The best train books

7 authors have picked their favorite books about trains and railways and why they recommend each book.

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Metropolitan Corridor

By John R. Stilgoe,

Book cover of Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene

Railroads usually show up in American history books when they’re just getting started (1830), linking up the two coasts (1869), or going into catastrophic decline in competition with cars, trucks, and aircraft (the 1960s). Stilgoe, a professor of environmental design at Harvard, is much more interested in their long dominance from the 1860s to the 1950s and how they facilitated the development of American cities, the siting of power stations, the development of suburbs, and the rise of industrial parks. Nothing’s too humble and grimy to escape his notice. In one bravura passage, he even explains the truth behind the “Valley of Ashes” in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.


Who am I?

I am a history professor at Emory University. I was born and raised in England and feel equally at home in Britain and America. I’ve written six books on religious, political, and environmental history and one on my life as a college professor. I’ve also made eleven recorded lecture series with The Great Courses, on a wide variety of topics, including a series on the History of the Industrial Revolution and a series titled The Great Tours: England, Scotland, and Wales.

I wrote...

A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism

By Patrick N. Allitt,

Book cover of A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism

What is my book about?

The book is an intellectual history of American environmentalism since World War II. I argue that environmentalism arose as an organized political response to citizens’ concerns about pollution, resource depletion, overpopulation, and climate change. “Crisis” rhetoric often overstated the severity of these problems but was useful in provoking legislation and regulatory oversight, much of which has succeeded in mitigating the worst problems.

We live in a far cleaner and healthier environment than our parents and grandparents, enjoy better national parks, recreational opportunities, health, and longevity. Severe problems still confront us but our achievements over the last seventy years show that there’s as much cause for hope as for gloom.

In the Forest of No Joy

By J.P. Daughton,

Book cover of In the Forest of No Joy: The Congo-Océan Railroad and the Tragedy of French Colonialism

JP Daughton tells the horrifying story of the Congo-Océan railroad, a massive, ill-conceived construction project (1921-34) whose French overseers doomed some 20,000 African workers to die. This story, revealing as it does France’s imperial hubris and callous disregard of human suffering, should have been told a long time ago. But it has been buried by bureaucrats, overlooked by historians, and made invisible to those who chose not to see. We owe Daughton a great debt for bringing it to light and for masterfully adding a new chapter to the tragic history of Central Africa under European colonial rule.

Who am I?

I’ve spent most of my career teaching and writing about French history. In the 1990s, it became belatedly clear to me and other French historians that France shouldn’t be understood purely as a European nation-state. It was an empire whose imperial ambitions encompassed North America, the Caribbean, Africa, Indochina, and India. By the twentieth century, and especially after 1945, large numbers of people from those colonial places had emigrated to mainland France, claiming to belong to that country and asserting the right to live there. Their presence produced a great deal of political strife, which I wanted to study by looking at France’s colonial past.

I wrote...

Heroes of Empire: Five Charismatic Men and the Conquest of Africa

By Edward Berenson,

Book cover of Heroes of Empire: Five Charismatic Men and the Conquest of Africa

What is my book about?

In the late 19th century, Britain and France raced against each other for the conquest of Africa. What attracted their citizens to those conquests were stories by and about the charismatic individuals who gave imperialism a recognizable, human face. Heroes of Empire narrates the dramatic, often violent, exploits of five of these men, all lauded in the popular press and hero-worshipped at home.

Today we are justly skeptical of the heroism of such men, but in the late nineteenth century, most Europeans played down, denied, or ignored the violence that colonialism wrought. Instead, they glorified my five exemplars of empire for braving the scarcely imaginable dangers of unknown places and “savage” people and embodying traits of character and personality widely admired at the time.

Around the World in 80 Trains

By Monisha Rajesh,

Book cover of Around the World in 80 Trains: A 45,000-Mile Adventure

I read Monisha Rajesh’s earlier travel memoir, Around India in 80 Trains, while planning my own train journey in India. In this one, she circumvents the entire globe (technically more than once in terms of mileage). It’s the kind of book I wish I’d written myself because I would love to do a train journey like this! I love Rajesh’s descriptions of the places she passes through and the people she meets along the way, and of course, how it changes her to see the world through this lens.


