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The results of the railway revolution

Taken from William Johnston, England As It Is (1851), Volume I, 260-76.


The most important event of the last quarter of a century in English history is the establishment of railroads. The stupendous magnitude of capital they have absorbed; the changes they have produced in the habits of society; the new aspect they have given, in some respects, to the affairs of government; the new feelings of power they have engendered; the triumphs and the disappointments of which they have been the cause; above all, the new and excessive activities to which they have given rise; must lead all who reflect upon the subject to admit that the importance of the general result of these great undertakings can scarcely be exaggerated. They have done much towards changing the old deliberative and thoughtful habits of Englishmen. People who breakfast at York and dine in London, who may be summoned from Liverpool to the metropolis in three or four minutes by the electric telegraph and answer that summons nn person within six or seven hours by the express train, acquire a habit of pressure and velocity in all they do. Thoughtfulness and prudence are not only less valued in this country than they were, but they are actually less valuable so far as regards the attainments of fortune and distinction. These virtues are too slow for the present times. Audacity and quickness are the qualities in demand. To run risks with cleverness, to dash through, at all hazards, to do business as all events, to anticipate profits and to live as if they were realised; to rush to the point you would achieve, and there blow off your steam with a prodigious quantity of noise and vapour: such is now the manner of doing business in England, and railways have done a great deal a towards establishing this fashion.

The political effects of railways are in many particulars important. As an investment and absorption of capital they are greatly influential for good or evil upon the national prosperity. Of late years it has been a favourite abstract theory of a certain school of politicians, that legislation and government ought to abstain altogether from interference with the employment of capital, and ought to abolish all laws which aim at influencing the direction of such employment. It is unquestionable that direct interference ought not to be attempted but with great caution, yet to influence the employment of capital and to endeavour to guard the public against employing it foolishly, seems to be a very important object for a wise government; for how can a nation be powerful if it be not prosperous, and how can it be prosperous if the people at large have embarked their capital in foolish undertakings, or have foolishly embarked capital even in useful undertakings? It appears to me that, if the legislature had wisely governed the expenditure of capital upon railways, such a source for the gradual and profitable investment of profits and savings would have been an immense national advantage, whereas allowing the public to rush headlong into undertakings which they had not the means to complete, and for which the country had no pressing occasion, has been productive of great private distress, and has no doubt operated most prejudicially upon the public finances. ... It seems reasonable to conclude that railroads add considerably to the power and promptness of executive rule, or at least they might do so if the government were wielded by men of decision and vigour. They are instruments by which the power of government may be brought to bear more quickly, and the results of any stroke of policy may be more speedily known. In matters of police the advantage of them has already been experienced in some important cases. They are productive of such habits of thought and action as render government, in my opinion, more difficult, but they supply, in perhaps yet greater measure, the means of meeting that difficulty. It is required, however, that there should be men capable of using the means.

Whatever has so widely affected the habits of living, and, as I believe, the habits of thought also, of the people, must needs have had an influence on literature; but besides this, the circumstances of railway transit demand a kind of literature of their own, and the supply to meet this demand has been very abundant. Hence arrives the maxim of the publishers, that whoever wants to command an extensive sale for his book must produce something that the railway-traveller can read as he goes along, and use for waste paper at the end of his journey. I believe that to railroads, and to the habits of quick movement in everything, which have grown up in connection with them, may be fairly attributed much of what is peculiar in the character of our current literature. In particular the light and jesting method of commentary upon public matters; the cloak of caricature with which keen observation so frequently invests itself, arises from the consideration that people are in such a hurry, they must get amusement and criticism at the same time. There are those who think there is nothing more to be admired in the age we live in than the light tone of our practical philosophy, which they regard as a judicious relief from the anxieties of ambition and the pressure of business.


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