Archive | 10.01 - Jan 2002 | Feature


Runaway Train

First railway track started doubling every 18 months. Then things really got weird.

By Wil McCarthy

The first commercial railroad opened in 1825, in England, between the towns of Stockton and Darlington. It regularly carried 450 passengers, plus freight, for a 9-mile commute. Pulled like canal barges by large teams of horses or mules on either side of the track, the trains were driven only intermittently by steam. It was the 30-mile-long Liverpool & Manchester line, inaugurated in 1829, that first used steam locomotives exclusively, and despite huge construction costs, it was an immediate commercial success.

In the US, construction of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad began on the Fourth of July in 1828, and nearly two years later, its first 13-mile stretch was completed. The new railroad initially used British locomotives, but US models quickly proved superior - more powerful and less likely to derail. American engines, with improved suspension systems, were also more tolerant of cheap, low-quality track - a fact that drew the attention of the burgeoning US steel industry, whose catalytic extraction methods were already yanking iron out of common and previously unusable ores. The combination of a plentiful raw material and small, affordable production equipment attracted local entrepreneurs, who found that laying a few miles of rail was suddenly within their financial reach.

These events marked the beginning of the steam-age equivalent of Moore's law - that startling prognostication made by Gordon Moore a century and a half later, stating that the number of transistors on a silicon chip would double every 18 months. Rail had begun its identical trajectory. From its proof-of-concept in Britain, the heart and soul of the railroad had leaped to America, where it would flourish indeed.

This is not to say that the expansion was smooth or untroubled. Early rail development met stiff resistance from entrenched interests. Among steam's vocal opponents were the operators of canals, private toll roads and bridges, stagecoach lines, and the network of merchants and taverns that serviced them. The steam locomotive was also one of the first victims of labor and environmental backlash. In municipalities where these interests reigned - which is to say, most places - new laws and taxes were levied against the railroads, making construction and operation difficult. But such Luddite tactics rarely stifle an invention whose time has come; however much people enjoy an idyllic countryside, they enjoy fast, cheap travel even more. Spurred by this pent-up demand, the miles of continuously connected US rail grew from around 20 in 1831 to slightly more than 1,000 in 1840.

Frenzied growth caused panic. Rail now connected Micronesia, Siberia, Antarctica. Was there anywhere else to lay rails to?

By 1846, the rail networks feeding the city of Chicago were linked to the much more extensive East Coast network, which already connected cities from Boston to Richmond. The web reached the Mississippi River in 1847, crossed it in 1848, and reached the Missouri in 1849, bumping the total miles of continuous track to more than 60,000. At the same time, the first West Coast line was opening between Sacramento and Folsom, California.

The railroads transformed whatever they touched: Suddenly time was marked in minutes, and 20 miles became a distance you could cover before finishing your newspaper. Every farm boy needed a pocket watch, and for many of them, catching the train meant riding the crest of an entirely new lifestyle, where business was mobile and national, and heading west to a new life took a day and a half and cost 25 cents. The Federal Land Grant program allowed railroads to expand cheaply (at the cost of half-price passage for government goods and troops), and the westward pressure of this growth created an enormous vacuum, sucking record numbers of immigrants across the Atlantic, especially from Germany and Ireland. In 1857, iconoclast George Pullman introduced sleeping cars in an effort to improve the industry's rustic reputation for grime and discomfort. Which is good, because by 1860 there were 100,000 miles of track to cover, and napping along the way had ceased to be optional.

The rail network grew denser as well as larger. At times, its linear miles - the fictitious straight line if all the rails were laid out end-to-end - grew faster than the square miles it covered. In modern mathematics, such a system, increasingly doubling back on itself, is described as expanding its "fractal dimension." Imagine the difference between a 2-foot-long noodle and a plate of spaghetti 2 feet in diameter, and you begin to understand the transformation of British and American cities, and eventually their surrounding suburbs and countryside.

There were, of course, side effects. Automation grew, almost by accident, to supplement and finally replace human labor for an increasing array of track-related tasks, from the clearing of land to the laying and spiking-down of rail. Rapid growth also created huge differences between the industry's leaders and its middle-of-the-pack runners, so a predictable cascade of events saw the big railroads gobbling up the small ones. From there, the robber baron technique was classic: Move into a new area, or an old one for that matter, and encourage dependence while stifling competition and keeping wages low; then jack prices well past the point of pain, and bribe/litigate/strong-arm to preserve the status quo. In response, Congress formed the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1857, a body intended to standardize rates nationally. But in some sense the problem took care of itself; the tracks were being laid so fast that even the robber barons couldn't keep up. Flat-fee ticketing became commonplace, for lack of any other viable business model, and competition between the rail giants acted to hold the prices down.

In Promontory, Utah, the driving of a golden spike linked East Coast and West Coast networks, creating, finally, a seamless circuit of continuous travel in North America. This brief arterial monopoly, however, was quickly eroded by the placement of four additional transcontinental backbones, ensuring that the network could survive the brewing storm of the Civil War.

