Photo courtesy of Brian Stephenson at Rail Pictures.net
In Germany and in the UK, there are many steam events during the year. The events are highly successful, magnetizing many people old and new alike, to ride the trains and to take photographs. The events are usually packed with riders and at key places, there are thousands of railfans. In the smaller towns, they attract the local crowds as well.
In the UK, special trains run on regular schedules throughout the year at certain times. They are usually sold out way before the trips, although sometimes they do not fill up at all due to many events or other circumstances beyond the organizers’ control.
In Germany, in the early 90s, a group of powerful rail enthusiasts convinced the government of German to run regular steam trains for a weekend out of a month every month or two, on regular runs (not ‘special excursions’). These are called by various names but the first ones were called ‘Plandampf‘ events and the others may have different names but all are forms of the original Plandampf. ‘Dampf’ in the German language, is steam. Plan, is scheduled–thus making the Plandampf events “Scheduled steam.’ The spectacle of regular steam trains, sometimes four or five at a time, leaving a station, is a memorable site for new fans, and incredibly nostalgic for the older fans who remember steam trains being the regular ways of traveling during their childhoods.
In the UK, there are regular steam festivals, sometimes running special steam trains on a tour around a certain region, or from one country to another. These have proven highly successful. Of course, since these are a big draw, all of the regional transit agencies want to run several of these steam runs throughout the year. Sometimes there are too many to organize or to sort out. But this is a testament to the splendor and power of steam locomotives and steam train travel for people.
I present two videos here. The first is a Plandampf event in Germany called the Dreikönigsdampf, an annual event. This one is a video from that event of 2009. You’ll get to see some steam locomotives doubling up and tripling, in various combinations.
The second video is a compilation of regular mainline steam runs in the UK, photographed and edited with music by ACW71000 on Youtube. He is one of the better videographers of UK steam and this is a nice, envigorating compilation, showing off the beautiful English, Welsh rural areas.
For more, visit my own Global Steam train site-blog, always in progress:
In 1963, the originally magnificent, but then ignored Pennsylvania Railroad Station in New York City, was demolished. Although, by then, more US Americans were driving and riding the new automobiles and flying in airplanes, the railroad held a significance to memory for Americans during this time. When parts of the station were slowly dismantled, rail service was still continuing and it has been told in many stories and biographies, that people could not imagine that the station would disappear so there was no public outcry at the time.
However, after the building had been destroyed, there was a huge public outcry from across the country, including Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy and several movie stars and music stars who became stars virtually by television and traveling on trains throughout the country, who loved traveling on trains. The managers and owners of the Pennsylvania Railroad, along with the New York Central Railroad–who owns the Grand Central Station in New York City, were thinking of new ways to make money and at that time, could only think about tearing down in order to build new things.
After Penn Central was built and the public began to question the corporate actions of demolition, a huge movement helped to create more intense legislation regarding the preservation of architectural sites in the US. Although some historians and writers credit this moment of Penn Central’s demise as the ‘creation’ of the architectural preservation movement in the US, there have been several preservation actions and initiatives throughout history, whereby certain grounds and buildings have been preserved. But the Penn Central one, was perhaps the more intense, which carried news across the country rapidly through the medium of radio and television, as well as the national newspapers.
Although many complained of the noise and the general dingy and poverty-bringing aspects of some of the railroad track and terminal areas in New York City, most admired the beauty and grandeur of Penn Station. For some, it was the memory of the glory days when cities and nations were building themselves and moving their identities out into the world through imagery and stature. Many, apparently, could not believe that the owners who had built these magnificent buildings, would tear their own creations down. What was forgotten was that for many of the corporate owners, the buildings themselves were not loved by these owners. What they loved was the money and power they brought to themselves. If it meant tearing down to make more……..well then?? Why not? Even as the public, including important public figures, were protesting the idea of the future plan of demolishing Grand Central Station in New York City, the owners were thinking of going ahead with it. In the end, Grand Central was saved and is considered a national architectural treasure.
What, today, is standing where Penn Central Station used to be? Madison Square Garden. Some have called Madison Square Garden an ugly monstrosity that would hardly be somethings that should’ve replaced Penn Central.
