Now in paperback from Penguin-Random House

Here is the story of the most indispensable mode of transportation the world has ever known: the railroad.

We live in a world created by the trains. They made our modern food system, the beat of our music, our huge corporations and their financing methods, our labor unions, the shapes of national borders, the pleasant leafy suburbs that surround our major cities, our abstract notion of time and space, and our sense of connection with people who may live far out of sight but become still become our neighbors. All of these are products of the sweeping heritage of railroads.

The train and its breathing locomotive is a living symbol of sex, death, fear and romance. But it is also a serious economic engine in the modern world. China has spent more than $300 billion on a crash program to unite its provinces with freakishly-quick bullet trains, while the United States struggles to start its own network. And in an economy tied more than ever to moving goods across international borders, fresh spikes are being hammered everywhere. In a future full of doubts about petroleum supplies, there may be a train calling on your city once again.

An entertaining journey around the world by train, as well as a masterful narrative history, Tom Zoellner’s extraordinary book is a call to re-embrace the train not just as an old friend, but as a weapon against global headaches over trade, traffic, and energy. Trains never went away. We just forgot them. Now it is time to climb on board again.

“A rousing around-the-world paean to the rumble of the rails by accomplished journalist Zoellner (A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in America, 2011, etc.).

The author, who commutes by train to his teaching job in Los Angeles, notes their utility in moving people and freight. Also, Zoellner finds trains good places to fall in love, if fleetingly, and to get reading and thinking done. Some of the things he thinks about are—well, things that it hasn’t occurred to other writers to ask about, such as the decidedly detrimental effects human excrement has on the rail lines of India: First, it eats away at the metal, and then it attracts insects that eat rail ties, telephone and signal poles, and even railroad cars themselves. (The Hindi word for “this universal human output” is goo.) Mostly, Zoellner concentrates on less icky topics, and often to memorable effect, as when he writes of a foggy journey through northern England, “a J.R.R. Tolkien vision come to life” and an “eldritch scene” to boot. England may be a land of plains and valleys “with an occasional volcanic knob on which the ruins of a fortress might be standing and one where the occupants had almost certainly sucked all the wealth from the surrounding fields and converted it into magnificent furniture and swords,” but America, with its continentally vast distances, has much catching up to do—for one thing, trains travel much slower here than they do elsewhere in the world. Having train-hopped across continents, Zoellner closes his account with a cleareyed look at what needs to happen in America if trains are to have a future—it will involve considerable infusions of money and overcoming vested-interest opposition.”

“Great for fans of Paul Theroux’s railroad journeys, except that Zoellner isn’t anywhere nearly as ill-tempered, and he has a better command of social history. A pleasure for literate travelers.”

-Kirkus Reviews

Despite ebbing enthusiasm for passenger rail travel in the U.S. these days, train companies remain major players in transporting consumer goods from coast to coast. Also, as veteran journalist and unabashed train fanatic Zoellner emphasizes in this exuberant celebration of these mammoth wheeled machines, both commuters and businesses overseas are still heavily dependent on trains, especially in countries like China, where rail service continues to expand almost exponentially. As a convenient excuse for research, Zoellner toured several of the world’s most notable rail lines, including a north-to-south trek in Britain, a journey up corkscrewing tracks in the Peruvian Andes, and a jaunt on Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway. In between colorful anecdotes from his travels that include snapshots of contemporary commuters in countries from Scotland to India, Zoellner provides a wealth of fascinating historical details such as the mood of astonishment that greeted the first trains in nineteenth-century England and the grim duty the railroads undertook during both world wars. An absorbing and lively reflection on an enduring marvel of the modern industrial technology.

I once heard a respected editor of hardcover nonfiction say that there has never been a first edition of any book that didn’t go out with at least one error. I was yearning to change that with this book, but a few train enthusiasts — who know their material better than a pilot knows his wheel — have written in to point out some inaccuracies. I am chagrined at these mistakes and will incorporate the corrections into the paperback version, to be released by Penguin on October 27, 2014. That one will be as perfect as I can make it. Special thanks to Fred Frailey, Gordon Geiger, Frank Heppner and the Rev. Dr. Ralph Becker for their eagle eyes.

Meantime, here is a running log of the location of my mistakes, with the corrected sentence(s) appearing below:

Page 102 — “The power behind it is stupendous – the electric locomotive up front weighed 150 tons and possessed the nominal horsepower of a dozen Cadillacs – but it felt as effortless as an ice-skater’s glide.”

Page 117 — “By the 1870s the budget and the employment base of the Pennsylvania Railroad were big enough to rival that of the federal government. Most of them were engaged in the hard labor of laying track.”

Page 152 — “Onward, then, past the beef packing plants at Garden City and the town of Holcomb, where the writer Truman Capote had taken the Santa Fe Railroad out in 1959 to talk to the jailed killers of the Clutter family for his book In Cold Blood.”

Page 170 — “President Dwight Eisenhower eagerly promoted it, telling everyone how impressed he was by the German autobahns he had seen after the Second World War.”

Page 175 — “”This gives people the opportunity to be the engineer; to be part of something larger-than-life,” said Neil Besougloff, the editor of the well-read enthusiast magazine Model Railroader.”

Page 177 — “I lay there in a restless haze until the lights of the station at Barstow invaded the curtains, and I knew I ought to give up.”

Page 292 — “Monopolies like Deutsche Bahn in Germany and SNCF were able to make command decisions with generous subsidies, whereas in the U.S., the political emphasis (and the federal stimulus money) went toward building the Interstate Highway system.”