Christian Wolmar has written a book to complement his history of railway development in Britain (entitled: Fire and Steam: A New History of the Railways in Britain. Blood, Iron and Gold concentrates on the wider world which of course impinges on British imperial history in two distinct ways. Firstly, much of the book examines efforts to build railway infrastructure in her vast collection of colonies such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Africa and of course India. Secondly, and just as importantly, Britain's role in building so many railway projects in the rest of the world, from South America to Europe for instance, helps illustrate the informal power of Britain's Empire. Her commercial reach combined with technological innovation gave her a head start that would help define the layout, standards and technology of much of the world's rolling stock and railway infrastructure. In many ways this is a book about one of the crowning achievements of Britain' Industrial Revolution which was complemented and sustained by her worldwide reach.
The book does point out that even though Britain was the leading railway builder of the nineteenth century, her own free market tendencies meant that standardisation of railway gauges was never fully realised. Not wishing to allow the state to dictate to private companies, the British Empire ended up with a myriad of differing gauges from George Stephenson's 'Standard Gauge' of 4' 8.5" to an 'Irish Gauge' of 5' 3" to an 'Indian Gauge' of 5' 6". And these gauges ended up being used in a multiplicity of the world's railways as various railway engineers, architects and locomotives became available at various times on completion of various Imperial projects. So South America ended up with all three imperial gauges. It was not just foreign countries that suffered from this confusion, Australia's various colonies ended up with an incredible array of differing gauges making travel between them needlessly difficult and complicated and a situation that was not resolved until late in the twentieth century!
The author makes a compelling point about the importance of railways in binding diverse geographical units into distinctive nations or political units. So that places like Canada went to extraordinary efforts to attach the West Coast to the Eastern side in order to bring British Columbia fully into the Canadian political orbit. Prestige railway projects often required government subsidies to be fulfilled but the advantages to the local economy and political cohesion far outweighed the financial cost in most cases. Perhaps the most striking example of all was India where the railways literally stitched together a political entity that had never known unity before in what was one of the great engineering feats of all time. The fact that the railway was initially built to help control the vast colony by allowing troops to be moved around more efficiently does not take away the intangible benefits that commerce and populations could utilise in being able to move vast distances and access products from a far wider geographical expanse than had ever been possible. Fresh meat, fruit and dairy could be imported into urban centres from the countryside and the prices fall and quality rise as a result. Farms in places like New Zealand could be linked by rail to ports so that their produce could be frozen and exported all over the world. Mines in Central Africa could get metals and ores to Europe's factories. News could travel so much faster especially when telegraphs piggybacked alongside the railway infrastructure increasingly criss-crossing the world. Railways literally shrank the world and kick started economic development in areas that had hitherto been unable to get its products to the world's markets. The 1870s and 1880s saw the American and Canadian wheatfields crash the price of food all over the world as railways allowed farmers to find markets on the other side of the planet to the benefit of consumers and producers alike.
The author also goes in to some detail about the most high profile failure of a continental rail system; the Cape to Cairo railway. Politics and diplomacy could and did get in the way of railway development and British efforts to link this vast continent together were undone largely by the Germans in East Africa. This is not to say that large tracts of the system were not put in place as railways followed the Nile down to Sudan and went up from the Cape into the heart of Northern Rhodesia. Christian Wolmar explains the engineering difficulties and dangers to various railway work forces as they crossed rivers, bored through mountains, crossed escarpments, survived terrible extremes of weather and had to fend off various forms of wildlife to lay the tracks that passengers would come to take for granted in the future. And yet economic stimulation seemed to follow these thin lines of track whereever they went. Even if the companies building them went bust, new towns grew around the stations built, traders bought and sold their goods, produce was moved and passengers found new destinations to visit or for employment. The imposing architecture of railway stations in cities like Bombay, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur were testament to the prestige and importance attached to these new cathedrals of the industrial revolution.
This is a very informative book and although the idea of reading a book just about railways may seem too technical or specialised for some to undertake, I would say that this book is very much wider in scope than its subject might at first suggest. It is a book about the industrial and the resulting transport revolution but in many ways it is really a wider social history just seen through the prism of railway development. It covers more than just the British Empire, but the role of the British in the railway explosion of the Nineteenth Century forms a central core of the book and is very much a common thread running throughout. It is a book that teaches you far more than you might expect and is written in a clear and accessible manner. The organisation is very well thought out and there were some real fascinating asides and tidbits that kept you interested throughout. This was no dry academic or overly technical tome. It was a real pleasure to read and I highly recommend it.