Former Tucsonan Tom Zoellner's latest book is Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World—from the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief. Zoellner told the Weekly that he set out "to create an entertaining, fast-moving, concise explanation and journey as to how this glorious and accidental invention presented a radical shift in the way that human beings would deal with each other." Zoellner, also the author of A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in America, will read from Train at 7 p.m., Friday, April 18, at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave.
What got you interested in the topic of trains?
Two things. The first was a sound. When I was younger, my parents would take us from Arizona to a small town in Kansas every summer to see my grandmother. This town had been founded right after the Civil War by a railroad called the Central Branch. It was still a main line for coal trains for the Union Pacific. Eleven times a day, trains would come through and blow their horns. The sound of the horn through the window on a summer's night, sometimes with rain falling outside, seemed to me to be one of the most beautiful sounds ever heard.
What was the second thing?
Twenty years ago, I was on a railroad train in Pennsylvania going from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and it was snowing that night. Across the aisle from me is a beautiful woman reading a book. I couldn't see what she was reading but whatever it was, it was making her cry. And the sight of this nameless, beautiful woman crying as she read something in a snowstorm and the motion of the train and the light from the lamp—the whole thing was like a painting, almost. She was like a beautiful ghost. To this day, I can't ride a train without thinking about her. In a way I can't explain, that sound and that sight came together in a way that made me want to read all I could about railroads.
In the book, you go all the way back to the beginning of the railroad industry.
It really is the hinge of modernity in my view. It was the first machine in wide demonstration and use. Prior to that point, if you were going anywhere, you were either walking there, you were using an animal or you were on board a ship sailing by wind or the current of a river. This was the first means of mechanical propulsion and it represented a psychic shock to those who first saw a locomotive. There were widespread press accounts about people staring at it in a state of catatonia. There was no mental architecture to process what they were seeing.
You talk a lot about the past, but what about the future?
I think it's bright. We made a bad policy decision after World War II to let passenger rail go completely fallow and we're reaping the fruits of that. Cities have been poorly laid out. Highways are congested. There's a total waste of jet fuel when it comes to running short-haul airplane flights. Phoenix to Tucson as a flight? That's not a good use of an airplane. That's a job for a train. Any journey under 300 or 400 miles really should be done by a medium-haul railroad.
What surprised you as you were working on this book?
The number of people that I met on trains who were running away from something. I met an astonishing number people in all countries—because I had to be very bold ... going up and starting conversations—and for some reason the train seemed to be the favorite vehicle for people who are doing a disappearing act.
What do you think about the complaints about how trains need to have government subsidies?
That's true about every method of travel there is. Airlines enjoy crazy subsidies. When you drive from place to place, you're driving on subsidized highways regulated by subsidized law enforcement. The whole argument just sort of forgets another thing, too, which is that European railroads, Asian railroads are subsidized by even higher degrees than Amtrak. Our national rail system operates under a sort of hopeless set of expectations.
Have you ever hopped a freight train?
That's the unwritten chapter of this book, which I really, really wanted to do. I wanted to do a chapter on hobos and get into the culture of illegal riding of the trains and there was just not room to get into it. So the answer is no, I never have hopped a freight train, but I'm going to.