*2012:TLS:3-4|>Rauchway,Eric| Review of three books on US railroads =

William G. Thomas|_THE_IRON WAY: Railroads, the Civil War, and the making of modern America
Richard While|_RAILROADED: The transcontinental and the making of modern America
Maury Klein|_UNION PACIFIC: The reconfiguration: America's greatest railroad from 1969 to the present

[SAC editor has introduced boldface to fit the article to our course]

[T]he railroad represented not only a seductive means of transport, but a dangerous store of power. As with all power, the question naturally arises, power for whose use and what end?

In the early decades of rail, the iron roads represented the power to shrink distance and duration almost to nothing: "time and space are annihilated", Asa Whitney said in 1844, promoting an American transcontinental Railway. In the age of imperial expansion, authority over the continuum of nature quickly came to represent the power of the state to annex and rule. The telegraph ran alongside rail, and transmitted instant orders from important offices to remote locales, and of course freight and people -- armies if necessary -- could follow such lightning direction at only slightly less impressive speed. To Americans of the nineteenth century, the railroads represented the way and the power to win the West -- but for which nation? Both North and South -- both free and slave states -- wanted to press their interests into the West. William G. Thomas puts the railroads at the centre of the Civil War in his brief and well-written Iron Way. Some of the arguments will be familiar to even the casual student of the sectional crisis in America: in the decades leading up to the war, North and South were already locked in a struggle over whether free or bonded labour would dominate the new territories to the West, and this fight took the form of arguments over whether a transcontinental rail route should follow a northern or a southern path. During the war, the armies of the United States aimed to destroy the Confederate capacity to make war, and focused their attentions on ripping out the railroads they would not need, and protecting those they would.

Elsewhere, Thomas's arguments are more novel and nuanced. He is keen, first of all, to undermine the convention of referring to the South as a pre-modern society and the Confederacy as an ad hoc, never-quite-national arrangement. He argues that, although they provided runaways with a route to freedom, the railroads were also a means of spreading slavery and striking its roots deeper into the southern soil. Slaves worked busily to lay track and build tunnels throughout the South, making the market in their own people more brutally efficient. Moreover, Thomas says, the railroads bound the people of the South together. Past analysts have argued that the proliferation of gauges (the distance between tracks, and thus between wheels, which dictated the construction of locomotives and cars) in the South meant the region never had a truly unified rail system. Thomas observes, contrariwise, that the rail networks of the South were at any rate no less efficient than those of northern regions, which also often featured a plethora of gauges. This problem of multiple gauges, differing North to South, has launched occasionally bitter arguments over the way in which the US Army used and abused railroads during the war -- as recently as 2002, one of these quarrels erupted in the letters column of the Financial Times, when two correspondents disagreed over whether the US Army brought northern rail gauges to the South. Thomas documents Union destruction of rail lines laid to southern gauges and replacing them with tracks built to northern specifications, so northern engines could carry the machinery of war into the more remote parts of the South. Thomas regards the unification of the slave South by rail as proof of Confederate nationalism, a frequently mentioned though rarely justified phrase in the recent historiography of the Civil War. It is never clear why "the seriousness of the Confederate claim to nationhood" might have mattered in the course of the war.

The Iron Way's new view of the railroads and the war is more arresting at the level of tactics. Chief among the talents of the Confederate cavalry leader Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, Thomas says, was the ability to use railroads to move his troops and get them rapidly into the right position for their mounted dashes through the valleys of Virginia. Jackson, Thomas claims, "proceeded to use the railroads in ways no other commander had yet attempted". Moreover, among the failings of the US General George McClellan in his ill-fated Peninsular campaign, Thomas says, was his sudden and inexplicable blindness to the usefulness of rail routes: although he depended on trains to get his men into position, as he thought about the conclusion of the campaign, he focused on the city of Richmond itself, rather than the rail junctions around it.

Thomas claims to know what was uppermost in McClellan's thoughts, because of novel analytical methods. The book is, he says, a work of digital history, though to all appearances it is a book like any other with no evident computerized components, and one will proceed a long way into the volume before noticing any specifically digital aspect. But the analysis of McClellan's campaign rests on word counts of his digitized correspondence: "In hundreds of letters and telegrams McClellan and his Union staff officers mentioned railroads less frequently than they did 'river' or 'enemy' or 'fort' ". Seeking to offer a picture of the minds of the officers of the war, Thomas includes word clouds -- a graphic depiction of a prose passage in which words appear larger in proportion to the frequency of their use. These tools have shown up for years in blogs as a kind of shorthand insistence that a book or article is clearly about its more commonly occurring words, and they plainly provide a good first approximation of an author's emphasis. At the same time, it is hard to feel that they can substitute entirely for the techniques of non-digital reading, which include a focus on what is implied or unsaid, whether from mere desire to conceal, or the anxiety of influence. The practice of digital history is still in its infancy, and indeed it is not yet certain what sort of creature the infant will grow into. One of the more obviously promising areas is mapping -- by feeding historical data into modem mapping software, it may prove possible to depict the geography of the past in greater detail than ever before. In Thomas's book there is, at one point, an intriguing map showing the rates of rail travel in antebellum America -- but the caption reveals that it was made in 1932, with no aid from the cartographic machinery of our time.

