Tony Judt on the Glorious History of Trains

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Niccolo and Donkey
The Glory of the Rails

The New York Review of Books

Tony Judt

December 23, 2010

Claude Monet: Gare Saint-Lazare: Arrival of a Train , 1877

More than any other technical design or social institution, the railway stands for modernity. No competing form of transport, no subsequent technological innovation, no other industry has wrought or facilitated change on the scale that has been brought about by the invention and adoption of the railway. Peter Laslett once referred to “the world we have lost”—the unimaginably different character of things as they once were. Try to think of a world before the railway and the meaning of distance and the impediment it imposed when the time it took to travel from, for example, Paris to Rome—and the means employed to do so—had changed little for two millennia. Think of the limits placed on economic activity and human life chances by the impossibility of moving food, goods, and people in large numbers or at any speed in excess of ten miles per hour; of the enduringly local nature of all knowledge, whether cultural, social, or political, and the consequences of such compartmentalization.

Above all, think of how different the world looked to men and women before the coming of the railways. In part this was a function of restricted perception. Until 1830, few people knew what unfamiliar landscapes, distant towns, or foreign lands looked like because they had no opportunity or reason to visit them. But in part, too, the world before the railways appeared so very different from what came afterward and from what we know today because the railways did more than just facilitate travel and thereby change the way the world was seen and depicted. They transformed the very landscape itself.

Railways were born of the industrial revolution—the steam engine itself was already sixty years old when it acquired wheels in 1825, and without the coal that it helped pump to the surface the steam engine could not work. But it was the railways that gave life and impetus to that same industrial revolution: they were the largest consumers of the very goods whose transportation they facilitated. Moreover, most of the technical challenges of industrial modernity—long-distance telegraphic communication, the harnessing of water, gas, and electricity for domestic and industrial use, urban and rural drainage, the construction of very large buildings, the gathering and moving of human beings in large numbers—were first met and overcome by railway companies.

Trains—or, rather, the tracks on which they ran—represented the conquest of space. Canals and roads might be considerable technical achievements; but they had almost always been the extension, through physical effort or technical improvement, of an ancient or naturally occurring resource: a river, a valley, a path, or a pass. Even Telford and MacAdam did little more than pave over existing roads. Railway tracks reinvented the landscape. They cut through hills, they burrowed under roads and canals, they were carried across valleys, towns, estuaries. The permanent way might be laid over iron girders, wooden trestles, brick-clad bridges, stone-buttressed earthworks, or impacted moss; importing or removing these materials could utterly transform town or country alike. As trains got heavier, so these foundations grew ever more intrusive: thicker, stronger, deeper.

Railway tracks were purpose-built: nothing else could run on them—and trains could run on nothing else. And because they could only be routed and constructed at certain gradients, on limited curves, and unimpeded by interference from obstacles like forests, boulders, crops, and cows, railways demanded—and were everywhere accorded—powers and authority over men and nature alike: rights of way, of property, of possession, and of destruction that were (and remain) wholly unprecedented in peacetime. 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.

The conquest of space led inexorably to the reorganization of time. Even the modest speeds of early trains—between twenty and thirty-five miles per hour—were beyond the wildest imaginings of all but a handful of engineers. Most travelers and observers reasonably assumed not only that the railway had revolutionized spatial relations and the possibilities of communication, but also that—moving at unprecedented velocity and with no impediments to heed their advance—trains were extraordinarily dangerous. As indeed they were. Signaling, communication, and braking systems were always one step behind the steady increase in power and speed of the engines: until well into the later twentieth century trains were better at moving than stopping. This being so, it was vital to keep them at a safe distance from one another and to know at all times where they were. And thus—from technical considerations and for reasons of safety as much as commerce, convenience, or publicity—was born the railway timetable.

It is hard today to convey the significance and implications of the timetable, which first appeared in the early 1840s: for the organization of the railways themselves, of course, but also for the daily lives of everyone else. The pre-modern world was space-bound; its modern successor, time-bound.

The transition took place in the middle decades of the nineteenth century and with remarkable speed, accompanied by the ubiquitous station clock: on prominent, specially constructed towers at all major stations, inside every station booking hall, on platforms, and (in the pocket form) in the possession of railway employees. Everything that came after—the establishment of nationally and internationally agreed time zones; factory time clocks; the ubiquity of the wristwatch; time schedules for buses, ferries, and planes, for radio and television programs; school timetables; and much else—merely followed suit. Railways were proud of the indomitable place of trains in the organization and command of time—see Gabriel Ferrer’s painted ceiling (1899) in the dining room of the Gare (now Musée) d’Orsay: an “Allegory on Time” reminding diners that their trains will not wait for dessert.

