Book review: ‘For the Love of Trains’

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Updated celebration of the world’s railways that “sparkles with warmth, erudition and the kind of soft and affectionate humour used when speaking or writing about an object of true love."

Imagine that you have a choice of purchasing one of two books, covering pretty much the same ground. One has the word “miscellany” in the title; the other – the word “love”. Which book would you opt for? To me, the answer is obvious – the latter!

‘For the Love of Trains: A Celebration of the World’s Railways’ by Ray Hamilton (Summersdale, £9.99, ISBN 9781786852694) is an obvious improvement on its previous, 2015, edition under the title ‘Trains: A Miscellany’. And not just because of the name change, but also due to numerous updates to this delightful compendium – a treasure trove of information on all aspects of trains and railways. Those latest additions include the ongoing construction of London’s Elizabeth line, better known as Crossrail (the name given to the project to build it); the return of the Flying Scotsman, and China’s  new ‘Steel Silk Road’, to name just a few.

It was definitely the right decision by Summersdale, the book’s publisher, to change the title, for – to my mind - love is the present edition’s main component. Ray Hamilton’s undying passion for trains and railways cannot fail to captivate the reader from the very first pages. The book sparkles with warmth, erudition and the kind of soft and affectionate humour used when speaking or writing about an object of true love – a style that cannot fail but charm the readers and get them involved in friendly dialogue with the author. Here’s an example from the section ‘Famous Trains’.

“Some great trains are generic, like the French TGV, and some are specific, like the great named locomotives of the steam age. Great trains are also great for different reasons, whether it be raw power, high speed, sheer luxury or pure romance... I haven’t been constrained by any particular definition of greatness in this chapter, but I have been constrained by space, because there are so many great trains and we each have our personal favourites. I apologise in advance if yours does not get a mention.”

The reason for such sincerity is that Ray Hamilton is not just a rail aficionado. His interests include history, travel, languages and classical music. Yet railways and trains are clearly his main passion. This makes the book both educational and entertaining not just for amateur train buffs, but also for the experts: engineers and railway professionals.

My own favourite chapters are ‘Capturing the Magic’, where Hamilton talks about trains in art and literature, and the fact-ridden ‘World’s Railways’, highlighting the most interesting – and often little known – peculiarities of the world’s great railway powers: Britain, India, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Russia etc.

Here’s a book-based mini-quiz for E&T readers:

  1. What’s Britain’s remotest railway station?
  2. Which station has the most platforms of any in Europe?
  3. Did Mussolini really make all trains in Italy run on time?
  4. Is it true that all trains in Russia, with its 11 time zones, run on the same Moscow time?

Although I’m not in the habit of supplying spoilers for my fellow authors’ works, I will make an exception here (I’m sure Ray Hamilton wouldn’t mind) and reveal the answers below. This is only because the above samples are just a tiny taster of the book, brimming with hundreds and hundreds of fascinating facts and stories.

Just one small wish for the book’s publisher. It would be great if the next edition (and there will be many more, I am sure) – even at the peril of making it look a bit more ‘scholarly’ – carried a detailed index. But please, please do not change the title again!

Answers: 1. The little station of Corrour in the Scottish Highlands; 2. Munich Hauptbahnhof, with its 40 platforms; 3. No, he didn’t; 4; Yes.

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