Nevertheless, the question of space greatly occupies Thomas, and he regards the railroads' ability to alter our perception of space and conquer the inconvenience of distance as the hallmark of modernity. This capacity to bring the frontiers closer and reduce the time of travel to the edge of civilization was the thing that told nineteenth-century Americans that they had entered a new age, characterized by the power to project influence across spaces even as great as the plains of America. According to Richard White, once the railroads became transcontinental, their power became the power to corrupt, if not absolutely, then nationally. With the Pacific Railroad Acts, passed during the Civil War, the government of the United States created a national corporation, the Union Pacific railroad, subsidized it with grants of the western lands still owned by the government, and thereby created a beast whose tentacles would reach into the furthest corners of the nation. The transcontinental railroads' real business was not, White tells us in Railroaded, transport, but the extraction of capital from investors, public and private, with which to line the pockets of the railroads' flashy managers.

White evidently likes the low opinion that Americans of the nineteenth century had of the railroaders, and indeed that the railroaders had of each other. America's Gilded Age was a golden age of blunt expression, and some of it rubs off on the author. Within three pages of White's book, the following opinions of various railroaders appear:

poorly educated... narrow... authoritarian . . . scheming, manipulative . . . calculating . . . volatile . . . never took an ethical high road ,. . betrayed partners and . . . strangers ... a buffoon ... hard ... opinionated, self-righteous, and narrow-minded.

The Central Pacific founder Collis P. Huntington appears here as the shrewd, grasping, ruthless character without scruple that historians have long supposed him to be, buying politicians so he can continue to reap a harvest from the nation's treasury. But among the railroaders who get the sharp treatment in White's book, one stands out: Huntington's partner Leland Stanford, patron of the arts, enthusiast of horse-flesh, and founder of the university where White now teaches. Stanford exhibits "greed, laziness, ignorance and ineptitude", intimacy with a "thug"; he "undercut" allies and "alienated" friends, arranged bribes, effected a "political marriage" to a "boss" devoted to "boodle" and the acquisition, naturally, of "simoleons". He was "obtuse". He "neither knew -- or initially cared -- much about operating railroads" and when he did take an interest he showed "utter ineffectuality". No wonder: he was "mad" with "egotism and arrogance". Nothing defined him so much as "his stupidity and carelessness, his selfishness and greed, his laziness and his immense self-regard".

How could such a low character of modest talents have become such a tycoon? Simple: the federal government of the United States, under the control of the Republican Party, picked him as a recipient of its largesse and patronage. Once in the circle of the blessed, even a man without talent could stay for decades, because his friends would keep him there, saving him time and again from himself. But these were not friends in the ordinary sense of the term, White writes. Under the management of men like Huntington and Stanford, the publicly subsidize private railroads perverted good human qualities like friendship and loyalty. No longer would affection or personal sympathy cement such bonds: now they derived from shared financial interest. "The key figures of the Gilded Age networks of finance, government, journalism, and business had stumbled like so many vampires on a cultural form (friendship), drained it of its life-blood (affection), and left it so that it still walked, talked and served their purposes in the world." The transcontinental railroads put so much money and power at stake that they corrupted everyone and everything they touched.

There are no heroes in Railroaded. Much of the literature on railroads seeks someone to valorize -- when writers do not write misplaced encomia on entrepreneurship, they seek to praise the middle managers who, yes made the trains run on time -- or worked out ways to overcome the mess of multiple gauges, or how to transfer cargoes from road to rail and back. White will have none of it "There were attempts at bureaucratic rationality", he says, "but they ended up either comic or frightening." The railroaders had too much interest in profit, or power, and danced at the whims of appetite and forces beyond their control. "Only in fiction", White says, were they "ruthlessly in charge".

The word "corrupt" or its variants occurs (according to a count abetted by an online search engine) approximately once every five pages in White's text. Appropriation of public resources for private gain is plainly his theme, and his indictment leaves no room to doubt that the makers of the transcontinentals used the railroads to channel the people's goods into their own pockets. White would rather the government had stayed out of the railroading business, speculating that without the subsidies, there would have been "less waste, less suffering, and less catastrophic economic busts". "There would have been more time", he contends, "for Indians to adjust to a changing world." Had the railroads waited until private enterprise could see the wisdom of their construction, they would have come "more cheaply, more efficiently, and with fewer social and economic costs". Maybe they could, but though White proposes this counterfactual, he does not work it out.

