The Railway Journey

I immediately thought of this video:

In the first four chapters of The Railway Journey, Schivelbusch describes the introduction of the railway in the industrializing 19th century Western Europe and its development into an independent system, along with characteristics of the new perception that the railway traveler experienced. While the book is abundant with fascinating accounts from circa 19th century, I tried to keep this posting concise.

The development of railway is described as a process of redefining the relationship between human and nature. Steam power replaced animal power, being more cost-efficient, controllable, durable and powerful. This artificial energy, operating independently from natural constraints and enabling faster journeys, created its own spatiality- expressed as the “shrinking” of the natural world. The notion of space and time as was possible using the traditional transportation technology was no longer valid. The absence of sensory perception of such traditional traveling aspects as animal exhaustion was experienced as non-natural. Railroads also required flattening of the terrain, resulting in deeper contrast from the nature.

With the help of legislations allowing monopoly the railway grew into an independent and precise system, or machine ensemble, that fully functions only as a whole, including routes, vehicles and communication facilities. The system incorporated ever more outlying areas; the decrease in space (technically travel time) also meant that space expanded.
As accessibility increased, the context of original locality was lost, both for products from outlaying regions and the regions themselves. “Devaluation … by their exploitation for mass tourism”, or loss of aura. The connected regions were also given standardized time, another loss of isolated identity.

As for the passenger, faster speed led to detachment from immediacy and the details of proximity, which was characteristic of coach travels. A new mode of perception, the depthless panoramic one, appeared instead. This distant macro-vision mediated through the apparatus(train) paved the way for the reading of books, which are “imaginary landscapes”, to become a standard activity.

This book made a good pair with Benjamin’s article, as it portrays the industrial change that eventually resulted in the conditions upon which Benjamin discusses the new technology of film, from whom Schivelbusch borrows some part of framework for analysis. The analogy between buying tickets to ride a train and go to a theater was another interesting point, considering the similar traits of panoramic perception and film, respectively described by Schivelbusch and Benjamin.

  • (See first question under Benjamin)
  • De Quincey’s quote (p. 12) describes a form of technological obfuscation that was introduced to transportation: whereas the animal power was closely senseable, the engines were hidden from the passenger. This sort of obfuscation, or abstraction, seems to be something that often accompanies technological change, in transportation, manufacturing and other areas. While it might open up a new mode of perception for us, it also might interfere with our agency as users. Not only users, as a matter of fact: the train’s driver is more of “an operator of a machine” rather than a “captain on dry land.” (p. 30) What reasons do we have to advocate such obfuscating traits of technology?
  • Not a question, but I was pleased to finally read about a time in history when people actually communicated with each other instead of looking into smartphones. It was before trains.


Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. The Railway Journey. Urizen Books, 1979.


2 thoughts on “The Railway Journey

  1. Mary Catherine Kinniburgh

    Hi, Achim,

    I really liked the De Quincy quote that you pulled out and the idea of “technological obfuscation” in transportation that occurred between the shift from animal to machine. De Quincy characterizes this as a transition from natural to non-natural experience in transportation, which I find fascinating. Ecocriticism in contemporary literary theory spends a lot of time unpacking what we mean by “natural,” and how this is just as much a rhetorical device as it is a shorthand to delineates the physical world of flora and fauna around us.

    What is natural about riding a horse, for instance, with the complex array of saddle, bridle, reins, and protocol for riding (we have equine manuals that date very early in the Renaissance and I wouldn’t be surprised if we had medieval ones, too!)? Is it because it is a non-mechanized body, organic, capable of dying and decay? But Descartes argued that animals are automata–like machines, without consciousness. So, given the rhetorical strategy of naming something as “unnatural” or “mechanical,” which means soulless or void of consciousness, De Quincey’s quote shows that suddenly it became useful to think about horses as a “natural” category to contrast them with the new “unnatural.”

    I’m fascinated by how the railway developments began to chart a modern course for ways that we think about “natural” ways to travel, what it means when we say “this isn’t natural” and how this category persists rhetorically today in our interactions with technology. As in, when does something unnatural become natural? Lots to consider! Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  2. Jojo Karlin (she/her/hers)


    Thanks for the video and commentary.
    The relationship between human and nature you cite was really interesting to track in the article (pun intended — I like bad jokes). You bring out this mediation of space through machine; the consideration also works in terms of Harvey’s reading of Marx in relation to In terms of the evolution of these infrastructures. I really enjoyed considering instances of vestiges. The vestigial tail of the country road winding the rails when industrialists weren’t yet conceiving of public transit implications of rails or of uniform movement through space dissociated from traditional paths. The NYPL had a blog entry just this week regarding the proposed rails for NYC.
    I am equally interested in vestigial marks in digital technology — the disk icon for “save” is an easy example. How do we make concessions to the existing modes of movement as we anticipate the moves of the future?

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