Who am I?

I took my first cross-country train ride with my mom when I was seven years old. That gave me the train bug. Since then, I’ve been across the United States three times via rail, across Europe, and all over northern India with my husband, too. I think train travel is a very special way to see a place. You’re going past backyards and back roads. You see the whole landscape, and you meet so many people you wouldn’t otherwise. I’ve never set out to write a “train book,” but trains play an important role in two of my three novels. I can’t get away from them, even in my imagination. 


I wrote...

Welcome Back, Maple Mehta-Cohen

By Kate McGovern,

Book cover of Welcome Back, Maple Mehta-Cohen

What is my book about?

Maple Mehta-Cohen has been keeping a secret: she can’t read all that well. She has an impressive vocabulary and loves dictating stories into her recorder—especially the adventures of a daring sleuth who’s half Indian and half Jewish like Maple herself—but words on the page just don’t seem to make sense to her. Despite all Maple’s clever tricks to hide her troubles with reading, her teacher is on to her, and now Maple has to repeat fifth grade. Maple is devastated—what will her friends think? 

But as Maple navigates the loss of old friendships, the possibility of new ones, and facing her reading challenges head-on, her deception becomes harder to keep up. Can Maple begin to recognize her own strengths, and to love herself—and her brain—just the way she is? 

The Great Railway Bazaar

By Paul Theroux,

Book cover of The Great Railway Bazaar

Theroux pretty much invented the genre with this ground-breaking travelogue, first published in 1975, that went on to sell millions and establish his reputation as a train-travelling travel writer. As an account of the overland trip from Europe through Asia and back on the Trans-Siberian railway, it’s surprisingly hopeless for anyone looking for inspiration for the journey itself – the destinations are given fairly short shrift in favour of the recording of chance encounters and random conversations with a cast of highly memorable characters. It’s a bit of a period piece – highly literary, often acerbic, occasionally grumpy – but it’s never dull. And in many ways, anyone who writes about train travel is trundling along in Theroux’s tracks.


Who am I?

Jules Brown wrote travel guides for Rough Guides for over thirty years – if there’s a railway timetable somewhere he hasn’t studied, he’d like to know about it. He took his first InterRail trip around Europe when he was seventeen and, as a travel writer, he’s been on trains around the world, from Norway to New Zealand. Jules is the author of two travel memoirs, Don’t Eat the Puffin and Never Pack an Ice-Axe, which – after a lifetime of travel – are still the best bits of advice he has for anyone heading off on a journey.


I wrote...

Not Cool: Europe by Train in a Heatwave

By Jules Brown,

Book cover of Not Cool: Europe by Train in a Heatwave

What is my book about?

Jules found his old InterRail pass one day in a box in a cupboard. Inspired by the train trips of his youth, he came up with a new plan to visit nine cities in nine countries in nine days. He should have known better. And he should have checked the weather forecast.

It soon turned into a hot and steamy adventure (no, steady on, not that kind) by rail across Europe, taking in Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Bratislava, Ljubljana, Zagreb, Liechtenstein, Zürich, and Milan. A tale of relaxing train rides to famous tourist destinations and guidebook sights? Not so much. All aboard for an offbeat travel adventure with a very funny writer seriously in danger of losing his cool.

Last Train to Paradise

By Les Standiford,

Book cover of Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad That Crossed an Ocean

Last Train to Paradise is acclaimed novelist Les Standiford's fast-paced and gripping true account of the extraordinary construction and spectacular demise of the Key West Railroad—one of the greatest engineering feats ever undertaken, destroyed in one fell swoop by the Labor Day hurricane of 1935. Brilliant and driven entrepreneur Henry Flagler's dream fulfilled, the Key West Railroad stood as a magnificent achievement for more than twenty-two years, heralded as "the Eighth Wonder of the World." Standiford brings the full force and fury of 1935's deadly Storm of the Century and its sweeping destruction of "the railroad that crossed an ocean" to terrifying life.


Who am I?