But such is progress and modernization. We would work to preserve buildings of nations. But we destroyed native american lives by the millions, and destroyed the lives of the poor of every ethnicity and race, including European, in order to build what we have today in our cities. Life is always contradictory. Without preservation movements and people who have learned to follow laws, there would be ultimate chaos. What new things need to be in life? How will these ‘new’ ideas or things live? Does there need to be destruction? If so, who decides and how? Who is marginalized and what is lost in a destruction? How do we learn to care about such decision-making processes that may be built into our systems? Remember, these are not new things. There are many people and organizations today who bring ethics and democratizing processes in decision-making. There have been many who continued to be destroyed, but that is not the point. Just because it has happened over and over, does not mean it is universal or eternal. Humans have a capacity to reflect on sustainability, the transformation of certain violences into useful possibilities infused with justice and care.
In an October 1963 editorial in the New York Times, it was said by an author who was saying ‘farewell’ to Penn Central Station: “we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed” “Farewell to Penn Station”. The New York Times. October 30, 1963.
When I traveled to the UK in the fall of 2009, it was my second time in Europe and my first time in the UK (besides a layover in Heathrow airport the previous year when I traveled to the Netherlands and Turkey).
In October of 2009, I was happy to see the UK for my first time as I have always wanted to visit. For my visit, I made sure that I visited two railroad stations in London, as they were world famous for their historical significance and architectural beauty. Most of my stay was in Wales, but for one week, I was able to visit London and I spent a little time at the huge and great St. Pancras Station for few hours, then I did spend one almost entire half-day at Victoria Station. Both of these stations are quite impressive and I, of course, being a train fan, was thrilled.
When I was a child, growing up in Japan, train travel was the most important way for Japanese to get around. Even today, it is the primary mode of travel. Trains were immaculate, impressive, beautiful and fast. Steam trains were thrilling in their energy, smoke, steam, and sounds but by the time the late 70s came, steam trains in Japan had disappeared except for special excursion trips. When our family moved to the United States in 1962, my father was loving enough and wanted me to experience steam trains in the US but was told that they were all gone and that we would ride the new modern diesel-powered ‘El Capitan’ of the Santa Fe Railroad from Los Angeles to Albuquerque.
I, of course wanted to see and ride behind a steam locomotive, but was nevertheless thrilled to ride on the beautiful ‘war bonnet’ red, gold, white diesel-powered streamliner, double-decked throughout.
Today, even that mode of travel is gone in the US. In the 1970s, the railroads increasingly became financially strapped and the conglomerate Amtrak was formed. Rail travel continues its downward spiral in the US, with a very few people in the US who even know that people can travel by train. Most train stations are torn down, empty and dirty, abandoned and un-cared for, and people could really care less. Trains and airlines are the way to go. However, with the airlines in trouble and the economy on a down-turn, there has been a slight renewed interest in rail passenger travel. President Obama has announced plans and wishes for a new high-speed rail system in the US with certain regions receiving major financial backing. Where this will lead we will see.
Along with the trains themselves, the train station has played an important part in national histories around the world. As mentioned earlier, the train station is where passengers come to ride the rails. When rail was in its heyday, the train stations were more than places to get onto trains. They were meeting places, places to eat and drink and spend time, to shop. They played an important part in urban and rural community identity, when train stations and their surroundings were most often the first place that passengers would see when getting off the train. First impressions played a major role in business and economic growth. The more attractive the stations and surroundings were, along with the train itself and its ride, the more lucrative your community (town, village, city) would become.
There are notably three types of hubs for passenger travel stops. For rural places, the buildings were called stations. Stations would have station-masters, who were in charge of the ambience of the station, the passengers and the workers’ relationship with the town itself. The station-masters kept these small stations going and provided the friendly and professional face and also the lead in making sure the employees of the station did their jobs in providing out-of-towners a good welcoming experience. Comfort, safety, and pleasantries were the mode of operation, while making sure the details of baggage handling, mail, schedules, hotels, land transportation, and other aspects of traveling were taken care of. It was very true that in most of the small towns, the entire population would know the train schedule at heart. This was because the train station was usually the most intense and powerful communication with the world outside of the station. Sometimes there was only one phone in the town and the telegraph machines. They would be at the train station. No one had personal phones in many of these towns in the early days. Also, packages from relatives and loved ones would arrive at the station. Indeed, the train station was the most important place in town next to the markets and banks.
Union stations, as they were called, were usually in large cities and were the centerpiece of individual railroad companies. Union stations were often owned by one railroad, along with the smaller stations in the rural areas. Usually, these union stations were designed by some of the top architects in the country and were the pride of the city.
