Blood, Iron, and Gold

How the Railroads 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.






In my previous book, Fire & Steam, I undertook a task that seemed daunting – to encapsulate the 175-year history of the railways in Britain in one relatively short volume. For this book, the set task has been even harder: to try to draw together the history of the railways across the world and to demonstrate their enormous impact globally. Again, therefore, I have made no attempt to be comprehensive and have found enormous difficulties in selecting which stories to tell.

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 USA. It was essential, too, to outline the way that the railways progressed, becoming faster, more comfortable and safer.

Again, I have eschewed nostalgia. While 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 travelled in or witnessed anything faster than a galloping horse. Their horizons were necessarily limited and the arrival of the iron road changed that for ever.

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 taster of the importance of the iron road and of the very enduring nature of an invention which went completely out of fashion in the second half of the last century but which is enjoying a fantastic renaissance.

It is easier, as I have remarked before, to list what the railways did not change, than to set out their achievements. Quite simply, between the first quarter and last quarter of the nineteenth century, the railways transformed the world from one where most people barely travelled 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 the Industrial Revolution would affect the lives of virtually everyone on the planet. Everything from holidays to suburban sprawl and 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, and the turn of the century, a million kilometres of railway were built,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 the Cape to Cairo railway lines, was completed.

I have focused less on the UK than on the world as a whole because I have covered Britain's railways in great detail in Fire & Steam, which can be read in conjunction with this book. Britain was a pioneer in many respects, because it was home to the world's first major railway, and also developed the technology and operational practices which 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 the rail network across the world.

I have concentrated particularly on the great railways, those which transformed their nations such as the Indian, American2 and Russian systems, which were built in the most onerous and difficult conditions. 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 than on those of many other countries. But there are good reasons for this. At its peak, the US railroad system represented about a third of the world's total mileage and, as explained in Chapter 4, contributed to the very creation of the globe's most powerful nation. Admittedly, too, there is a more comprehensive and accessible literature on US 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 their pet railway or their favourite 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 the Second World War. Turkey and the rest of the Middle East barely get a mention, and 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 whilst others, which 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 their technology, and I have listed a few in the bibliography.

In Chapter 1, I have set out the early history of the railways, covering in brief the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester, and the start of railways in several other European countries. While many early railways were created with freight in mind, it is remarkable how they quickly attracted passengers and this, in turn, stimulated the spread of the iron road. While 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 the state tended to be far more involved in their creation 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 style of railway, notably in India where the colonial power designed and built a system that also helped 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 tradition was different with heavier locomotives, cheaper track that limited speed and open-plan carriages rather than the compartments favoured in Europe.

In Chapter 5, I focus on the development of the railway network in Europe which gradually crossed borders and allowed 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. The debate over whether the railways should be privately or publicly owned spread around Europe and the role of the state is examined. The function of railways in several European wars is also considered.

Chapters 6 and 7 tell the amazing stories 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 Russia where the Trans-Siberian was arguably the most ambitious infrastructure project ever built, and the failed, but heroic, Cape to Cairo.

In Chapters 8 and 9, I take a breather to look at what travelling on the railways was like 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 which made train travel gradually more pleasant and, indeed, safer. It also shows 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.

In Chapter 10, I describe what is generally considered to be the heyday of the railways, that brief period early in the last century when they ruled unchallenged. Their role in the First World War 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 for ever. Passenger numbers were still rising but the railway companies were struggling in the face of competition, 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 the Second World War was again vital.

Chapter 12 examines the decline in the post-war period when the rise of the motor car seemed to make the iron road redundant. It was not to be, though, as gradually government and railway companies realized there remained great potential for the railways in the markets where traditionally they 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 of 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 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, because the English spellings seem plain daft! I have used miles almost everywhere for simplicity – one mile is 1.6 kilometres. Forgive me in advance for omissions and errors. Do please email me via my website with any corrections, errors and comments for future editions. This has proved immensely helpful in the past and I thank you in advance. Above all, enjoy the ride.

London, March 2009





Writing can be a lonely business, particularly on such a lengthy enterprise as this one. I would therefore like to thank a variety of people who have helped on this project in one way or another, either by offering advice or by helping me source material or simply by being at the other end of the phone or email. Most of all I would like to thank Tony Telford who, as with my previous book, has provided expert and detailed critiques of every chapter and spent far more time on this project than he ought to have done. John Fowler, too, read every chapter and kept up with it, offering countless useful suggestions. I would also like to thank Jim Ballantyne, Rupert Brennan-Brown, Roger Ford, Bernard Gambrill, Nigel Harris, Phil Kelly, Gordon Pettit, Fritz Plous and Jon Shaw who have all helped in various ways. My apologies to any others whom I have inadvertently left out.

