The Neuroses of the Railway

By Harrington, Ralph | History Today, July 1994 | Go to article overview

The Neuroses of the Railway


Harrington, Ralph, History Today


From the beginnings of their development in the early nineteenth century, railways inspired deep anxieties and provoked strong opposition. The common factor in much anti-railway discourse -- whether couched in environmental, medical or social terms -- was a perception of railways as fundamentally unnatural, as intrinsically at odds with the established order embodied in the rural landscape, the social structure of traditional communities, and the constitution of the human mind and body.

It was claimed that trains would blight crops with their smoke and terrify livestock with their noise, that people would asphyxiate if carried at speeds of more than twenty miles per hour, and that hundreds would yearly die beneath locomotive wheels or in fires and boiler explosions. Many saw the railway as a threat to the social order, allowing the lower classes to travel too freely, weakening moral standards and dissolving the traditional bonds of community; John Ruskin, campaigning to exclude railways from the Lake District, warned in 1875 of |the certainty ... of the deterioration of moral character in the inhabitants of every district penetrated by the railway'.

The more extreme fears did recede as the railways spread, becoming established as an economic and social necessity and proving their ability to function safely and reliably; yet below the superficial acceptance deep disquiet remained. Rather than disappearing altogether, the fear and anxiety provoked by the railway changed in nature as the nineteenth century progressed, becoming a fear of internal rather than external disruption.

The reasons for this change lay in the unique potency of the railway as a symbol of modernity. In the scale and sophistication of its engineering, the order and complexity of its operation, the speed and power of its technology, the railway embodied all the forces of mechanisation, organisation and industrialised progress which lay behind modern civilisation. This quality could inspire wonder and admiration, and many artists and writers saw the railway as a natural subject for artistic treatment; as Zola wrote of Paul Bourget,

You, modern poet, you detest modern

life. You go against your gods, you

don't really accept your age. Why do

you find a railway station ugly? A station

is beautiful.

Similar sentiments inspired the Italian Futurists in the first years of the twentieth century to celebrate |greedy railway stations that devour smoke-plumed serpents' and |deep-chested locomotives whose wheels paw the tracks like the hooves of enormous steel horses bridled by tubing'; but the images of the railway in Futurist paintings such as Boccioni's |Train in Motion' and his |States of Mind' series, and Carri's |Milan Station' (all from 1911) reveal the darker forces behind the promise of technological advancement, depicting the disorientation and confusion of rail travel as well as its excitement.

Such works recognised that if the railway represented the triumph of mechanisation and the embodiment of progress, it was also inherent with danger, bearing all the threatening ills of neurosis, destruction and degeneration which lay behind the facade of modernity. The railway carried people at unheard-of speeds, and forced them to place complete trust in its technology; it trapped them in noisy, unsteady, claustrophobic wooden boxes, isolating them from the world beyond the carriage window; it subjected them to violent jolts and constant vibrations, and assaulted their ears with rattles, roars and deafening shrieks; it reshaped their physical environment with its tracks, vast structures and earthworks, and increasingly dominated their mental world with the demands of its timetables, connections and bureaucratic procedures; in short, it is little wonder that so many saw themselves as the victims of a technology which, rather than serving human needs, forced human beings to conform to its own requirements, and that the belief that the railway posed an insidious degenerative threat to the human mind and body became steadily more widespread from the 1860s onwards. …

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