Terminals are usually huge, and represented a meeting of several railroads in one building. Some terminals had several hundred trains of four to ten or more railroad companies’ trains departing and arriving, transporting a hundreds of thousands of passengers a day.
In Europe, Eastern and South Asia and most parts of the Middle East, railroads still carry a primary importance in passenger travel. In the US, privatization has created different ideas on the preservation and/or destruction of rail service. In Europe and Asia, the governments view railroad station and rail service, as a public service. This creates a special feeling towards pride and care. In Japan, privatization has taken over. However, rail service is the primary way people are mobile in Japan and its maintenance is of continued importance.
The two videos below are of the two London train terminals I visited. These are not my videos and I thank these great video artists in providing beautiful images of these great buildings. I am transported back to my visit when seeing these videos. I want my visit to the UK to be longer next time!!!!!
For readers interested in Stations and railroads, steam trains and rail history, please visit my new blog site, always in progress:
Fear has many colors and ways of being in the world. It does not just show up as cowering in a corner of the room in hiding, or shivers, or wide-eyes.
Fear also shows up in refusal, anger, resentment, maintenance and often in superiority. Especially when we look at the issues of democracy in so-called ‘democratic’ societies, we must understand that the elites who first founded the United States, were only speaking about democratic relations AMONG THEMSELVES. They owned slaves, they excluded women, and we know that all were Christian of certain denominations. All men were created equal except………… and women are in the home. Sexual orientation as an identity was non-existent as a political category, but we know that many of them had rich sex lives and only the heterosexual versions are told. To protect THE MAINTENANCE of the controls over what is exploited, and its link with survival (maintaining privileges within a vast social structure), the fear of losing this would create manifestations other than that of a one-dimensional mode of being scared.
However, this does not take away from the IDEALS and hopes of a democratizing society, which would always never be completely arrived at in any location, but perhaps increasingly practiced as a process as we make democracy LIVE EVERYDAY with commitment and struggle, instead of merely a dream or practiced only by government laws. Many philosophers and political scientists consider ‘democracy’ to be a social experiment and not a given. However, we must understand that throughout history, many of the societies that were systematically destroyed by the European expansion and US empire-building, had egalitarian societies. There are arguments that surround the US Constitution, as it is eerily similar to the Cherokee codes of community which pre-dates the US Constitution, of course. As we know, the histories and realities and many of our ‘Truths’ are not what we think they are simply because the empire-builders, the dominant class, and those who govern, largely create our realities for us by the control of education and the institutions, including what is ‘true’ or not.
In the building of the colonial nations and their colonies, the United States, much of Europe, Africa and Australia/New Zealand were created by vast movements of people and goods starting from the 18th century. This was primarily done through the invention of the steam engine. Steam ships and the railroads became powerful forces in the rapid industrializing of nations and in expansion as a category of ‘freedom.’ In this freedom, others under the military and economic violence of this system of superiority, were systematically assimilated or killed, in general.
When George Pullman invented the Pullman car, which essentially made the wealthy class able to travel in luxury and isolation from the other people of lower classes, the building of magnificent hotels, tourist industries, iron and steel and coal empires, land transportation connecting hotels to residential and business areas, and all forms of paper-making and other industries flourished in order to support these mechanisms that spread wealth and forms of power throughout most areas of the globe. Along with this, of course, was the strengthening of military flexibility and ways of warfare. The Pullman cars, with their luxurious interiors and beautiful craftsmanship, were one of the most important aspects of maintaining elite self-identification, expanding tourism and travel to the middle and lower classes of society, and the ability to move the elite around to areas of the continents in which they could do business.
After the freedom of the African slaves was passed into law in the United States, many of the free slaves were hired by George Pullman and the pullman company, to serve as high-class servants on these hotels on wheels, capitalizing on the maintenance of their skills as slaves. According to famous railroad writers, including the great Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg (a well-known gay couple and famous elite writers in their day), many of the elites rode on certain trains because certain railroad porters were kind, generous, entertaining, and spotless in their service. Some of these trains were, among the elites, called by the Porters’ names! The railroad porters were not just servants, but were an important aspect in raising the prestige of each of the railroads competing for their share of the wealth. The New York Central Railroad, the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Union Pacific, the Santa Fe, the Southern Pacific, and others, glorified their high-speed passenger trains and built magnificent train terminals and hotels next them, rivaling and sometimes surpassing the size and grandeur of state offices. Movie stars and song stars, sports stars and the high officials of the corporations that ran the world from the 1900s to the 1950s, all traveled mainly by rail, and the railroad companies had to stay in top shape. The Pullman porters were the personal connection between the train and the passengers.
