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the railways transformed the world from one where most people barely traveled beyond their village or nearest market town to one where it became possible to cross continents in days rather than months. Their development created a vast manufacturing industry that ensured that the Industrial Revolution would affect the lives of virtually everyone on the planet. Everything from holidays to suburban sprawl and from fresh milk to mail order was made possible by the coming of the railways.
And this was on a global scale. Between 1830, the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, the world's first twin-tracked and fully locomotive-hauled railway linking two major towns, and the turn of the century, well over 600,000 miles of railway were built around the world,1 and few countries were left without at least a section of track. Indeed, as this book shows, the railway penetrated far beyond the obvious places, reaching heights and remote corners of the world that seemed impossible. And everywhere that a spectacular railway was built, there would be an amazing group of men who battled to overcome the obstacles. Of the major schemes covered in this book, virtually every one, except for the Cape to Cairo lines, was completed.
I have focused less on the United Kingdom than on the world as a whole because I have covered Britain's railways in great detail in my previous book, Fire & Steam. Britain was a pioneer in many respects because it was not only home to the world's first major railway but also the country that developed the technology and operational practices that spread around the world. Britain's story cannot be omitted entirely, but this book somewhat understates the importance of its railways and its role in the development of rail networks around the world.
I have concentrated particularly on the great railways, the ones that were built in the most onerous and difficult conditions but that transformed their nations, such as the Indian, American,2 and Russian systems. Just think of the imagination and breadth of ambition that led to the construction of the Trans-Siberian, or, indeed, the network of lines linking India's great cities. The story of these railways deserves to be set out in some detail to celebrate their construction.
There is, for example, far more on the American railroads in this book than on those of many other countries. But there are good reasons for this. At its peak, the U.S. railroad system represented about a third of the world's total mileage. It contributed to the very creation of the globe's most powerful nation, as explained in Chapter 4. Admittedly, too, there is a more comprehensive and accessible literature on U.S. railroad history than on any other country's, and the availability of good studies on various railways has meant that on occasion I have given them disproportionate coverage.
Everyone has a pet railway or favorite journey, and I am bound to have left some out. I have not, for example, mentioned the Indonesian railways, which, built by the Dutch, were reportedly among the best narrow-gauge railways in the world before World War II. Turkey and the rest of the Middle East barely get a mention; neither does the Philippines. Nor have I included the story of many strange and wonderful lines, such as the overhead railway in Wuppertal near Düsseldorf, which has been operating since 1901 and still carries thousands of commuters daily. But most significant railways are given some space, whereas others that may not really be as important have been accorded lots of space because there is a good story to tell and the information is accessible. Indeed, if you are a budding railway author, there are lots of social histories of railways around the world remaining to be written to add to the few that I have managed to track down. Much of railway literature is written for what a fellow author termed "rivet counters," and that is a wasted opportunity. The railways deserve better histories than simple accounts of their construction and technology, and I have listed a few in the bibliography.
I have set out the early history of the railways in Chapter 1, covering in brief the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester and the start of railways in several other European countries. Many early railways were created with freight in mind, but it is remarkable how quickly they attracted passengers, and this, in turn, stimulated the spread of the iron road. Although the early railways used or copied British technology, several different railway traditions soon established themselves. These are examined in the next three chapters. Chapter 2 covers the establishment of the European tradition. These railways were built to more generous proportions, and states tended to be far more involved in their creation on the Continent than in Britain. They were used as a deliberate political tool to unify nations that for the most part still had unstable borders. Chapter 3 looks at the spread of the British railway style, notably in India, where the colonial power designed and built a system that also helped to forge a nation. This chapter also covers Ireland and Australia. Chapter 4 is devoted to the United States. It reminds us of the importance of the railways to the development of the country, which is now largely forgotten. It also covers the crucial role played by the railways in the Civil War and their contribution to the ultimate victory by the North. The American way was different from the European traditions, with heavier locomotives, cheaper track that limited speed, and open-plan carriages rather than the compartments favored in Europe.