Originally from Punta Gorda, Florida, I am an exiled Florida Man, living in Texas, and specialize in creative nonfiction. I love the absurd, the unusual, and enjoy finding ways to examine and teach history through unexpected topics and sometimes maligned or ridiculed things. My first book, for example, was on the infamous Yugo car. I then wrote a history of the ill-starred Sarajevo Olympics and the oh-for-twenty-six 1976-1977 Tampa Bay Bucs, and most recently a book on the wild heydays of Florida land development in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. I have a PhD in history from Indiana University Bloomington and have appeared on NPR’s "Weekend Edition," APM’s "Marketplace," and C-SPAN’S "Book TV."

I wrote...

The Swamp Peddlers: How Lot Sellers, Land Scammers, and Retirees Built Modern Florida and Transformed the American Dream

By Jason Vuic,

Book cover of The Swamp Peddlers: How Lot Sellers, Land Scammers, and Retirees Built Modern Florida and Transformed the American Dream

What is my book about?

Florida has long beckoned to retirees seeking to spend their golden years in the sun, but for many the American dream of owning a home there was impossible. That changed in the 1950s, when the so-called "installment land sales industry" appeared out of nowhere to hawk billions of dollars of Florida residential property, sight unseen, to retiring northerners. For only $10 down and $10 a month, working-class pensioners could buy a piece of the Florida dream: a graded homesite that would be waiting for them in a planned community when they were ready to build. 

These communities allowed generations of northerners to move to Florida cheaply, but at a price: high-pressure sales tactics begat fraud; poor urban planning begat sprawl; developers cleared forests, drained wetlands, and built thousands of miles of roads in grid-like subdivisions, which, fifty years later, played an inordinate role in the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis.

Railroaded

By Richard White,

Book cover of Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America

Richard White does an incredible job of hilariously revealing the nasty, brutish, and incredibly dumb men who organized the building of the 19th century’s cutting-edge industry, the railroads. Making use of a corrupt U.S. government to develop junk bonds and kite those loans into personal fortunes, the Big Four and their successors shaped laws and political power to suit their interests, but at no time did their much-vaunted corporations come close to being the efficient engines of economic development they’ve claimed to be. This is a history that shows how utterly destructive and pointless much of the original tech boom associated with building the railroads to reach San Francisco really were, and by extension, reveals the emptiness and depravity of the men who built fortunes at the public’s expense.


Who am I?

I’ve lived in San Francisco since I was 20 in 1978. I helped launch Processed World in 1981, Critical Mass in 1992, and Shaping San Francisco in 1998. I’ve been co-directing and co-curating the archive at foundsf.org since 2009, and have been fully immersed for years in gathering and presenting local history online, on bike and walking tours, during Public Talks, and most recently on Bay Cruises. I have published three books of my own and edited or co-edited seven additional volumes, much of which covers local history. The more I’ve learned the more I’ve realized how little I know!


I wrote...

Hidden San Francisco: A Guide to Lost Landscapes, Unsung Heroes and Radical Histories

By Chris Carlsson,

Book cover of Hidden San Francisco: A Guide to Lost Landscapes, Unsung Heroes and Radical Histories

What is my book about?

In Hidden San Francisco Chris Carlsson peels back the layers of San Francisco’s history to reveal a storied past: behind old walls and gleaming glass facades lurk former industries, secret music and poetry venues, forgotten terrorist bombings, and much more. Carlsson delves into the Bay Area’s long prehistory as well, examining the region’s geography and the lives of its inhabitants before the 1849 Gold Rush changed everything, setting in motion the clash between capital and labor that shaped the modern city.

The definitive San Francisco ‘history from below’, Hidden San Francisco invites you to step out in the streets and use its self-guided walking and bike routes to immerse yourself in a history that is varied, contested, and still being written.

Railways & the Raj

By Christian Wolmar,

Book cover of Railways & the Raj: How the Age of Steam Transformed India

I am personally recommending the book because it covers the essence of India’s railway history in an English context. The English context is particularly important because the railways have been an English creation in India. Despite the English context, the book in a way accepts and humbly admits how the railways were built for the colonial power to govern the huge country and is purely based on facts and records. India joined the railway age late: the first line was not completed until 1853 but, by 1929, 41,000 miles of track served the country. The book accelerates history in a crisp manner.