The railroad companies were among the largest employers of blacks in the United States in the middle of the twentieth century. The offered a way for blacks to travel, to meet with and be among the elite of elites, and offered a source of pride and steady income for the families of the porters and the dining car waiters. Baggage handlers and railyard workers and other manual labor positions in the railroad also employed blacks. However, the porter position was regarded highly because of its ‘classy’ image. Along with the strong way for black families to join the middle class, by saving their dollar or two dollar-a-day salary, this offered the beginnings for public awareness regarding the status of blacks in post-slave periods into the twentieth century.
As one could guess, most of the Black porters were treated as third class and inhuman by most passengers much of the time. The racism was mainstream, legitimate in this way. Passengers would be the first ones to get anything they wanted while the porters were to be quiet and not cause trouble, even in the face of overt hostility and condescending attitudes. If they were to resist or even speak back in any fashion, they would be fired. However, most of the time, most of the porters were there to serve and most passengers would take advantage of their kindly and professional porters for their needs on the train or at the stations where the trains departed and arrived. The porters were not allowed to speak back to any customers. If they did, they were fired. At the famous Penn Central station in New York, for instance, as many as six hundred passengers trains departed per day. It was a phenomenal time for this new and beautiful way of traveling. On these travels, the porters endured and served. The black porters repeatedly asked management for changes in their status in the business, and were continually rebuffed. They began their meetings to unionize at this point.
The black pullman workers, were subordinate to the white conductors who kept things smoothly running between their association with the engineer who ran the train, and the passengers and mechanics on board. The black pullmans worked longer hours, were paid about half of the wages of the conductors, and often had to endure things that conductor would not. At this time, politically, there were no rights that they could exercise as workers.
Forming unions were a huge movement around the world and for much of the United States during these times. Of course, George Pullman and the administration, refused to grant the black workers their rights, using many violent tactics from stalling to sending ‘thugs’ to their homes to threaten and cajole, and refusal to speak with them. The workers held firm and continued to attempt a path for their rights as workers in the US.
A. Phillip Randolph (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A._Philip_Randolph) , a union organizer whose first love was acting, became an intellectual and activist in the Socialist Party and helped the Pullman porters gain their rights in 1925 when they won their right to become a union and also gained the rights they fought for. In 1919, the US Attorney General called him: ‘The Most Dangerous Negro in America.” How can a person fighting for equal rights be dangerous in a democratic country? Because the United States was founded on equality for the leaders, no the masses. Equality is a term for a hope, but even among the elite, this is a problem term and very difficult. However, against the Black Americans, this divide and subordination is even more intense, continuing today.
Fighting with the Commitment for rights is the only way. But this commitment is not merely a move upward in a ladder to equality, it is more about survival. Especially if those struggling for rights are ‘the other,’ such as those of Black African ancestry in US mainstream society, who are not acknowledged along peaceful grounds by the dominant group. The way these workers, and millions of others today, are working, is not sustainable. We can see the slow decay that is happening presently around the world, due to the impact of exploitation in its many forms.
Railroads, as I had proposed before, are not thought of by too many people in the United States today, except for ‘railfans.’ In Europe, Asia and Latin America, however, railroads still play an important role in society and governments view railroads as public services. In the US, automobiles and airlines have become the most important ways of mobility and travel. Increasingly, though, some scholars and those interested in history and peace and healing, have also become interested in some aspects of railroads and what we can learn from its specific history in larger contexts. Railroads were once once of the foundational aspects of most of the richest nations in the world, especially the United States. Railroads made goods available in far away places, allowed people to travel for pleasure and/or escape or to start new lives. To get to another destination that might have taken a week by wagon and/or horse, the trains were able to get there in twenty-four hours. The boom of rail transport began in the late 19th century all over the world where colonization had taken global wealth-making and control across continents. Moving people and goods and weapons became important. Steam locomotives propelled the trains and left their mark on people through the glory days of pleasure, wealth-making, and growth. Steam locomotives symbolized energy, power, industry, and personality. They personfied speed and power and gave many children new dreams to become an engineer or to work on the railroads.