In Chapter 5, I focus on the development of the railway network in Europe, which gradually crossed borders, allowing for rapid travel all over the continent. Routes were established through the barriers of the Alps and other mountain ranges, which in turn stimulated the development of industry and tourism. I also examine the role of the state in railways, including the European debate over whether they should be privately or publicly owned, and consider the function of railways in several European wars.
Chapters 6 and 7 tell the amazing story of how and why the transcontinental railways were built. Chapter 6 covers the disastrous Panama Railway, whose construction cost the lives of thousands of men and took far longer than expected, but provided a vital link between the east and west coasts of America, and the creation of the first American transcontinental, probably the most significant of all the early railways. Chapter 7 deals with crossing other continents, notably the Russian part of Asia, where the Trans-Siberian was arguably the most ambitious infrastructure project ever built, and Africa, with the failed but heroic Cape to Cairo line.
In Chapters 8 and 9, I take a breather to look at what traveling on the railways was like in the early days and the social and economic changes that they brought in their wake. Chapter 8 covers a variety of journeys on railways around the world and the technological progress that made train travel gradually more pleasant and, indeed, safer. The chapter also describes the ubiquitous nature of the railways, which by 1900 were established in all significant countries and many others, ranging from small Caribbean islands to obscure African colonies, and were still growing apace. Chapter 9 considers the impact of the railways, the way they affected the lives of virtually everyone on the planet. Their existence had a huge number of unexpected side effects: Famines became less serious, as it was possible to transport food more quickly; urbanization grew, as people were able to commute to work; and the scale of wars was unprecedented, as railways brought in troops and arms far more efficiently than horse-drawn transport had.
In Chapter 10, I describe what is generally considered to be the heyday of the railways, that brief period early in the twentieth century when they ruled unchallenged. Their role in World War I was crucial, and, indeed, possibly decisive, but already the seeds of their decline were being sown with the development of motor transport.
Chapter 11 looks at the interwar years and the first hints that the railways might not rule forever. Passenger numbers were still rising, but the railway companies were struggling in the face of competition and often hindered by governments unwilling to support organizations that had previously exploited their monopoly position. Despite these difficulties, this, too, was to some extent a golden age, with steam locomotive technology becoming far more efficient and the emergence of both diesel and electric trains, which offered unprecedented levels of comfort. Despite the threat of aerial bombardment, the role of the railways in World War II was vital.
Chapter 12 examines the decline of railways in the postwar period when the rise of the motor car seemed to make the iron road redundant. It was not to be, though, as gradually governments and railway companies realized there remained great potential for the railways in the markets where they traditionally dominated: commuting, fast intercity travel, and carrying coal and minerals. And Chapter 13 celebrates their renaissance, in particular the high-speed rail revolution that has given the railways in the twenty-first century a new lease on life, and suggests that the future is rail.
I have been deliberately inconsistent in the use of names of towns and cities. Where there is a common English and American usage, such as Vienna or Turin, I have used it, but elsewhere I have kept the local name. Lyon and Marseille have stayed in the French, without the "s" at the end. Forgive me in advance for omissions and errors. Do please e-mail me via my website,, with any corrections, errors, and comments for future editions. Readers' comments have proved immensely helpful in the past and I thank you in advance. Above all, enjoy the ride.

