The Railway Journey by Wolfgang Schivelbusch

Table of Content

The English novelist E.M. Foster once wrote, “Railway terminals are our gates to the glorious and the unknown. Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine, to them, alas! we return.” The sentence in its essence signifies the marked importance that the railways occupied in the hearts and minds of the people in the 19th century. Their dominant inclusion into the daily lives of the people and the changes brought by them were inescapable. The manner in which this rapid inclusion of new mechanical advancement influenced the thought of the people in Europe and North America is astounding. As such, this book by Wolfgang Schivelbusch is a considerable step at establishing the important part played by railways in the creation of what can be called an industrial consciousness, a prime example of the interaction between technology and culture.

Schivelbusch begins by providing a history of the railroad and how it developed during the years of the 19th century. He begins by the talking of the methods of construction employed in the 18th century using wood, both in the United States and Europe. These practices of using wood were slowly but surely substituted by the more durable and stronger steel in the 18th century as the methods of construction developed and the advantages of steel were recognized. This was no different from the shift in the shipbuilding industry which also employed steel as the technology developed and the experts learnt to use it. The author then proceeds to the effect of the Corn Laws on the economics of animal power and how it affected trains. The import tariffs ostensibly designed to “protect” British farmers and landowners against competition from cheap foreign grain imports was basically displaying the power of the British aristocracy. However, the debate over the Corn Laws was a crossroads in the transition of the Britain from a feudalist society, to a more modern, industrial one. Schivelbusch then moves on to discuss the issues revolving around the coal production in Restoration France and its effects on the viability of trains and hence influence on aspects of rail travel. Schivelbusch also mentions some of the many novel ways of pulling trains that were suggested by people in the 19th century and people’s perceptions about how these gigantic mechanical monsters were being pulled by that steam engine. There were even proposals to pull trains by using cogwheels on serrated rails.

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            The book addresses many different themes surrounding the introduction of the railway into the western lifestyle. In the book, Schivelbusch can be said to move freely from one aspect of railway travel to another, adding incrementally rather than developmentally to the reader’s knowledge. Therefore it is difficult to extract a solid recurring theme from this work, but the idea one gets that the author is trying to make the reader grasp is that the railway journey is a symbol of the commodification of the social, economic and cultural fabric of the west in the 19th century. As Schivelbusch points out, the railways were a system for moving commodities and in most cases, these commodities were human beings. The travelers, the ordinary people therefore responded to the change brought by the railways and looked at the world weaved around them by railway journeys in a novel manner, creating new accounts of the world and forming new perceptions.

            One of the most important changes brought by the railway according to Schivelbusch is the annihilation of space and time that the railways made possible which drastically changed the people’s ideas about space and time. Local identities became charged with metropolitan meanings.  The concept was based on the speed that the new means of transport was able to achieve in that 19th century society. Here, the temporally shrunk transport space can be said to appear in a new geography of the west, a condensed geography based on the new conditions of speed. As the railways spread, the cities of European countries approached each other while simultaneously advancing on to other new and unknown areas. As an example, the idea that some far away provincial town will fit into a nation’s capital’s street according to Schivelbusch, demonstrates that the alteration of spatial relationships through the speed mustered by the railroad is not simply a process that diminishes space, but that it is a dual one: it both diminishes and expands space. For now, not only are the destinations once considered far and forlorn easily accessible, like a street in the far off corner of the city, but the whole notion of “far” has been extended, thereby expanding space.

            Schivelbusch puts some emphasis on the point that the notion that railroad annihilates space and time is not related to that expansion of space that results from the incorporation of ever new spaces into the transport network. What is experienced as annihilated is the traditional space-time continuum which was characterized by the old transport technology. The technology before the railways allowed the people to perceive of space during a journey as a living entity. Thus what can be said is that the railroad opens up new spaces that were not accessible before it; on the other, it does so by destroying the space in-between. On a railroad journey, there are only points of departure and the destination. All the places in between become a blur, a passing or fleeting glance and of no significant importance. The traditional traveling space is destroyed, losing their old transitory importance when travelers could savor the incremental steps of travel to their destination and bask in the present rather than pass by on way to a predefined position. The isolation that spatial distance created between localities was the very essence of their here-and now, their self-assured and complacent individuality.