Even a reader untutored in the history of railroading might suspect that an untold story lies behind White's great swindles and circuses. After all, as Galileo would have said, and still they move: the engines and cars the passengers and traffic they did move, despite the boodlers and the Stanfords, and they moved with increasing cheapness and efficiency, or so historians versed in the less spectacular stories of railroad management assure us.

And even if it were not so, the moral of the sad story of government-subsidized rail is not necessarily that the government should do less: it might be that the government should do more. The next time the US government created a national transport network, it did not delegate the job to private enterprise or any public-private partnership such as the Union Pacific; it did almost the whole job itself. From the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 through the construction of roads by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s to American entry into the Second World War, the US created for itself a national network of intercity and interstate roads that the creation of federal freeways under the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 would only render more efficient. The trucking industry thus enabled would offer more competitive freight rates than the railroads ever had, and could, moreover, deliver door to door. Although trucking delivery over good roads did provide some benefits to the railroads by smoothing out the availability of first and last miles, in the main they provided fierce competition and, as Alexander Field says in A Great Leap Forward: 1930s depression and US economic growth (2011), "The railroad industry simply did not fully appreciate the extent to which the burgeoning trucking industry would eventually eat much of its ... lunch." Thus deprived of sustenance, the industry found itself in a parlous state in the mid-twentieth century, which is where Maury Klein picks it up in Union Pacific: The reconfiguration -- America's greatest railroad from 1969 to the present the third volume of his history of the Union Pacific railroad.

Unlike Thomas or White, Klein is a historian of the railroad itself. For him the tracks and trains do not represent nationalism or power or the propensity of government to corrupt: they make up a railroad, better or worse managed, to be sure, but a business in which the main challenge, day in and day out, is to turn a profit by moving people and goods in cars that travel on rails.

The characters involved in this phase of railroading history get less outsized treatment than their predecessors. Consider Klein's description of Roland Harriman, who managed the Union Pacific in the 1940s and 50s. His father, E. H. Harriman [W-ID], had bought the line in 1898, wresting it from bankruptcy and developing it into a profitable company. But Roland was a different sort.

His character had the sweetness and simplicity of one who wore his heart on his sleeve . . . gracious, accommodating, and forever pleasant . . . competent and well-meaning but unforceful .... The soul of tact and discretion, he preferred management by consensus.

The railroaders had come a long way from their piratical forebears, and the task before them was a different one. If in the nineteenth century the job had been to envision a railroad that spanned a continent -- a railroad that, perhaps, nobody needed, but people could be made to desire -- in the twentieth century the chore was making this great beast a peaceful creature that could coexist with the car and the lorry.

Facing this challenge meant mastering managerial and technological skills. For Klein, a "pivotal moment came in 1954" when one railroader asked, "what's a computer? I hear that we could use one profitably". The new calculating machines accompanied a new network of microwave transmission to permit faster sending and processing of information.

Even when these latter-day executives tried to strike a pose of bravado, it rings a hollow note. Klein tells us that John Kenefick, who ran Union Pacific from 1971 to 1986, called himself the "MFICC -- the Mother Fucker in Complete Charge". But unlike Collis Huntington, Kenefick did not have politicians in his pocket: he had a slide rule. In the early years of the computer revolution, he hired people who understood computers and could work with IBM, so that the railroad could efficiently manage inventory and schedule cars, keeping costs down. Kenefick sent company officers to get advanced degrees in management. He upgraded the programmes for maintaining track and roadbed. Conscious of the need to expand or perish in this shrinking railroad industry, he established a planning and analysis group to identify a menu of other railroads to swallow, and the Union Pacific chewed methodically through them: the Missouri Pacific and the Western Pacific; the Katy. Exploiting the terms of the original federal land grant; which licensed the Union Pacific to do business as a telegraph company, as well as a railroad, he oversaw the laying of fiber-optic cable along the right-of-way.

With Kenefick, the railroad men "started worrying about things other than intrigue and bullshit", one officer remarked. His successors brought the business-school concept of "total quality" to the organization, and also made priorities of health and safety. By the early twenty-first century, the line "handled one-third of all American rail traffic".

John Maynard Keynes famously wrote, "If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people, on a level with dentists, that would be splendid!" The economists haven't managed this feat, but according to Klein, the American railroaders have done it over a mere century and a half. Once a class of major visionaries and dangerous corrupters of public morals, they have become straightforward movers of traffic. This role may not last. With the modern desire for high-speed rail and greener ways to move goods and people, there are dreamers once again envisioning new lines of track across the great distances of America. Perhaps the attempt to realize this vision will require the same oversold promises and twisting of the political system as the nineteenth-century effort: but it lies around another bend in the track.