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  • Writer's pictureBen Thomas

Literature Review: The Railway Journey by Wolfgang Schivelbusch

Wolfgang Schivelbusch is a German scholar, historian, and author. He completed his PhD in the early 1970s – writing a dissertation on Post-Brechtian East German drama. Yet instead of progressing with literature and arts as an academic career, Schivelbusch switched his attention to railways. This caused much chagrin from acquaintances – Schivelbusch states his friends “jovially derided my perceived interests in choo-choo trains, bestowing me with gifts like railroad engineers’ caps and station master’s whistles”. Despite this, he has become one of the world’s finest railway experts. I can relate to Schivelbusch’s experience with his peers – I too have received many jokes when mentioning my thesis topic of the A12 road.

The Railway Journey discusses the ways in which our perceptions of distance, time and speed have been altered since the introduction of railway travel. I’ve always had a small personal fascination with the railways – my father taking me on steam train rides and to museums since a young age. But throughout the book, Schivelbusch describes how trains and the railroad have changed both the natural landscape and human’s perceptual experience of space and place. He writes on the American Railroad, using this as a key example of how a vast landscape has been commoditised by the introduction of rail travel.

Thus, this is not a book that fetishizes trains and the railroad. It does talk on the rise of the steam engine and the later positives. But instead the true crux of the book is Schivelbusch’s deconstruction and then reconstruction of the railroad and its own destruction of space and time. Schivelbusch touches on the impact of compartments and rail accidents whilst explaining how the train may have been great for business and commuters, but not for the world’s geography. He talks on how the railway made attempts to “recreate and reproduce the world in their image”. His comparison of the railroad to the electronic calculator in mathematics was an eye-opening metaphor to use – one that I will reiterate in future. He also compares rail travel to other scientific advances such as firearms – and arguably he foresees the arrival of the internet as well – the book first published in 1977. After reading Schivelbusch, I can confidently say that the railway and the internet have had the biggest impact on human perception of place and how it has become a commodity. For me both dismantle the material landscape – and us walkers fall into the gaps created.

Schivelbusch’s work was vital reading for me. Psychogeography concerns itself with place, space and time and the railroad has been a menace to these. Psychogeography can be used as a break from the consequences the railroad – and later car travel – have had on place. The key chapter for this was the third titled “Railroad Space and Railroad Time”. Not only does The Railway Journey relate to the key themes of the practice, it also links to work such as Walter Benjamin and Patrick Keiller that I have before read. I did get a slight inkling that Schivelbusch may have been influenced by Marxist theories – due to a common anti-commodity feel throughout - but this is something I will have to question further.

Finally, it is worth noting that railways will have an impact on my own journey along the A12. Much of the road runs parallel to the main train commuter course linked to London. I’ll be crossing paths with two of the major enemies of walking – the railway and the road.

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