            The next important change caused by the railways that Schivelbusch talks about is that brought about by the new social arrangements in railway travel. With the full use of trains underway, the railway carriage began to function as a separate locale. It was in a sense a discrete particle of time and space that existed outside the normal perception of time and space. The arrangements presented by the railway carriages, the environment of the first class coach with unknown people sitting facing each other for the duration of the journey, contemplating the modes of behavior and mannerisms to follow contrasted with the hustle and bustle of the economy coach which carried more passengers and therefore allowed less privacy in comparison. For all passengers visual perceptions changed; foregrounds disappeared and panoramas were created in their place. For middle-class passengers, cocooned in their railway compartments, the conversation of coach travel was replaced by silence and mutual suspicion. The rise of travel reading as a mode of behavior appeared during this era of extensive rail travel as genteel passengers looked for ways to avoid the embarrassing amount of time sitting opposite other people in complete silence. Trains traveled so fast that the passengers had little opportunity to study the landscape-and the trip was over so quickly that they had little time to interact with fellow travelers anyway. First-class travelers in particular displayed that characteristic of hiding behind a book or newspaper. Poorer-class travelers tended to mingle more readily in crowded coaches where the lack of privacy discouraged isolated occupations such as reading. Thus people were presented with a whole new assortment of settings and in turn reacted with novel modes of behavior.

            Schivelbusch next talks about the new modes of perception created by the railway journey, especially what he refers to as the fragmented and impressionistic perception of the landscape that is possible from a railway carriage window. He claims that the new panoramic perception of the world closely mirrors commodity circulation under capitalism as it is fleeting but still coordinated to an extent. Thus he points to the industrial revolution being accompanied by a corresponding revolution of perception. The pre-industrial and localized geography of social relations is thus replaced by a more generalized and less specific set of contexts that rapidly become second nature to those who live them.

            Another important insight into the changes brought by railway travel that Schivelbusch offers is the pathology of the railroad journey. Rail travel was stressful and tiring, and most people experienced fears of impending disaster. As Schivelbusch points out, the vibration in the trains caused a constant strain on the muscles of the passengers and lead to medical problems. Noise levels and the constant whistling sounds that accompanied the whole length of the journey resulted in a new kind of physical fatigue. This was in contrast to coach travel by road or highway, canal or river travel in which not only did the passengers not experience such type of fatigue but could also stop at any place in between and take respite from the journey at their will, something very cumbersome in railroad traveling.

            The possibility of death or injury, always present whatever the mode of transportation, was heightened in the traveler’s mind according to Schivelbusch. There was always the fear of accident or a calamity occurring which was heightened by the constant noise of machinery and whistles that accompanied the length of the journey. This was heightened by sensational accounts of railway accidents leading to loss of life and destruction. Passengers eventually acquired a means to cope with the new transport, a protective layer analogous to Freud’s ‘stimulus shield’. When accidents did occur, they contributed to medical advancement by helping doctors to discover the importance of non-physical trauma or ‘shock’.

            Schivelbusch is successful in blending together the ideas of a wide variety of people within the course of his discussion about railways. The ideas of Marx, Baudelaire and Benjamin, accompanied by Simmel and Freud combined together with the author’s own original ideas present a colorful insight into the effects of rail travel in the 19th century. Freud’s theory of the “stimulus shield” presents the author’s answer to the mechanism passengers adopted to cope with the inherent fear that accompanied railway travel while the Marxian ideas come forth in the discussion about the varying social behaviors among the classes in the different railway compartments.

Such a book depends for its effectiveness on the author’s individual insights. Some of these striking comments result from taking seriously the reports of nineteenth-century commentators, whose experiences as early riders we can never share. It does however provide us with a view of the people from the society that had just been introduced to such fast forms of travel. Schivelbusch thus records their laments for the “loss of landscape” as the train roared through tunnels and whistled its way through enormous plains; their fears for “the end of conversation” in the face-to-face compartments of first class coaches, where mannerly passengers sat staring in embarrassed silence at one another. The discussions of the people about the physical effects of railroad travel, it’s “pathology” and how it was remarkably different from travel by coach. Equally valuable are the author’s ingenious comparisons that draw parallels between the psychological aftereffects of railway accidents and military shell shock or between the stages of a railway journey. Schivelbusch’s tendency to tell anecdotes also adds to the effect. The pair of celebrated murders that took place in closed compartments aboard trains that had no linking corridors where the passengers could not escape until the train had stopped. This tends to reflect is part, the author’s determination to stay close to the facts of life on early railroads, rejecting the possibility of churning out abstract theories about general behavior and therefore presenting hypothesis about why certain trends may have emerged. The book in a sense tends to testify to the sense of shock and disorientation which the early railways produced

