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The Railway Stands for Modernity

January 20, 2011

This title is the second half of the first sentence of the long read “The Glory of the Rails,” by Tony Judt for The New York Review of Books. What follows are choice bits from the piece.

Trains—or, rather, the tracks on which they ran—represented the conquest of space.[…] Railway tracks reinvented the landscape.

Communities that accommodated themselves to the railway typically prospered. Towns and villages that made a show of opposition either lost the struggle; or else, if they succeeded in preventing or postponing a line, a bridge, or a station in their midst, got left behind: expenditure, travelers, goods, and markets all bypassed them and went elsewhere.

Signaling, communication, and braking systems were always one step behind the steady increase in power and speed of the engines.

But rail travel was mass transit from the very outset—even the earliest trains conveyed hundreds of people—and it was thus important to establish and offer distinctions: by price, comfort, service, and above all the company a voyager was likely to keep. Otherwise the better class of traveler would not come and the poorest would be priced out.

Because the car […] was par excellence a private vehicle it threatened not just rail travel but the very idea of public transportation as a respectable and desirable way to move.

The railway station became a new and dominant urban space[…] From the 1860s through the 1950s, most people entered or exited a city through its railway terminuses[…]

The illustrations on railway billboards, or on the colorful literature circulated by tour guides and travel agents, capture something else about the railways: their place in modern art, their versatile serviceability as an icon of the contemporary and the new.

But it was in the most modern of all the modern arts that the railway was appreciated and exploited to greatest effect. Cinema and railways peaked in tandem—from the 1920s through the 1950s—and they are historically inseparable.

[The Glory of the Rails Part 1 by Tony Judt]

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