The Neuroses of the Railway

Ralph Harrington looks at the paranoias that railway travel stirred up as it spread across the 19th century.

North British Railway locomotive 224 recovered from the water after the Tay Bridge disaster in December 1879From the beginnings of their development in the early nineteenth century, railways inspired deep anxieties and provoked strong opposition. The common factor in much anti-railway discourse whether couched in environmental, medical or social terms – was a perception of railways as fundamentally unnatural, as intrinsically at odds with the established order embodied in the rural landscape, the social structure of traditional communities, and the constitution of the human mind and body.

It was claimed that trains would blight crops with their smoke and terrify livestock with their noise, that people would asphyxiate if carried at speeds of more than twenty miles per hour, and that hundreds would yearly die beneath locomotive wheels or in fires and boiler explosions. Many saw the railway as a threat to the social order, allowing the lower classes to travel too freely, weakening moral standards and dissolving the traditional bonds of community: John Ruskin, campaigning to exclude railways from the lake District, warned in 1875 of  'the certainty ... of the deterioration of moral character in the inhabitants of every district penetrated by the railway'.

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