I would also like to thank my agent Andrew Lownie, who encouraged me to write this series of railway books, and Toby Mundy, Sarah Norman and Karen Duffy at my esteemed publishers, for their help and support. The errors, of course, are all mine.





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 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 and 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. Rumours 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 the Rainhill Trials 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 development of the cheap transport enabled by the railways, the economic development stimulated by the Industrial Revolution would have stalled or remained localized for far longer. Instead, 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. While jingoistic writers are apt to exaggerate its 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 large part of the world that was pink on the map, but also in Europe and 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 4ft 8½ins – 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 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, slower and not able to 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, and the location of platforms and lineside equipment, and this is normally larger on standard gauge lines in Europe than for those 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 ageing Stephenson visited in the 1840s, the nascent RENFE (Reo Nacional de los Ferrocariles Españoles2) rejected his pleas to adopt the standard gauge and, instead, chose 5ft 6ins,3 which was later used in several other countries, notably India and parts of Latin America.

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 which by then had built over 200 miles of line using Isambard Kingdom Brunel's favoured 7ft gauge and 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. While 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 minster 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 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 which guided the trucks to prevent them becoming derailed using a type of flange – an extra lip on the wheels to keep them on the track. These precursors of the railway had an important economic impact in the early days of the Industrial Revolution as coal consumption in Britain increased tenfold between 1700 and the early 1800s,6 serving both industrial and domestic needs.

In Britain, the network of wagonways that emerged in the northeast was so extensive that they became known as ‘Newcastle Roads’. By 1660, on Tyneside alone7 there were nine such wagonways, which became increasingly necessary as pits were extended deeper as the more accessible coal near the surface was extracted. 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 collieries 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 which included the Causey Arch, a bridge with a 100ft 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 which 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 John Newcomen, an ironmaster from Devon who built them in the early years of the eighteenth century. Applying principles which 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 developed the idea to produce engines to pump water from the mines. He created something of a cottage industry, making sixty engines himself and, after his patents ran out, a further three hundred were built by other engineers over the next half-century, many for export to countries such as the USA, the German states and the Austrian Empire where one was even used to drive the fountains for Prinz von Schwarzenberg's palace in Vienna.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, it was James Watt who made steam power commercially viable 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 sugar mills in the West Indies and cotton mills in the USA, but not for developing steam locomotives. Other inventors 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 mph 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 USA built similar steam road locomotives but a historian of the railways dismissed these early efforts: ‘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.

It was when Richard Trevithick, who had a short but crucial role in the history of the railways, hit upon the idea of putting steam engines on rails that a workable form of transport was developed. Trevithick, a Cornishman, has the best claim to the much disputed title of ‘father of the locomotive’. Whereas Watt and Boulton had insisted on only building low-powered engines, Trevithick developed the concept of using high-pressure steam, enabling him to obtain more power for a given weight. In 1801 he produced the world's first successful steam ‘road carriage’, which drove into a ditch because there was no steering mechanism and then exploded because he and his colleagues went off to the pub, forgetting to extinguish the fire under the boiler. When Trevithick developed an improved model the following year at Coalbrookdale, an ironworks in Shropshire, he had the brainwave of putting it on rails9 which not only dispensed with the need for steering but also gave it a firmer base than the muddy lanes which, at the time, passed for roads. In 1803, a Trevithick engine hauled wagons weighing 9 tons at a speed of 5 mph at Pen-y-Darren in Wales, another ironworks, which was certainly a world first. However, the primitive rails were not up to the task as the locomotive was too heavy, and consequently it was soon converted into a stationary engine powering cables to haul the wagons.

While steam engines proliferated, with 30,000 being in use in Manchester alone by 1830, the development of locomotives was slow, not only because of the technical difficulties but also as a result of doubts about whether they would ever justify the large amount of investment required to perfect them. When Trevithick built a locomotive with the playful name Catch Me Who Can and demonstrated it successfully on a circular track near the present site of Euston Station in London, there was no interest in producing it commercially. Poor Trevithick gave up and went to South America to develop stationary steam engines for use in the gold and silver mines of Peru.


  • CHOICE Magazine, January 2011
    “The book is gracefully written, incorporates leading secondary sources, and includes intelligently selected illustrations….Highly recommended.”

On Sale
Mar 1, 2011
Page Count
432 pages

Christian Wolmar

About the Author

Christian Wolmar is a writer and broadcaster, specializing in transportation matters. He has written for major British newspapers for many years and has contributed to many other publications, including the New York Times and Newsday. His most recent books are Blood, Iron, and Gold; Engines of War; and The Great Railroad Revolution. He lives in London.

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