The main railway lines of Europe, showing today's borders and country names.
The main Andean railways at their peak—showing connections into Argentina—some of which have now been closed.
The transcontinental routes in the United States and Canada: Despite the closure of many minor lines, the main transcontinental routes have survived largely unscathed.
The main railway lines of Australia. The Ghan railway—the north-south transcontinental line through the center of the country linking Adelaide and Darwin—was not completed until 2004.
The continent of Africa, showing the colonial boundaries and the sections of the Cape to Cairo railway that were actually completed, plus various feeder railways.
The main railway lines of India, a network conceived by Lord Dalhousie and built in colonial times.
The Trans-Siberian Railway, showing the southern route through Manchuria, which was completed in 1904, and the northern route—entirely in Russian territory—which opened in 1916.

The First Railways
IT WAS THE WORLD'S FIRST GLOBAL NEWS STORY. IN SEPTEMBER 1830, just fifteen years after the Battle of Waterloo, the inaugural train chugged along the tracks at the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway. This sumptuous event, attended by the victor at Waterloo—the prime minister, the Duke of Wellington—and a host of notables, attracted hundreds of thousands of onlookers. Memorabilia, ranging from penny handkerchiefs and snuffboxes to dinner sets and framed artists' impressions, were on sale, and the whole world seemed to be watching. Newspapers from as far afield as America and India covered the occasion with an awareness that this was an epoch-making event that would change the world. However, not even the most far-sighted and imaginative reporter of the day could possibly have predicted just how fast this transformation would take place or how widely the impact of this new invention would be felt.
The event's significance had not been missed. The Liverpool & Manchester was far more advanced than any of its predecessors or any other line being considered elsewhere in the world. It was double tracked, powered entirely by steam, and connected two of the world's most important cities of the day. It was not, of course, the world's first railway, but while its predecessors had been created principally for the transport of coal or other minerals from a mine to navigable water, the Liverpool & Manchester carried traffic, including passengers, in both directions. Thanks to Britain's place as the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, not only was British technology the most advanced in the world, but its application was far more widespread and developed than elsewhere. Consequently, many foreign dignitaries and, more important, engineers eager to reproduce the technology back home were among the thousands of people who lined the tracks watching the proceedings.
There was, for example, William Archibald Bake,1 a Dutch artillery officer, who would return home to press for a railway to link Amsterdam with a proposed network of Prussian railways in the Rhineland. Rumors spread through the city that several Americans and Russians were at the opening on fact-finding missions, and xenophobia bubbled under the surface, with dark talk of spies and agents from potentially hostile countries intent on stealing the technology. Indeed, a pair of Americans, Horatio Allen, chief engineer of the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company, and his companion, E. L. Miller, had already dropped in to witness the Rainhill Trials, a competition for locomotives, the previous year. All these people and many more were ready to become proselytizers for railways, taking the message back home that the Iron Horse had arrived and was here to stay.
Without the cheap new method of transportation the railways provided, the economic development stimulated by the Industrial Revolution would have stalled or remained localized for far longer than it did. The railways were the catalyst for the spread of technology and would initiate the process of globalization that culminated with the development of the Internet and the World Wide Web. From its isolation in small communities, the human race was brought together by the railway, for better or worse. Within a decade of the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester, trains pulled by steam locomotives had spread across Europe and started running in North America. Within a quarter of a century, railways had sprung up in the most unlikely places, ranging from Cuba and Peru to Egypt and India. While these new opportunities to travel had huge beneficial effects, they also facilitated the fighting of wars and hastened the decline of many industries.
Britain's role in this process was seminal. Although jingoistic British writers sometimes exaggerate the country's importance in world history, with regard to the history of the railways it is almost impossible to do so. British technology formed the basis of so many different railways that the British tradition was dominant for decades, and its capital helped to fund projects not only in the United Kingdom but also in the rest of Europe and in Latin America. The locomotives of George Stephenson, who was largely responsible for the engineering of the Liverpool & Manchester, for example, would provide the basic design for many railways. A prominent part of the British legacy is the gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches—the distance between the rails that Stephenson chose for the Liverpool & Manchester—which would rightly become known as "standard" because it is the most widely used gauge around the world.
Arguments about gauge cannot, unfortunately, be dismissed as a mere technical matter that is outside the scope of this book. Quite the opposite. Gauge plays an all-too-important role in this story because disputes over that crucial distance between the rails encompass a diverse range of other issues, such as cost and speed, and making the wrong choice has often resulted not only in massive sums of money being wasted but also in jeopardizing the profitability of whole railway networks. Gauge was a compromise between cost and practicality, and Stephenson got it about right, which explains the popularity of his choice. Wider railways obviously cost far more to build and take up much more land, but could offer greater standards of comfort. Narrower railways were cheaper to construct, but they were slower and could not accommodate as many people. The width between the rails is not, however, the only aspect of gauge. There is the "loading gauge"—the size of the "envelope" required to accommodate trains, which determines the size of tunnels, the location of platforms, and the placement of lineside equipment—and this is normally larger on standard-gauge lines on the Continent than in Britain. Stephenson did not always succeed in persuading the various foreign railways he advised to adopt his gauge, and the legacy of that failure still proves costly today. In Spain, for example, which the aging Stephenson visited in the 1840s, the nascent Reo Nacional de los Ferrocariles Españoles (RENFE)2 rejected his pleas to adopt the standard gauge and instead chose 5 feet, 6 inches,3 which was later used in several other countries, notably India and parts of Latin America.