I love and personally connect with this book for the national context it has and not just one zone of the railway. Also showing the city around to the author during his research was an absolute honour. What value did you get from this book? The inputs and…


Who am I?

Rajendra B. Aklekar (born 1974) is an Indian journalist with over 25 years of experience and author of best-selling books on India’s railway history and heritage. He is also the biographer of India’s legendary railway engineer Dr. E Sreedharan. With museology from Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharasj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly the Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai, Aklekar is also a Google-certified Digital Marketer. Aklekar, associated with the Indian Railway Fans’ Club Association, Indian Steam Railway Society, Rail Enthusiasts Society, has contributed significantly while setting up the Rail Heritage Gallery at the UNESCO-listed Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus station, formerly Victoria Terminus building, Bombay, and documentation of heritage relics of India’s first railway.


I wrote...

India’s Railway Man: A Biography of E. Sreedharan

By Rajendra B. Aklekar,

Book cover of India’s Railway Man: A Biography of E. Sreedharan

What is my book about?

This is the story of Dr. E. Sreedharan—a 21st-century icon similar to Brunel and Sir MV; a man who has changed the face of the railways, and of public transport in India. Two key railway projects helmed by him have changed the way India travels. The first is the 760-km stretch of the Konkan Railway, carved out of the extremely challenging terrain of India’s Western Ghats—a project virtually abandoned by the British as ‘not feasible’. It was completed by Sreedharan and his team within seven years, and when finished, it cut short the rail-travel distance between Ahmedabad and Mangalore by 1,218km.

While these and many more success stories abound around Sreedharan, not many know of the private battles he has fought with integrity for his principles, nor have many have heard the anecdotes behind the biggest infrastructure projects he has led. The biography has been endorsed by Dr. Sreedharan himself.

Indian Railways

By Bibek Debroy, Sanjay Chadha, Vidya Krishnamurthi

Book cover of Indian Railways: The Weaving of a National Tapestry

This is another book on the same subject written by an eminent historian and economist. I am recommending this book because of the clear and categorical historical decade-wise demarcations since the inception of railways in India since the 1830s. The 20th century is summarised in one entire chapter, bringing a contemporary context. One of the best parts of the book is a timeline of the government policies and committees on Indian Railways in a tabular form that gives a quick summary of how the organization progressed in its different forms, including the seamless transfer from old colonial railways to national railways adding the current reforms and policies. Another key feature of the book is that it gives a timeline of the various railway companies and railway lines spread across India.

I am also proud to mention that the book liberally quotes my first book when it mentions India’s railway…


Who am I?

Rajendra B. Aklekar (born 1974) is an Indian journalist with over 25 years of experience and author of best-selling books on India’s railway history and heritage. He is also the biographer of India’s legendary railway engineer Dr. E Sreedharan. With museology from Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharasj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly the Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai, Aklekar is also a Google-certified Digital Marketer. Aklekar, associated with the Indian Railway Fans’ Club Association, Indian Steam Railway Society, Rail Enthusiasts Society, has contributed significantly while setting up the Rail Heritage Gallery at the UNESCO-listed Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus station, formerly Victoria Terminus building, Bombay, and documentation of heritage relics of India’s first railway.


I wrote...

India’s Railway Man: A Biography of E. Sreedharan

By Rajendra B. Aklekar,

Book cover of India’s Railway Man: A Biography of E. Sreedharan

What is my book about?

This is the story of Dr. E. Sreedharan—a 21st-century icon similar to Brunel and Sir MV; a man who has changed the face of the railways, and of public transport in India. Two key railway projects helmed by him have changed the way India travels. The first is the 760-km stretch of the Konkan Railway, carved out of the extremely challenging terrain of India’s Western Ghats—a project virtually abandoned by the British as ‘not feasible’. It was completed by Sreedharan and his team within seven years, and when finished, it cut short the rail-travel distance between Ahmedabad and Mangalore by 1,218km.