As Schivelbusch points out, the adverse pathological effects of railway travel and the noise and vibrations were not the over riding feature in such travels. Little comforts did tend to alter the perceptions of the passengers. The new technology found ways of masking its own harshness, enabling passengers to forget the brute physical forces that were moving them from place to place. The use of padding and special furnishing in the first class compartments of the trains helped reduce some of the fears of the travelers regarding the excessive vibrations and the noise levels. Well sprung bogies with gas and electric reading lights and special cars for dining and sleeping provided benefits that were rarely enjoyed in the substitute forms of transportation and as such were a special feature of trains during the 19th century. Even the addition of an observation car to provide the travelers with a nice view of the space in between their destinations added to the whole experience and helped passengers forget that they were travelling at fast speeds on a potentially destructive piece of mechanical machinery whose reputation was not at all helped by sensation accounts in the newspapers. Such comforts helped convert the process of train travel into a rich and complex aesthetic experience.

            The accounts of the dazzling aspects of train travel were accompanied by the passengers’ negative thoughts about it. Many also looked on the railway and all its works as the negation of the beautiful. Some were said be so bored on the train that they exclaimed on their first travels about the horrible experience in comparison to other forms of travel traditionally employed. Many of the early travelers found it challenging to comprehend and accept the idea of the rapidly changing landscape from the carriage window and not being able to stop between in the spaces between their destinations. However, the failure of early travelers to assimilate the rapid changes of landscape seen through the carriage window merely shows their difficulty in apprehending a completely new aesthetic experience. There were others who did look upon the trains as ushering in a new form of experience and beauty altogether. These mechanical marvels that chugged their way through long paths, carrying an astonishing number of passengers and varying designs caught the fancy of some of the population as Schivelbusch shows. notes. It was not merely that the railway brought into existence objects that frequently displayed great beauty – locomotives and carriages, trainsheds and bridges but that the whole of a railway system constituted a collective work of art.

            Schivelbusch noted in his chapter that dealt with railway stations that there was a discontinuity between the worlds of the surrounding towns through which the trains traversed or in which they arrived and the world of the railway to which they constituted the entrance. The vastness and intricacy of that world made the conception in the minds of the people of its nature as a single unified work of art hard to recognize. It was considerable removed from the traditional perception of art as being something more natural and in tune with the surroundings. In comparison, trains with their strange but new composition in the landscape, their noise and a certain aura of eventual dullness that accompanied them were no where close to the works of Mozart or Picasso that the art loving public aspired to. They were merely something of necessity which the world could do without from an aesthetic point of view. Much the same problem was encountered by the Bavarian railways as Schivelsusch points out but there were certain circles who still considered it a form of novel art.

Schivelbusch was able to highlight the uniqueness of the railway systems in different countries and across the Atlantic. In a sense, he can be said to suggest a greater level of homogeneity within the railway systems than other contemporaries would have. A journey across one European country to another would have been very different from the same journey to a different country. Even within one particular country such as the United States or England, there would have been subtle or very emergent differences in station architecture, the method employed for signaling, locomotive and carriage design. Even the uniforms of the employees of the railway system, the operating practices employed and the way the timetable was composed reflected a certain level of uniqueness. The scenic and topographical character of the landscape through which the passengers traveled was in no way the same either and presented a different look.

We in our present society are accustomed to the speed at which the most technological advancements are coming and being assimilated into the fabric of our society. New wonders such as computers and airplanes have brought new dimensions to our thoughts and perhaps the new and marvelous does not appear as imposing to us. In the nineteenth century people were not as used to this speed and the new marvels such as steamboats and telegraphs were not as easily being assimilated as we have computers and space travel. Therefore Schivelbusch’s work serves as a crucial look into the nature of this psychic shock and conceptual turmoil that the people of the 19th century were facing when this new and fast mode of transportation was introduced. The author therefore has brought to light valuable evidence about the immediate response to the railway, and deepened our awareness of its widespread historical consequences through the eyes of a traveler.

