In an age of globe-spanning flights, train travel might seem at best charmingly quaint, if not annoyingly slow and lumbering. Last weekend's train derailment in Burlington, Ont., with three crew members killed and 46 passengers injured, came as a shock – rail accidents have been thankfully rare in recent years. But the accident is also a reminder of why train travel, at its roots, originally symbolized all the wonders and terrors of modern life.
In the 19th century, trains were the first widespread form of mechanical locomotion, and they transformed the world. Our ancestors were keenly aware of both the power and the danger of them. The building of the national railway, of course, was a central component of the effort to unify Canada early in Confederation – generations of Canadians got their sense of national unity from Pierre Berton's epic accounts in The National Dream (1970) and The Last Spike (1971).
Yet many of the worst accidents in Canadian history have been on the railways: In 1864, about a hundred people were killed when a train derailed near Saint-Hilaire, Que., and fell into the Richelieu River. Unable to recover all the bodies, rescuers were never able to calculate the exact loss of life. In 1910, a derailment over the Spanish River near Sudbury, Ont., cost 63 lives.
In her brilliant 2003 book River of Shadows, cultural critic Rebecca Solnit documented how the early passengers experienced railway travel as overwhelming their sense of time and space. In 1830, Fanny Kemble, one of the great stars of the stage, was allowed on a trial run of one of the first passenger trains. “The engine … set off at its utmost speed, thirty-five miles an hour, swifter than a bird flies,” Kemble exclaimed in a letter. “You cannot conceive what that sensation of cutting the air was.” She later described another ride where her mother feared “instant annihilation” because the train hit a man who was on the rails.
That word, annihilation, surfaces a lot in early railway history: In 1839, Ulysses S. Grant, later the Union general who won the Civil War and became president, took an early train ride. “We travelled at least eighteen miles an hour when at full speed, and made the whole distance averaging as much as twelve miles an hour,” Grant recalled. “This seemed like annihilating space.” In 1844, the transcendentalist sage Ralph Waldo Emerson also spoke of distance being “annihilated” by the locomotive.
“Thirty-five miles an hour was nearly as fast as the fastest horse, and unlike a gallop, it could be sustained almost indefinitely,” Ms. Solnit notes. “It was a dizzying speed. Passengers found the landscape out the train windows was blurred, impossible to contemplate, erased by speeds that would now seem a slow crawl to us. Those who watched the trains approach sometimes thought they were physically getting larger, because the perceptual change in a large object approaching at that speed was an unprecedented phenomenon.”
(The train in Burlington, it emerged this week, was actually doing twice that speed when it jumped the tracks.)
Railways united not just Canada but also the United States, Europe and Asia. Railways held the British Empire together and subsequently formed the vital transportation network for independent nations like India. “The railway system will therefore become, in India, truly the forerunner of modern industry,” Karl Marx prophesized in 1853.
Rather than thinking of trains as archaic, then, we'd do well to recognize them as the engines that carried humanity into modern life. The necessity of regularizing train schedules led Canadian engineer Sandford Fleming to unifying the world's sense of clock-keeping with the invention of worldwide standard time. In a real sense, globalization is a byproduct of train travel.
It is hardly an accident that when Marx started to ponder the workings of capitalism, he fell back on the language of annihilating space and time that was used earlier to describe train travel. “Capital must on the one side strive to tear down every spatial barrier to … exchange, and to conquer the whole earth for its market,” he noted in 1857. “It strives on the other hand to annihilate this space with time, i.e., to reduce to a minimum the time spent in motion from one place to another.”
In Leo Tolstoy's great 1878 novel Anna Karenina, the adulterous heroine – herself an embodiment of troubled modernity – commits suicide by throwing herself in front of a train, a powerful example of the locomotive as an engine of modern annihilation. Alfred Hitchcock, too, would frequently use trains as a perfect backdrop for his studies of anxiety, paranoia and sexual tension.
The Burlington accident reminded us of the frightening havoc trains can wreak. Perhaps it can also prompt us to be less condescending to rail travel, the mode of transportation that made the world what it is today.
With cartoonist Chris Ware, Jeet Heer recently co-edited Frank King's Walt and Skeezix: 1929-1930, which features many depictions of early-20th-century train travel.