While these and many more success stories abound around Sreedharan, not many know of the private battles he has fought with integrity for his principles, nor have many have heard the anecdotes behind the biggest infrastructure projects he has led. The biography has been endorsed by Dr. Sreedharan himself.

Building the Railways of the Raj, 1850-1900

By Ian J. Kerr,

Book cover of Building the Railways of the Raj, 1850-1900

This is a key book on the mountain railways of India. While all other history books look at the overall context of Indian Railways, this one, in particular, focuses on the “Ghat sections” of Indian Railways that were built as early as the 1860s with primitive technology, labour and sheer hard work. I personally recommend this work because it explores a not-so-popular yet very important part of the construction of the first railway lines in India. The book has minute details of the labour numbers, the various communities involved, and how work went ahead in the difficult most terrain and tropical weather. I am also proud to be associated with late Kerr during his research visits to India and assist him in his work.


Who am I?

Rajendra B. Aklekar (born 1974) is an Indian journalist with over 25 years of experience and author of best-selling books on India’s railway history and heritage. He is also the biographer of India’s legendary railway engineer Dr. E Sreedharan. With museology from Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharasj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly the Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai, Aklekar is also a Google-certified Digital Marketer. Aklekar, associated with the Indian Railway Fans’ Club Association, Indian Steam Railway Society, Rail Enthusiasts Society, has contributed significantly while setting up the Rail Heritage Gallery at the UNESCO-listed Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus station, formerly Victoria Terminus building, Bombay, and documentation of heritage relics of India’s first railway.


I wrote...

India’s Railway Man: A Biography of E. Sreedharan

By Rajendra B. Aklekar,

Book cover of India’s Railway Man: A Biography of E. Sreedharan

What is my book about?

This is the story of Dr. E. Sreedharan—a 21st-century icon similar to Brunel and Sir MV; a man who has changed the face of the railways, and of public transport in India. Two key railway projects helmed by him have changed the way India travels. The first is the 760-km stretch of the Konkan Railway, carved out of the extremely challenging terrain of India’s Western Ghats—a project virtually abandoned by the British as ‘not feasible’. It was completed by Sreedharan and his team within seven years, and when finished, it cut short the rail-travel distance between Ahmedabad and Mangalore by 1,218km.

While these and many more success stories abound around Sreedharan, not many know of the private battles he has fought with integrity for his principles, nor have many have heard the anecdotes behind the biggest infrastructure projects he has led. The biography has been endorsed by Dr. Sreedharan himself.

History of London Transport

By T.C. Barker, Michael Robbins,

Book cover of History of London Transport: The Twentieth Century to 1970

This is one of the only comprehensive books on the history of London’s transport system and though long out of print and written in the 1960s, it is still the best explanation of how the network developed. It is the starting point for anyone seeking to research this field.


Who am I?

I have written four books on London and its railway network. As well as Cathedrals of Steam, there is The Subterranean Railway, a history of the London Underground, and more recently, The Crossrail Story, which sets out the background to London’s newest and best railway that is due to open in 2022, and also, Down The Tube, the story of the way the London Underground was part-privatised and then taken back into state ownership. I have written a dozen other books on railways which are not technical tomes, nor aimed at trainspotters, but rather try to explain how railways were the catalyst for creating the modern world. The books on London combine my passion for the capital where I have lived all my life and my passion for the railways which has been a lifelong interest.


I wrote...

Cathedrals of Steam: How London's Great Stations Were Built - And How They Transformed the City

By Christian Wolmar,

Book cover of Cathedrals of Steam: How London's Great Stations Were Built - And How They Transformed the City

What is my book about?

London has 12 terminus stations, more than any other city in the world. Cathedrals of Steam explains how this came about through fierce rivalry between different Victorian railway companies and how they were all built – with one exception – between 1836 and 1874, a series of megaprojects that transformed London and made it accessible to all the rest of Great Britain. Miraculously, all but one of these stations have survived and most have been greatly improved in recent years. This book is aimed at Londoners as well as anyone who has visited the capital and who has wondered about the history of these awesome gateways to the biggest city in Europe.

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