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Book review: ‘A History of the World in 500 Railway Journeys’ by Sarah Baxter

A guide to the iconic routes that turn trains into time machines

Fancy taking a train to the Ice Age? Or a leisurely railway trip to the summer retreat of the ancient Greek Gods? Or how about a locomotive-led Hindu pilgrimage on wheels to a holy temple via the famous Pamban Bridge?

“Wait a moment,” a scrupulous reader would say at this point. “Railways only came into existence a little over 200 years ago; how on earth could one take a train to the Ice Age or to ancient Greece?”

To that curmudgeonly reader I can reply: “Buy this book!” And don’t just buy it, but read it too. You will be in for a truly amazing journey. Five hundred amazing journeys to be exact.

“Trains are a little bit like time machines,” writes Sarah Baxter in the introduction to the fascinating, richly illustrated ‘A History of the World in 500 Railway Journeys’ (Aurum Press, £20, ISBN 9781781316788). Indeed, unlike any other modern means of transport, travelling by train allows you to relax, to unwind and to unhurriedly absorb the landscape (or the city/townscape) unravelling beyond the window.

Railway travel gives an imaginative traveller ample time to ponder over – or to read up on – the present state as well as the history of that very landscape, for as Baxter notes, railways always tended to “follow old trade routes, medieval pilgrimages, military campaigns, human migrations and trailblazing explorers”. They also “pushed the boundaries of human engineering”.

Having closed the book, I was delighted to conclude that out of the 500 journeys, described in it, I have already completed a dozen or so. I will never forget my trip to the glaciers in Alaska, along the famous Alaska Railroad with its iconic flagship train Denali Star; or the nearly three-day long voyage from Sydney to Perth across the desolate Mars-like terrain of Autralia’s endless and sun-drenched Nullarbor Desert on the Indian-Pacific Express; or my numerous adventures on different stretches of the Trans-Siberian Railway (or Trans-Mongolian, as Baxter calls it, pictured at the top of this page) from Moscow to Vladivostok, and further – to China and Mongolia.

One of the recent additions to that list was – as I have discovered from the book – a seemingly routine journey along the M1 line of the Budapest Metro, the world’s second oldest underground railway after London, with all its cosy, newly restored stations designed in art deco style and possessing an unmistakable homely feel.

And, of course, I was delighted to find among the ‘big 500’ another recent trip of mine which I described in my ‘After All’ column in the May 2017 issue of E&T – the unique and inimitable St Kitts Scenic Railway, the last remaining passenger railway in the Caribbean.

Reading this book, also made me think that each of us has, had or will have their own, personal, ‘historic’ railway journeys – the unforgettable trips that define our lives. One of mine was a trip from Moscow to Hoek van Holland, and then to London, when defecting from the USSR in January 1990. Yet the 500 journeys collected under the glossy covers of this album-like book, are significant to us all, for taking them, or even simply reading about them, shapes up our views of the world and its history.

A small piece of advice. Do not read this book in one go. Savour it. Sip from it slowly like from a full glass of aromatic vintage wine. Dip in and out of it at random, for, metaphorically speaking, this book is not a river, which, as some philosophers assert, one cannot enter twice, for the waters you had stepped in before, had flown away for good. It is rather a lake – a vast reservoir of delight that is always there for its owner.

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