Despite the book’s unique look at the perceptions of the people who had travelled by train in the 19th century and a novel presentation of the challenges faced by them, this book is not without its short comings. Some parts of the book, like the panoramic perceptions they describe are highly sketchy and drawn with outlandish judgments. They would need to be backed by the accounts and perceptions of other travelers to be fully recognized as something concrete. Schivelbusch sometimes appears to show a tendency to load too much meaning into examples that they can seldom bear. In some cases, if the author’s line of reasoning is to be followed, the whole of industrial capitalism can be said to be based on a couple of distinctive events. Symbolic overload apart, some of Schivelbusch’s theoretical concepts are a bit too excessive. The use of Freud’s theory of the stimulus shield to explain passenger’s coping with the nerves of rail travel could have been better presented by employing elements of modern social psychology. It is also better to take this work as being about the social/psychological impact of railway travel in Western Europe and North America. It should not be taken as a history of travel or of technology for that matter because whenever the author attempts to discuss such matters, he displays a relatively poor understanding of the subject compared to the stronger analysis of the social and psychological aspects.

There is little that can be said to be completely new in this work. However, the text of this book is enlivened by quotations from contemporary writers from several countries which add a nice bit of flavor to the reading experience. Another small observation that a reader can make is the absence of an organized, unified, over riding thesis. One can draw upon his own set of ideas about what the author’s underlying point is but these may vary considerable from one person to another. Chapters deal with various aspects of railway travel in the 1800s, from mechanics, scheduling, and speed through the design of coaches and depots to travel weariness, fear of accidents, and the “panoramic” vision of the world through the window. A recurring theme is the loud contrast between the traditional forms of travel employed such as a horse-drawn vehicle, following the contours of the land at a slow and varying acceptable pace, and mechanical travel over completely straight rails cutting through tunnels and railroad bridges with a constant and unvarying speed, never tiring and seldom stopping for respite.

One way of looking at Schievelbusch’s interpretation of the data he analyses is a profoundly negative view of trains and rail travel in general. The author tends to be point out that the greater speeds, dangers, and impersonal quality of travel had a profound effect on the traveling public, much of which appeared to be negative. The work can here be said to largely ignore the misery and slowness of pre-railway travel and tends to idealize the pastoral nature of everyday life in pre-industrial times. The book in some places also engages in a strong contrast of rail travel to the ordinary methods of travel such as by coach. The simple pleasure of going slow, savoring the view and enjoying the pleasantness of nature at a “human” pace is presented sometimes as being destroyed by rail travel. This does not take into account the rapid step that rail travel brought by completely changing the lifestyle of the people and taking them a step ahead. Speed in transportation has always been an advantage for mankind and has taken civilizations further. While the simple pleasures of slow and incremental travel are something to be cherished, it should not undermine the importance and the equally pleasurable qualities of rail travel. If that alone does not suffice, the rapid advancement in technology that was aided by this faster mode of transportation is something that should make up for the loss of any aesthetic sense or pastoral pleasures of pre-rail travel.

            Thus in conclusion, this work by Wolfgang Schivelbusch is something that provides us with a unique insight into the perceptions surrounding rail travel and trains in the 19th century. The social/psychological impact of railway travel in Western Europe and North America that the work presents may not be completely original but it is lit up by some of the methods employed by the author for narrating the details using quotations and anecdotes. The author’s main concern is to establish the important part played by the railways in the creation of an industrial consciousness, a prime example of the interaction of technology and culture and that is something in which the book does not fail. Wolfgang Schivelbusch dazzles the reader by the headlong pace with which he intersperses curious factual information and contemporary comment from French, German, English, and American sources with his own suggestive interpretations about the early impact of the passenger train on the modern consciousness. It is indeed a useful work that may not have received the attention it deserves in academic circles.

Works Cited

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century. University of California Press, 1987.


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The Railway Journey by Wolfgang Schivelbusch. (2017, Feb 05). Retrieved from

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