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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

"The State Put Railways on the Map"

UK Transport Secretary Andrew Adonis argues that Britain needs state-facilitated investment in high-speed rail:

The state put railways on the map, Review, by Andrew Adonis, Financial Times: [Review of Blood, Iron & Gold: How the Railways Transformed the World, by Christian Wolmar] High-speed rail, largely the preserve of Japan and France until the 1990s, is sweeping across Europe and Asia. ... Even the US, where passenger rail has almost died, is planning a high-speed line between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The technology is developing fast. Within five years 400km/hr is likely to be practical... This high-speed revolution makes Christian Wolmar’s superb new history of the world’s railways timely. ...
Wolmar relates the story of the first global rail revolution, which began with the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830. The pace of change was astonishing. Within 15 years, the modern railway map of Britain had taken shape...; by 1850 virtually every country with aspirations to modernity was following suit.
Between 1830 and 1900 a million kilometres of railway were built worldwide. In Wolmar’s words, between the first and last quarters of the 19th 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.”
Wolmar dismisses the notion that 19th and early 20th-century railways were simply a private-sector affair. Abraham Lincoln, a pro-railway lawyer before becoming US president, was the transcontinental railroad’s most fervent advocate. Driving the Pacific Railroad Act through Congress in 1862 to make possible the 1,780 mile line, he endowed it with tens of millions of taxpayer dollars in loans, grants and land.
Similarly, as chairman of the state committee on the Siberian railroad, Tsar Nicholas II oversaw the construction of the 6,200 mile Trans-Siberian railway. Bismarck and Clemenceau both started to nationalise their respective railways in the 1870s. Cecil Rhodes, Kitchener, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Mao also have notable parts in the story. So does the Emperor of Japan..., and Lord Dalhousie, the British Viceroy of India... So much for private enterprise. ...
For Britain, it is a tale of grandeur and decline. Until the 1870s there was hardly a railway development in the world without British engineers and equipment, an extraordinary half-century of technological supremacy. All the more odd, then, that the UK should have stood largely apart from high-speed rail. Elsewhere, like the first rail revolution, it is mostly state-facilitated. ... To catch up, Britain needs a strong governmental lead.

    Posted by on Wednesday, October 7, 2009 at 07:37 PM in Economics | Permalink  Comments (19)


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