Railroad companies owned most of the best hotels and resorts, taxi and bus companies, and other places where people traveled. Many of the best chefs in the United States, worked for certain railroad companies and certain trains were the favorites of movie and sports stars, publishing house CEOs and government executives all the way up to the Presidents. Most of the leaders of the railroads were often called ‘sharks’ and ‘pirates’ by the rising middle-class and the poor. They called each other these things when they were crushed by another’s strategies, lives being sent to oblivion in games of corporate take-overs. Indeed, I feel that anything you and I see that are big and glorious in civilized societies, are made that way by violence and domination, not be nice-ness. Exploitation must be a factor in capitalism.
In the 1940s, the United States began to re-think steam locomotives in new ways. Around the world as well, diesel and electric power were seen as less costly, less noisy, and cleaner than steam. However, when many of the steam engines had been converted to oil instead of coal, the political factors that brought battles to the superiority of oil companies over the millions who worked on coal mines and were the leaders of the coal industry have to be considered. Another factor is that diesel locomotive companies had to prove that they were ‘better’ than steam. So many trials were held. In most cases, it seemed that steam would lose to diesel and this gave the green light for dieselization of the railroad.
Photo courtesy of Ed Whittekind at Railpictures.net
They were made when the New York Central wanted to make ‘the ultimate locomotive’ to haul the most amount of tons possible on express passenger trains, with speed and efficiency. They lived up to that goal and were superb and magnificent in their assigned roles. The first ones were rolled out to work in 1945 and 1946. But by 1956, not one was left in operation and all were destroyed. Usually, railroads companies did their best to save one or two examples for museums and memory. The Niagara was completely disappeared. One has to look at several factors in how and why.
Time trials were held between steam and diesel, so that Diesels can prove. Most of the diesel locomotives during these latter days, were running on cleaned tracks and the most modern sheds where the locomotives could be cared for mechanically. The steam engines were relegated to delapidated, old sheds with not enough people and equipment. They had to still prove to the propaganda machines of the diesel corporations, that steam could live up to the cost-effective mentality (as opposed to aesthetic, or diversity, or other goals that could be chased after) of the ldeaders and prove a need to keep steam going. However, when looking at the time trial documents, one can see that most of the steam locmotives were old and indeed, slower than diesels and used more man-power. Another aspect of progress in capitalism is the link between efficiency and cost-effectiveness. However, if we are to do that, people lose jobs while machines take over. Does this sound familiar? Humans are increasingly left out of the equation. But let us return to my original point here.
The Niagara and the diesels were very very close in efficiency, speed, and power. The Niagara steam locomotive was a crowning achievement in human technology based on steam. Steam engines require teamwork (whereas all we need for a diesel is a lone engineer – which makes things efficient and not needing teamwork). So the workers who ran the Niagaras and loved their steam engines (which were most of the New York Central workers on the tracks,during these trials, set-up very efficient sheds and acquired the best equipment and watering facilities. so the Niagaras can show their stuff.
In the end, the corporate leaders didn’t much care. The tests were a waste of time, so we’re told. But even more so, I think the corporate leaders were enraged at the capability of the Niagara and needed them to go. They were a reminder of how the diesel propaganda machine was largely a set-up. The dieselization leaders worked closely with the automobile industry and the airline industry to make sure their jobs were maintained and deals were made beforehand.
Many steam fans and former New York Central workers today, still lament the disappearance of the Niagara, even as their more famous locomotive – the Hudson is displayed in museums. The Niagara, like other things in history, were care for by people and united communities and workers. They did not wish to dominate, but to play their role and co-exist. In corporate games, there is only one winner. And so the violence of this thinking lives on in almost every facet of our lives. I love the memory of the Niagara and its aesthetic. I am also continually reminded of power and folly and the loss of art and memory in the world. And it is not natural and not pre-determined. It is done by people and policies and strategies.
For readers interested in railroad history, steam train galleries and videos, stations and terminals, and railroad cultural histories, please visit my new blog, always in progress and updated frequently:http://worldsteamsite.wordpress.com/
Duffy’s Cut is the name of a stretch of land along railroad tracks about 30 miles west of Philadelphia, USA. The tracks belonged to the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad in the summer and fall of 1832. The line later became part of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Phillip Duffy, then a railroad contractor of the railroad and himself an Irish immigrant from a generation before, hired 57 Irish workers to help build this stretch of railroad. They arrived from Donegal, Terry, and Tyrone on the ship named John Stamp and were quickly hired by John Duffy. Six weeks later, all 57 were dead and piled into a hole in the ground, unmarked. It was believed that they died of cholera, which was an epidemic that was widespread at the time.