Until the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830, people did not travel together in large groups. A typical stagecoach held four inside and ten outside. But it was not much used, and certainly not by those with any choice. The wealthy and the adventurous traveled alone or en famille —on horseback, in a post chaise or a private carriage—and no one else traveled far or often. 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.

And thus railways established “classes” of travel: typically three, but up to five in the Russian Empire and India. These classes, which gave rise to our modern use of “first class,” “second class,” etc., for both practical and metaphorical purposes, were reproduced not just in train wagons and their furnishings but in waiting rooms, public bathrooms, ticket offices, restaurants, and all the many facilities provided at stations. In the fullness of time the particular facilities made available to first-class travelers—dining cars, club cars, smoking cars, sleeping cars, Pullman cars—reproduced and came to define (in literature, in art, and in design) solid, respectable, prosperous bourgeois life. In their most ostentatious form—typically the long-distance or international train, the Twentieth Century Limited, the Golden Arrow, or the Orient Express—these exclusive facilities defined modern travel as a peculiarly enviable form of cultural ostentation, high style for a privileged minority.

In time, the railways simplified their social stratification into just two classes. In this they reflected the changes after World War I in much of the West, though not always elsewhere. In part this was also a response to competition. From the 1930s, the motorcar was starting to challenge the train as the conveyance of choice for short and even medium-length journeys. Because the car—like its defunct horse-drawn predecessors the post chaise and carriage—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. As before 1830, so after 1950: those who could afford to do so opted increasingly for privacy. There was no longer either the need or the desire to regulate publicly provided transport with such careful attention to socially calibrated rankings.

Trains are about moving people. But their most visible incarnation, their greatest public monument, was static: the railway station. Railway stations—large terminal stations especially—have been studied for their practical uses and significance: as organizers of space, as innovative means of accumulating and dispatching unprecedented numbers of people. And indeed the huge new city stations in London, Paris, Berlin, New York, Moscow, Bombay, and elsewhere wrought a revolution in the social organization of public space. But they were also of unique importance in the history of architecture and urban design, of city planning and public life.

Bringing a railway line into a large town or city was a monumental challenge. Beyond the technical and social issues—the clearance or removal of whole districts (usually the poorest: over two hundred shops, workshops, and churches, together with thousands of tenement homes, were bulldozed to make space for Grand Central Station), the bridging and tunneling past urban and natural obstacles—there was the implication of placing at the heart of an old city a new technology, a substantial edifice, and a steady, daily flow and ebb of many tens of thousands of people. Where should stations be placed? How should they be integrated into the existing urban fabric? What should they look like?

The solutions to these questions created modern urban life. From the 1850s (with the building of the Gare de l’Est in Paris) to the 1930s (with the completion of Milan’s gargantuan Stazione Centrale) terminal stations from Budapest to St. Louis anchored the contemporary city. Their design ranged from Gothic to “Tudorbethan,” from Greek Revival to Baroque, from Beaux Arts to Neoclassical. Some, notably in early-twentieth-century America, were carefully modeled on Rome: the dimensions of Penn Station in New York were calibrated to those of the Baths of Caracalla (AD 217), while the barrel vault ceiling in Washington’s Union Station borrowed directly from the transept vaults in the Baths of Diocletian (AD 306).

These massive edifices—which sometimes offered a clue to their nether function but in later years tended to camouflage it, speaking to other urban structures rather than the rail shed behind them—were a source of immense pride for the city and often furnished an occasion to redesign, in fact if not in name, much of the rest of the town. Major European cities—Berlin, Brussels, Paris, London—were reshaped around their railway terminuses, with broad avenues leading up to them, urban subway and tram networks designed to link the incoming rail lines (typically, as in London, in a loose circle with radial spokes), and urban renewal projects keyed to the likely growth of demand for housing generated by the railway.

The railway station became a new and dominant urban space: a large city terminus employed well over one thousand people directly; at its peak Penn Station in New York employed three thousand people, including 355 porters or “redcaps.” The hotel built above or adjacent to the station and owned by the railway company employed hundreds more. Within its halls and under the arches supporting its tracks the railway provided copious additional commercial space. From the 1860s through the 1950s, most people entered or exited a city through its railway terminuses, whose size and splendor—whether seen at close quarters or at the distant end of a new avenue built to enhance its significance (the new Boulevard de Strasbourg ending at the Gare de l’Est in Paris, for example)—spoke directly and deliberately to the commercial ambitions and civic self-image of the modern metropolis.