When it came, the war was barely a blip for the railroads. Even Sherman's swath of destruction across the South had little real impact; by 1861, the newly declared Confederacy had millions of miles of slave-built track - more than any steam-age army could hope to dismantle. Too, the Confederacy's ability to lay track at will - sometimes even to support the advance of a single battalion - provided an early strategic advantage. Although personally opposed to slavery, Abraham Lincoln eventually extended martial law to the point of indenture and drafted more than a million freed slaves into the newly formed Rail Corps. Soon, the North, with its own millions of miles of rail, was able to launch coordinated pinpoint attacks that played havoc with the Confederacy's nonrail infrastructure. The distance between any two cities could be swiftly covered along dozens, perhaps hundreds of different routes, and defending all of them, all the time, was simply not possible.

Despite the war, Lincoln authorized numerous rail construction projects, including a 27-mile bridge across the shallow waters between Alaska's Cape Prince of Wales and Little Diomede Island in the Bering Strait in 1862. Civil War hostilities ended in 1865, and Lincoln himself ended soon thereafter. But the Seward-Chukchi Railroad thundered on, meeting Russia's Chukchi-Seward line in 1867 with a platinum spike driven near the eastern shore of Ratmanov Island. The joining of North American and Eurasian networks kicked the count of continuous rail miles to just over 268 million.

American passengers were shocked at the primitive state of Russian railroads, and the vast empty wilderness they crossed: a newer, wilder, and of course much colder West. But it didn't stop the adventurous from making the trip, sometimes reaching destinations as far away as Paris. One entire American Indian tribe, the Yupik, relocated by rail to the wilds of Siberia, where it remains to this day. And the reverse was true as well: European and Asian immigrants had the option of reaching western American boomtowns directly, bypassing both the oceans and the eastern United States. As a nursery rhyme of the day described it, "Sailroad, railboat, take us far from home, / You sail to Boston, I'll ride to Nome, / And we'll meet up in Kansas where the buffalo roam."

Not to be outdone, the British completed their 31-mile Channel Tunnel in 1868, and also funded a rail backbone linking Indonesia and Australia to the southern tip of Asia's Malay Peninsula, while the Sea of Japan was bridged and the Americas were connected north to south by the twin Panama Junctions. In 1869, the Pacific Rail Network was installed, linking the Philippines, New Guinea, and the myriad islands of Poly- and Micronesia to the mainlands of every major continent. This included Antarctica, where sites for future settlement had been mapped out and then connected.

In 1888, connected miles of rail topped 1 light-year. Six more years and the first trunk line hit Proxima Centauri.

In fact, in the Americas a whole enterprise had crystallized around the dreams of future growth: empty settlements hastily built in anticipation of the population's westward migration. But what population could keep up with such radical expansion? Ghost Cities still haunt America's plains and deserts, mute witnesses to the Real Estate Collapse of 1870, when the price of a habitable acre fell below a half-cent - the smallest denomination in circulation at the time.

The result was a widespread anxiety, understandable but misplaced: Was there anywhere left to lay rails to? Was a Railroad Collapse also imminent, and with it a general failure of the global economy? The words Great Depression and even New Dark Age were bandied around, and for lack of any better idea, the railroad conglomerates set about building redundant tracks next to nearly every existing track. By 1870, the world boasted more than a billion miles of rail, which seemed an apocalyptic number. In three short years, the expectation of doom had gone from nutty to commonplace to very nearly universal.

Fortunately for all of us, Moore's law was preserved in 1871 with the advent of vertical rail, and afterward with the rather less obvious invention of the Parabolic Orbital Coupling, first suggested by French novelist Jules Verne and finally implemented by George Westinghouse in 1872. A palladium spike was driven into the dusty, airless soil of Mare Tranquillitatis that same year, and despite the suffocation of more than 100 million Chinese laborers in the Air Tax Rebellion, the railroads reached their first Earth-crossing asteroid - the iron-rich Toutatis - on January 6, 1873. Which was fortunate indeed, because having no other sources of iron available, the railroads had begun, with little understanding of the physics involved, to circulate proposals for the dismantling of Earth's molten interior.

The rest is more an exercise in statistics than in history. The connected miles of rail topped 1 light-year in 1888, and the first trunk line to Proxima Centauri went operational six years later. The network's hypothetical length equaled the diameter of the Milky Way galaxy by 1913, and the railroads actually crossed the galaxy side to side by 1920. The first genuinely spooky milestone was reached at the start of World War II, when the network's length first exceeded the diameter of the known universe. But humans are adaptable: Today the network crisscrosses the universe approximately 1 trillion times, and while on the one hand this is astonishing - a textbook example of Moore's law at work - on the other hand it has little to do with the affairs of heart and soul, which are, in the end, humanity's greatest unfinished project. Our railroads get bigger, our computers get smaller, and life, as they say, thunders on.

Wil McCarthy (wmccarth@sprynet.com) wrote about artificial atoms in Wired 9.10. He is the author of numerous science fiction novels, including Bloom and The Collapsium.

Moore's Quantum Leap

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