The debate over gauge occurred in every country with a railway, even in Britain, where the standard gauge was adopted relatively early following a Royal Commission on this vexed issue in 1845. That was already too late for the Great Western Railway, ultimately linking London to western England and Wales, which by then had more than 200 miles of line using the 7-foot, 0.25-inch gauge favored by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the line's engineer. The Great Western would not fully convert until the end of the century, causing great inconvenience, not least to Queen Victoria, who was forced to change trains on her journeys from Windsor to Scotland, and enormous expense. This brief reference to gauge, a subject that comes up all too often, demonstrates why it is necessary to start this brief international history with an account of the prehistory and early history of the railways in Britain. Though that story has been widely covered elsewhere,4 a short recap is essential for an understanding of the full account of the global spread of the railways.
The railways were made possible by a series of technical inventions over the space of a couple of centuries involving the development of steam engines, locomotives, and rails. Railways were the answer to the long-established problem of how to transport heavy loads of coal and other minerals to rivers or the sea, and later to canals, where they could be transported for far greater distances. There is some evidence that putting goods in wagons to be hauled by people or animals along tracks predates Jesus Christ, and the earliest surviving representation of such a scene, dating from 1350, can be found in the cathedral at Freiburg im Breisgau in Germany. There were enough such lines to be discussed in a book published in 1556, and certainly by the sixteenth century in Britain there were numerous wagonways5 using crude wooden rails to help haul heavy wagons out of mines. Horses had begun to replace manpower to boost efficiency, and combining the two ideas, horses and rails, which allowed for far greater loads to be pulled, was the obvious next step. By the early eighteenth century in the principal German coal-producing area of the Ruhr, rather more sophisticated wooden wagonways were developed that used a type of flange—an extra lip on the wheels to keep them on the track—to guide the trucks and prevent them from becoming derailed. These precursors of the railway had an important economic impact in the early days of the Industrial Revolution as coal consumption in Britain increased (there was a tenfold increase between 1700 and the early 1800s6), serving both industrial and domestic needs.
The network of wagonways that emerged in the northeast of Great Britain was so extensive that they became known as "Newcastle Roads." By 1660, in the Tyneside region of northeastern England,7 there were nine such wagonways. The rails became increasingly necessary as the more accessible coal near the surface was extracted and the pits extended deeper. In 1726, a group of coal owners, the Grand Allies, developed the idea further by agreeing to use a shared wagonway to link up their mines, which allowed them to rationalize coal movements. They even created a "main line," a joint route, much of it double tracked, from several mines to the water. This line included the Causey Arch, a bridge with a 100-foot span that lays claim to being the world's first railway bridge and survives today. These railways made extensive use of gravity, since most of them led down to a waterway, and therefore the horses had the relatively easy task of hauling the empty wagons back up the hills. As the putative railways increased in sophistication and length, wagons were coupled together to improve efficiency, and by the 1750s, iron rails were introduced that proved far more durable than the wooden ones.
The other major technical development required for the establishment of the railways was, of course, the steam engine and, later, the development of self-propelled locomotives, a far more complex and difficult process. Again, the idea of steam power dated to classical times, but the first working steam engines were probably those of Thomas Newcomen, an ironmaster from Devon who built them in the early years of the eighteenth century. Applying principles that had been observed by a French scientist, Denis Papin, who had noticed that a piston contained within a cylinder was a potential way of exploiting the power of steam, Newcomen produced engines to pump water from the mines. He created something of a cottage industry, making sixty engines himself, and after his patents ran out another three hundred were built by other engineers over the next half-century, many for export to countries such as the United States, the German states, and the Austrian Empire, where one was even used to drive the fountains for Prinz von Schwarzenberg's palace in Vienna.
Toward the end of the eighteenth century, it was James Watt who made steam power commercially viable. He did this by improving the efficiency of steam engines and adapting them for a wide variety of purposes. The engines manufactured by the company he formed with Matthew Boulton were used to provide power for everything from ships and looms to the sugar mills of the West Indies and the cotton mills of the United States, but they were not used for steam locomotives. Other inventors, however, did try to put steam engines on wheels. The first to do so was the Frenchman Nicholas Cugnot, whose fardier was intended to be used as an artillery tractor. On a test run in Paris, it reached a speed of 2.5 miles per hour but hit a wall, overturned, and was declared a public danger by the city authorities. It would never have run far anyway, since there was no way of replenishing the steam once it ran out. Various other inventors in England, Scotland, and the United States built similar steam road locomotives, but a historian of the railways dismissed these early efforts, writing that "none of these pioneers made any contribution to the design or development of the steam locomotive." 8 Their problem, which explains why railways were developed more than fifty years before road vehicles, was that the roads, poorly built and little-maintained, were simply too bad to support their weight.