As the design of the station made quite explicit, railways were never just functional. They were about travel as pleasure, travel as adventure, travel as the archetypical modern experience. Patrons and clients were not supposed to just buy a ticket and go; they were meant to linger and imagine and dream (which is one reason why “platform tickets” came into being and were very much used). That is why stations were designed, often quite deliberately, on the model of cathedrals, with their spaces and facilities divided into naves, apses, side chapels, and ancillary offices and rituals. As the locus classicus for such winks and nods to neo- ecclesiastical monumentalism, see St. Pancras Station (1868) in London. Stations had restaurants, shops, personal services. They were for many decades the preferred site of a city’s primary postal and telegraph offices. And above all, they were the ideal space in which to advertise themselves.

The railway poster, the railway advertisement, the brochure—advertising routes, tours, excursions, exotic places and possibilities—came remarkably early in the history of train travel. It was perfectly clear even to the first generation of train managers that they would be creating needs that they alone could meet; and that the more needs they could generate, the greater their business. Within limits the railway companies handled by themselves the business of advertising their wares—most famously in the magnificently stylized Art Deco and Expressionist posters that dominated station walls and newspaper advertisements from circa 1910 to circa 1940. But although they often owned hotels and even steamships, railways were not equipped to manage the full vertical range of services they had opened up, and this business fell into the hands of a new breed, the tour manager or travel agent, of whom the most important by far was the family of Thomas Cook of Derbyshire.

Cook (1808–1892) exemplifies both the commercial energies released by the possibilities of rail travel and the range of experiences to which these led. Beginning with a small family firm organizing Sunday excursion trains for local temperance clubs, Cook accumulated knowledge about trains, buses, and boats, together with contacts in hotels and places of interest: first in Britain, then in continental Europe, and finally across the Americas. Cook and his successors and imitators organized travel itself; indeed, and in collaboration with the railways, Cook and his successors invented the “resorts” to which people might now travel: bookable by Cook and reachable by rail, whether in the mountains, by the sea, or in “beauty spots” freshly identified for the purpose.

But above all, tour organizers furnished information about travel. They made it possible for voyagers to imagine and foresee (and pay for) their journey before making it, thereby enhancing the anticipation while minimizing the risk. Cook’s brochures, booklets, and advisory guides—advising travelers on where to go, what to expect, what to wear, what to say, and how to say it—were marketed above all in the new railway station outlets opened by newsagents and booksellers. By 1914 Cook had gone to the logical next step of opening branch offices in or next to railway stations and hotels, publishing railway timetables and even underwriting the train cars and facilities provided en route.

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. Artists themselves were never in any doubt about this. From Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed (1844) through Monet’s Gare Saint-Lazare (1877), Edward Hopper’s Station (1908), Campbell Cooper’s Grand Central Station (1909), and on to the classic poster designs of the interwar London Underground (not least Harry Beck’s classic map design of 1932, imitated if not emulated in every subsequent railway and subway map the world over), railway trains and stations formed either theme or backdrop to four generations of modern pictorial art.

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. One of the first films ever made was about a train— L’Arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat (Lumière Brothers, 1895). Trains are a sensual experience: visual and (especially in the age of steam) aural. They were thus a “natural” for cinematographers. Stations are anonymous, and full of shadows and movement and space. Their attraction for filmmakers is not mysterious. But the sheer range of films that exploit stations, trains, and the prospect or memory of rail travel remains quite striking. No other form of travel has lent itself to international cinema in quite this way: the horse and the motorcar lack the versatility of the train. Westerns and road movies date quickly, and while they had an international market, they were only ever produced in the United States.

It would be otiose to itemize the films that concern or exploit the railways, from The General (1927) to Murder on the Orient Express (1974). But it is worth reflecting on perhaps the best known of them all, David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), a film in which the station and the train and its destinations do more than just furnish the props and the occasion for emotions and opportunities. The very specificity of the detail (the transcendent authority of the timetable, the configuration of the station and its location in town and community, the physical experience and plot significance of steam and cinders) makes them far more than a setting. The scenes at Carnforth Station, juxtaposed with the domestic life whose tranquility they threaten, represent risk, opportunity, uncertainty, novelty, and change: life itself.
Niccolo and Donkey
Second Part

Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter , 1945
The Way We Live Now

Railways have been declining since the 1950s. There had always been competition for the traveler (and, though less marked, for freight). From the 1890s horse-drawn trams and buses, followed a generation later by the electric or diesel or petrol variant, were cheaper to make and run than trains. Lorries (trucks)—the successor to the horse and cart—were always competitive over the short haul. With diesel engines they could now cover long distances. And there were now airplanes and, above all, there were cars: the latter becoming cheaper, faster, safer, more reliable every year.