In August 2004, two brothers – one a minister and the other a university professor, began a project to find out what happened to those 57 Irish who came for survival. This began from one of the brothers finding a document belonging to his grandfather–who was a high assistant to the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The document mentioned the hidden gravesite of these men. Soon with further investigation, there seemed to be a pattern that showed a cover-up of some things, pointing to events more intentional than death by disease. In addition, one of the brothers experienced seeing an apparition believed to be of these workers. There has been a long legend of ghost sightings and folk stories surrounding the Duffy’s Cut, from the local Pennsylvania community to Ireland.
The Duffy’s Cut Project ( http://duffyscut.immaculata.edu/ ) was initiated in 2004 to find out what actually happened to these 57 Irish immigrants who had traveled to the US to find a better life. The work was arduous in that they had to locate the workers’ remains whose locations were unknown. But soon there was a breakthrough.
In the 1800s and into the turn to the next century, prejudice against immigrants was high. Many had come during the industrializing era for work for new dreams and to escape strife and poverty and famines in their own lands. Competition created by the uneven and prejudiced actions of reward/punishment and availability created strife between many of the new immigrant groups and sometimes used against each other by the companies. Labor unions were quite new at the time. So most of the leaders and management groups were free to do what they wanted with their workers. Prejudice against the Irish-Catholic people were high during this time. This also created a lack of care and concern for most of the workers’ struggles, which intensified with the general attitude of the management and townspeople, toward Irish Catholics.
In 1844, an anti Irish-Catholic riot broke out at an Irish Protestant Orange Day parade in Philadelphia, then followed by the Nativist Riots directed at Irish Catholics. Religion, then, plays a role in division and the right to harm and kill. Another factor is in the racializing prejudices that people carry. The inhabitants of Philadelphia at this time were descendents of Germans, Englishmen, Sephardic Jews, Welsh, and Anglo-Irish – all of whom largely thought of the Irish Catholics as ‘less than human.’ Any look at the many cartoon depictions of the Irish-Catholics in the magazines and newspapers of that period, would attest to this popular view and consequent humiliation. These factors aided in the miserable working conditions of many of the Irish who worked on the railroads in the eastern United States during the late 19th through the middle of the 20th centuries. Of course Italians, Turks, and others who came to work on the railroads were marked for prejudice as well. People are perhaps more familiar with the Western US railroads and practices of prejudice, which demarcated the racism against Chinese railroad workers, for instance. Later, the prejudices received by African-American railroad workers became more well-known. In Japan, for instance, Korean workers were the target. In every nation, there needed to be slave labor to build in such large quantities over such large areas of land for so little pay and with speed. However, it must be remembered that not every individual in socially privileged and dominant groups was prejudiced. There were many cross-positional allies – meaning, many local Philadelphians, for instance, who did not believe in the ‘lesser’ qualities of Irish Catholics and resisted alongside, at the risk of being called ‘a traitor.’
Recently, in 2009, it has been proven using forensic and archeological investigation, that at least two of the men were killed by blunt-force trauma, most likely by a pic-axe or similar tool /instrument / weapon. There had always been folk songs by the Irish in Ireland, on Duffy’s Cut and its legend. Most of them always questioned:
‘Were they taken by the sickness, were they hunted down like scum?…was it cholera or murder?’
– Wally Page, Duffy’s Cut
Most historians, sociologists, and anthropologists who have studied the industrial era and railroads, understand the grounds near railroads, lakes, and bridges, to be lined with the bodies of people whose lives no one knows or remembers. Such is the road of progress and industrialization. This does not make killing and forgotten ancestors inevitable, however, or right or a part of progress. It is a question of collective grieving and its necessity in our times. It is also the work of remembering which is so difficult now. I am forever grateful and filled with tears when thinking of the dedicated work of Frank and Bill Watson in Philadelphia, who followed the ghosts who came to them for a justice that was close to two centuries old by this time. Mass graves are not only what certain countries do. The founding and building of nations often show that it is done at tremendous costs.
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!