The Railway Station: A Social History, by Jeffrey Richards and John M. MacKenzie. New York: Oxford University Press. 440 pp. $22.50 It's not often that an enthusiast of a particular hobby or interest picks up a book that tells him or her something new. As a railroad enthusiast, I learned from this book that:
Belgium was the first continental European country to build a unified rail system.
France did not achieve until 1930 the state that Britain had realized in 1850 - more people living in the city than in the country.
As the cradle of railway civilization, Britain has produced more books on the superstructure of railroads than any other country, and this book also comes from two natives of that country. But the book has universal appeal, and the text and photos are neither parochial nor provincial.
The railroad station, so much a part of social, economic, and political life, especially in small towns, is considered an endangered species all over the world. Indeed, we learn that a non-railroading country like Malaysia is preserving its splendid Orientalist palace-mosque showpiece terminus in Kuala Lumpur.
Those dots on the map marking entry and exit to the great steel webs that brought countries and continents together represent almost every kind of architecture. The Pennsylvania Central station in New York, modeled after the Baths of Caracalla, and London's St. Pancras, the epitome of Gothic splendor, portray the intense relationship that society had with its railroad stations.
The railway made the eventual triumph of the city inevitable; and the stations were often the hub of rural and urban life, a center of news, gossip, advice, and communication. As this book so expertly and honestly portrays, they opened a gate through which people passed in endless profusion on a variety of missions - a place of motion and emotion, joy and sorrow, parting and reunion. By contrast, bus stations or highway rest areas are a sad reflection on modern progress, especially in the United States.
A fascinating chapter - unique in the literature of railroads - examines the roles railway stations have played in books and films. If you have ever seen a movie that uses a railroad as a backdrop, and wondered just where it might have been filmed, this book is for you.
Omissions? There is no mention of ``The Train'' (1964), a classic railway film starring Paul Schofield and Burt Lancaster. Railroad enthusiasts were treated to a panorama of ancient French locomotives, depots, and stations, all put at the disposal of the film company by French Railways. The climax was a spectacular head-on crash by two locomotives, whose final destination was to be the scrap yard anyway. Another omission is any poetry by Sir John Betjman, long considered a ``railway poet.'' His ``Monody on the Death of Aldersgate Street Station,'' describing the demise of a London station, is a classic and sums up the feelings of many: Snow falls in the buffet of Aldersgate station, Toiling and doomed from Moorgate Street puffs the
train, For us of the steam and the gas-light, the lost
generation, The new white cliffs of the City are built in vain.
This book is a must for the serious ``ferroequinologist.'' The photos are refreshingly original: Avoiding the more easily obtainable library pictures, the authors have succeeded in highlighting the unfamiliar. The text is fresh and enlightening.
At the end of the book, the authors put it this way: ``No one would ever make films called Euston, Euston 1975, Euston 1977, and Euston 1980. But Hollywood has made millions with Airport, Airport 1975, Airport 1977 and Airport 1980.''
We are all losers. But we have this book for consolation.