Even over the longer distances for which it was originally conceived, the railway was at a disadvantage: its start-up and maintenance costs—in surveying, tunneling, laying track, building stations and rolling stock, switching to diesel, installing electrification—were greater than those of its competitors and it never succeeded in paying them off. Mass-produced cars, in contrast, were cheap to build and the roads on which they ran were subsidized by taxpayers. To be sure, they carried a high social overhead cost, notably to the environment; but that would only be paid at a future date. Above all, cars represented the possibility of private travel once again. Rail travel, in what were increasingly open-plan trains whose managers had to fill them in order to break even, was decidedly public transport.

Facing such hurdles, the railway was met after World War II by another challenge. The modern city was born of rail travel. The very possibility of placing millions of people in close proximity with one another, or else transporting them considerable distances from home to work and back, was the achievement of the railways. But in sucking up people from the country into the town and draining the countryside of communities and villages and workers, the train had begun to destroy its own raison d’être: the movement of people between towns and from remote country districts to urban centers. The major facilitator of urbanization, it fell victim to it. Now that the overwhelming majority of nonelective journeys were either very long or very short, it made more sense for people to undertake them in planes or cars. There was still a place for the short-haul, frequently stopping suburban train and, in Europe at least, for middle-distance expresses. But that was all. Even freight transportation was threatened by cheap trucking services, underwritten by the state in the form of publicly funded freeways. Everything else was a losing proposition.

And so railways declined. Private companies, where they still existed, went bankrupt. In many cases they were taken over by newly formed public corporations at public expense. Governments treated railways as a regrettable if unavoidable burden upon the exchequer, restricting their capital investment and closing “uneconomic” lines.

Just how “inexorable” this process had to be varied from place to place. “Market forces” were at their most unforgiving—and railways thus most threatened—in North America, where railway companies reduced their offerings to the minimum in the years after 1960, and in Britain, where in 1964 a national commission under Dr. Richard Beeching axed an extraordinary number of rural and branch lines and services in order to maintain the economic “viability” of British Railways. In both countries the outcome was an unhappy one: America’s bankrupt railways were de facto “nationalized” in the 1970s. Twenty years later, Britain’s railways, in public hands since 1948, were unceremoniously sold off to such private companies as were willing to bid for the most profitable routes and services.

In continental Europe, despite some closures and reductions in services, a culture of public provision and a slower rate of automobile growth preserved most of the railway infrastructure. In most of the rest of the world, poverty and backwardness helped preserve the train as the only practicable form of mass communication. Everywhere, however, railways—the harbingers and emblems of an age of public investment and civic pride—fell victim to a dual loss of faith: in the self-justifying benefits of public services, now displaced by considerations of profitability and competition; and in the physical representation of collective endeavor through urban design, public space, and architectural confidence.

The implications of these changes could be seen, most starkly, in the fate of stations. Between 1955 and 1975 a mix of antihistoricist fashion and corporate self-interest saw the destruction of a remarkable number of terminal stations—precisely those buildings and spaces that had most ostentatiously asserted rail travel’s central place in the modern world. In some cases—Euston (London), the Gare du Midi (Brussels), Penn Station (New York)—the edifice that was demolished had to be replaced in one form or another, because the station’s core people- moving function remained important. In other instances—the Anhalter Bahnhof in Berlin, for example—a classical structure was simply removed and nothing planned for its replacement. In many of these changes, the actual station was moved underground and out of sight, while the visible building—no longer expected to serve any uplifting civic purpose—was demolished and replaced by an anonymous commercial center or office building or recreation center; or all three. Penn Station—or its near contemporary, the monstrously anonymous Gare Montparnasse in Paris—is perhaps the most notorious case in point. 1

The urban vandalism of the age was not confined to railway stations, of course, but they (along with the services they used to provide, such as hotels, restaurants, or cinemas) were by far its most prominent victim. And a symbolically appropriate victim, too: an underperforming, market-insensitive relic of high modern values. It should be noted, however, that rail travel itself did not decline, at least in quantity: even as railway stations lost their charm and their symbolic public standing, the number of people actually using them continued to rise. This was of course especially the case in poor, crowded lands where there were no realistic alternatives—India being the best illustration but by no means the only one.

