Railroads, Steam trains, Nation-building

Photo: Tracks at the Altoona, Pennsylvania USA, railroad station.  Courtesy of dintywmoore (Flickr).

Most people today do not even think of railroads.  Even as most of things people have are by-in-large transported by  trains from one city or another.  Passenger trains have mostly gone out of style in the United States, due to strategic domination and marginalization of many of the industries and worldviews of rail transport by the automobile and airline industries.  This also had to do with the fights between coal and oil resources and the globalization and neo-colonization that continues today.

I have been a lifelong lover of steam trains, having grown up in Japan with steam trains going by my window.  The haunting sounds of steam chugging and mournful mountain whistles of the stream train were my friend.  Even though I had lost interest for most of my adult life, I have come to revisit it, as an old love that was there but buried for a while and also within my new perspectives on history, identity, social justice, and healing.

Today in many parts of Europe and Asia, people still travel by train.  European and Asian nations invested in modernizing rail service resulting in some truly stunning architectural marvels and beautiful and harmonious structures that loom in the cities, towns, and rural areas.  The governments of Europe and Asia largely invested in railroad travel as a public commitment as much as the continual organization of diverse forms of transport and capitalist market strategies.  In the United States, the railroads were largely privatized, then made into huge mega-corporations (Amtrak) which killed the diversity of ideas and technologies of rail.

Coupled with the US public’s interest in automobiles, the death of rail travel seemed immanent. But there are revivals going on.  People seem to be at the end of their rope with pay tolls on highways, rising costs of parking along with congestion and mechanical breakdowns. More and more people cannot afford cars.

The steam train, from its off-shoot from steamboats and steam logging carts, became the dominant mode of travel around the world in the industrializing countries.  Indeed it was a colonial mechanism of controlling vast areas of lands and connecting former points on the planet and shortening the time it took between them.  Mobility became a main aspect of the newfound liberal freedoms of travel and tourism as much as the transporting of goods and things.  Travelling by rail became a desire and privilege of many, while steam locomotives with their distinct personalities and energy attracted young boys and girls to them.  Train-spotting and chasing locomotives came to be fun for many children and many of their aspirations were to run a locomotive.  Some philosophers of society have said that the steam locomotive is among the ‘most human’ of human industrial creations.  One can see that it is nice to watch a beautiful and sleek, fast and multi-colored diesel or electric motive-powered train go by.  But the sight of a steam engine can enthrall and fascinate.  For those of us who are older, it is nostalgic.  For some, they represent tremendous noise and soot and dirt and are not attractive at all.  But it still attracts some notion.  Most people have no opinions about diesel or electric motive power on trains.

Railroads are an under-studied aspect of colonization and nation-building.  Most of the major metropolitan areas (if not all) of the world, were founded through the power struggles and extreme mega-corporate dealings of the railroad companies.  The railroad leaders were not just running trains.  Tourist businesses and the most grand and incredibly luxurious and huge hotels and resorts were owned and run by the railroad companies.  Taxi companies and travel agencies were run by the railroad companies.  The coal and iron industries exist today because the railroad companies owned and ran all of them.

The building of railroads parallels the changing human landscapes during the industrial-colonial period, especially from the late 18th century to the present.  All of the histories of the different communities, changing ethnic/racial categories and racisms, gender and sexism issues, nationalities and immigration laws and exclusions,  played out in every way around the world.  The most dangerous jobs with the least pay went to those branded ‘minority’ and ‘lesser and inferior’ by the dominant nations.  These ‘lesser’ people did the back-breaking and often life-killing work of building the railroads that criss-crossed across every land to benefit the corporate leaders’ pockets and help their pleasure vacations to the resorts they built.

But this doesn’t make trains evil.  Everything in life is like this today.  Everything is a result of the violence done to each other.  If we were to go slower and reflect upon the kind of societies that we wanted during the industrial era, it could’ve worked differently.  The kinds of societies we wanted were a response to the mostly poor people of the world who toiled in manual labor to make their lives.  Suddenly, in the industrialization periods (which is today called ‘technological’) the world was shrinking in time due to things being faster, and things were more automated.  They were also more fragmented and split communities apart with dreams, they were told, that they should follow as individuals.  Also, they allowed the escape from poverty and abuse in communities and families.  Life is contradictory.  But if we could think more and reflect on ‘how’ we do it – with ethics, an understanding of power-relations and history and power between groups and people and how things could work better between people and make decisions, instead of just doing it quickly for the sake of excitement, comfort, and ‘progress,’  then perhaps it can be different.

My love of steam trains continues. But now I also use it to invite questions.

Today, the steam trains exist only in tiny, tiny, tiny  numbers around the world.  Some of the preserved locomotives run fairly regularly in most countries, as tourist attractions and ‘special runs’ because they must make money.  I thank the many preservation societies and certain wealthy individuals who have saved some of these incredible creatures for us to enjoy again and again, and also to remind ourselves of the tremendous toll our past has taken and also created to make our historical present, our ‘today.’

Below is a video of one of my favorite huge locomotives in the United States, which occasionally makes special runs in California.  It is a locomotive of the former Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe – shortened to ‘Santa Fe’ by most people during its time between the late 19th centuries to the 1980s.  It is engine number 3751, which made a recent run from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara in May 2010.   I will post others sometimes.  Enjoy!

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