  • Wall Street Journal
    “[Wolmar] covers a great deal of territory in "Blood, Iron and Gold," but he keeps the reader engaged by highlighting extraordinary projects like the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway from 1891 to 1904. It connected St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, a distance of almost 6,200 miles. Equally stirring is the saga of Cecil Rhodes and his never-completed Cape-to-Cairo line; and that of Peru's vertiginous Central Railway, which ascends the Andes and passes through the Galera Tunnel, 15,694 feet above sea level. The book also features cameo appearances by such colorful figures as Benito Mussolini, who may or may not have made Italy's trains run on time but who definitely made them run faster and more frequently. Nor does Mr. Wolmar neglect the pop-culture angle: Agatha Christie fans will be sorry to learn that history records no instance of a real-life murder on the Orient Express.”

    Dallas Morning News
“It's not clear who first thought of putting carts and carriages on flanged wheels and hauling them over iron rails behind steam engines. But the railroad, writes transportation historian Christian Wolmar, changed everything. And he means everything….It's a vast geopolitical story, but Wolmar manages to tell it without losing sight of the romance and adventure, the triumphs and frequent tragedies that accompanied the advancing rails.”

Trains Magazine
  • Richard F. Harnish, Executive Director, Midwest High Speed Rail Association
    Blood, Iron, and Gold reminds us that the railroads did more than just speed up travel or build up national economies. They literally changed the way human beings experienced, thought about and lived their lives. Christian Wolmar's book should put all high-speed-rail advocates on notice. Trains can return to the American landscape, traveling twice as fast, reprising the social revolution they set off almost two centuries ago."

    Library Journal STARRED Review
    “[Wolmar's] work is both a serious history and an adventure story. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the growth and global historical impact of railroads.”

    Publishers Weekly
    “Wolmar explores this fertile subject with a blend of lucid exposition and engaging historical narrative. The result is a fascinating study not just of a transportation system, but of the Promethean spirit of the modern age.”
  • On Sale
    Mar 2, 2010
    Page Count
    432 pages

    Christian Wolmar

    About the Author

    Christian Wolmar is a British writer and broadcaster. He’s the author of 20 books, including a series of eight classic books of railway history. In 2021, Wolmar was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He has lectured several times at the online One Day University and has twice spoken at the Pennsylvania Railroad Museum, as well as at numerous other venues in the United States, including the Brookings Institution. His books have been widely translated into numerous languages including Italian, Spanish, Polish, and Mandarin. He's based in the UK.

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