Indeed, despite underinvestment and a degree of intercaste social promiscuity that renders them unappealing to the country’s new professionals, the railways and stations of India, like those of much of the non-Western world (e.g., China, Malaysia, or even European Russia), probably have a secure future. Countries that did not benefit from the rise of the internal combustion engine in the mid-twentieth-century age of cheap oil would find it prohibitively expensive to reproduce American or British experience in the twenty-first century.

The future of railways, a morbidly grim topic until very recently, is of more than passing interest. It is also quite promising. The aesthetic insecurities of the first post–World War II decades—the “New Brutalism” that favored and helped expedite the destruction of many of the greatest achievements of nineteenth-century public architecture and town planning—have passed. We are no longer embarrassed by the rococo or neo-Gothic or Beaux Arts excesses of the great railway stations of the industrial age and can see such edifices instead as their designers and contemporaries saw them: as the cathedrals of their age, to be preserved for their sake and for ours. The Gare du Nord and the Gare d’Orsay in Paris; Grand Central Station in New York and Union Station in St. Louis; St. Pancras in London; Keleti Station in Budapest; and dozens of others have all been preserved and even enhanced: some in their original function, others in a mixed role as travel and commercial centers, others still as civic monuments and cultural mementoes.

Such stations, in many cases, are livelier and more important to their communities than they have been at any time since the 1930s. True, they may never again be fully appreciated in the role they were designed to serve—as dramatic entrance portals to modern cities—if only because most people who use them connect from tube to train, from underground taxi rank to platform escalator, and never even see the building from the outside or from a distance, as it was meant to be seen. But millions do use them. The modern city is now so large, so far-flung—and so crowded and expensive—that even the better-heeled have resorted to public transport once again, if only for commuting. More than at any point since the late 1940s, our cities rely for their survival upon the train.

The cost of oil—effectively stagnant from the 1950s through the 1990s (allowing for crisis-driven fluctuations)—is now steadily rising and unlikely ever to fall back to the level at which unrestricted car travel becomes economically viable again. The logic of the suburb, incontrovertible with oil at $1 a gallon, is thus placed in question. Air travel, unavoidable for long-haul journeys, is now inconvenient and expensive over medium distances: and in Western Europe and Japan the train is both a pleasanter and a faster alternative. The environmental advantages of the modern train are now very considerable, both technically and politically. An electrically powered rail system, like its companion light-rail or tram system within cities, can run on any convertible fuel source whether conventional or innovative, from nuclear power to solar power. For the foreseeable future this gives it a unique advantage over every other form of powered transportation.

It is not by chance that public infrastructural investment in rail travel has been growing for the past two decades everywhere in Western Europe and through much of Asia and Latin America (exceptions include Africa, where such investment is anyway still negligible, and the US, where the concept of public funding of any kind remains grievously underappreciated). In very recent years railway buildings are no longer buried in obscure subterranean vaults, their function and identity ingloriously hidden under a bushel of office buildings. The new, publicly funded stations at Lyon, Seville, Chur (Switzerland), Kowloon, or London Waterloo International assert and celebrate their restored prominence, both architectural and civic, and are increasingly the work of innovative major architects like Santiago Calatrava or Rem Koolhaas.

Why this unanticipated revival? The explanation can be put in the form of a counterfactual: it is possible (and in many places today actively under consideration) to imagine public policy mandating a steady reduction in the nonnecessary use of private cars and trucks. It is possible, however hard to visualize, that air travel could become so expensive and/or unappealing that its attraction for people undertaking nonessential journeys will steadily diminish. But it is simply not possible to envision any conceivable modern, urban-based economy shorn of its subways, its tramways, its light rail and suburban networks, its rail connections, and its intercity links.

We no longer see the modern world through the image of the train, but we continue to live in the world the trains made. For any trip under ten miles or between 150 and 500 miles in any country with a functioning railway network, the train is the quickest way to travel as well as, taking all costs into account, the cheapest and least destructive. What we thought was late modernity—the post-railway world of cars and planes—turns out, like so much else about the decades 1950–1990, to have been a parenthesis: driven, in this case, by the illusion of perennially cheap fuel and the attendant cult of privatization. The attractions of a return to “social” calculation are becoming as clear to modern planners as they once were, for rather different reasons, to our Victorian predecessors. What was, for a while, old-fashioned has once again become very modern.

Penn Station, New York City, 1940s
The Railway and Modern Life

Ever since the invention of trains, and because of it, travel has been the symbol and symptom of modernity: trains—along with bicycles, buses, cars, motorcycles, and airplanes—have been exploited in art and commerce as the sign and proof of a society’s presence at the forefront of change and innovation. In most cases, however, the invocation of a particular form of transport as the emblem of novelty and contemporaneity was a one-time thing. Bicycles were “new” just once, in the 1890s. Motorbikes were “new” in the 1920s, for Fascists and Bright Young Things (ever since they have been evocatively “retro”). Cars (like planes) were “new” in the Edwardian decade and again, briefly, in the 1950s; since then and at other times they have indeed stood for many qualities—reliability, prosperity, conspicuous consumption, freedom—but not “modernity” per se.

Trains are different. Trains were already modern life incarnate by the 1840s—hence their appeal to “modernist” painters. They were still performing that role in the age of the great cross-country expresses of the 1890s. Nothing was more ultra-modern than the new, streamlined superliners that graced the neoexpressionist posters of the 1930s. Electrified tube trains were the idols of modernist poets after 1900, in the same way that the Japanese Shinkansen and the French TGV are the very icons of technological wizardry and high comfort at 190 mph today. Trains, it would seem, are perennially modern—even if they slip from sight for a while. Much the same applies to railway stations. The petrol “station” of the early trunk road is an object of nostalgic affection when depicted or remembered today, but it has been constantly replaced by functionally updated variations and in its original form survives only in nostalgic recall. Airports typically (and irritatingly) survive well past the onset of aesthetic or functional obsolescence; but no one would wish to preserve them for their own sake, much less suppose that an airport built in 1930 or even 1960 could be of use or interest today.

But railway stations built a century or even a century and a half ago—Paris’s Gare de l’Est (1852), London’s Paddington Station (1854), Bombay’s Victoria Station (1887), Zurich’s Hauptbahnhof (1893)—not only appeal aesthetically and are increasingly objects of affection and admiration: they work . And more to the point, they work in ways fundamentally identical to the way they worked when they were first built. This is a testament to the quality of their design and construction, of course; but it also speaks to their perennial contemporaneity. They do not become “out of date.” They are not an adjunct to modern life, or part of it, or a byproduct of it. Stations, like the railway they punctuate, are integral to the modern world itself.

We often find ourselves asserting or assuming that the distinctive feature of modernity is the individual: the unreducible subject, the freestanding person, the unbound self, the unbeholden citizen. This modern individual is commonly and favorably contrasted with the dependent, deferential, unfree subject of the pre-modern world. There is something in this version of things, of course; just as there is something in the accompanying idea that modernity is also a story of the modern state, with its assets, its capacities, and its ambitions. But taken all in all, it is, nevertheless, a mistake—and a dangerous mistake. The truly distinctive feature of modern life—the one with which we lose touch at our peril—is neither the unattached individual nor the unconstrained state. It is what comes in between them: society . More precisely civil—or (as the nineteenth century had it) bourgeois—society.

The railways were and remain the necessary and natural accompaniment to the emergence of civil society. They are a collective project for individual benefit. They cannot exist without common accord (and, in recent times, common expenditure), and by design they offer a practical benefit to individual and collectivity alike. This is something the market cannot accomplish—except, on its own account of itself, by happy inadvertence. Railways were not always environmentally sensitive—though in overall pollution costs it is not clear that the steam engine did more harm than its internally combusted competitor—but they were and had to be socially responsive. That is one reason why they were not very profitable.

If we lose the railways we shall not just have lost a valuable practical asset whose replacement or recovery would be intolerably expensive. We shall have acknowledged that we have forgotten how to live collectively. If we throw away the railway stations and the lines leading to them—as we began to do in the 1950s and 1960s—we shall be throwing away our memory of how to live the confident civic life. It is not by chance that Margaret Thatcher—who famously declared that “there is no such thing as Society. There are individual men and women, and there are families”—made a point of never traveling by train. If we cannot spend our collective resources on trains and travel contentedly in them it is not because we have joined gated communities and need nothing but private cars to move between them. It will be because we have become gated individuals who don’t know how to share public space to common advantage. The implications of such a loss would far transcend the demise of one system of transport among others. It would mean we had done with modern life.