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Originally published Friday, February 14, 2014 at 6:15 AM

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Tom Zoellner’s ‘Train’: riding the rails around the world

In Tom Zoellner’s “Train,” the author sets out to ride the rails around the world, as he converses with the passengers and argues for the relevance of trains in the modern world. Zoellner discusses his book Thursday Feb. 20 at Town Hall Seattle.


Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Tom Zoellner

The author of “Train” will discuss his book in conversation with Jon Talton at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 20, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Tickets are $5 at townhallseattle.org and at the door.

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Train travel offers “the perfect environment for conversation,” writes Tom Zoellner. For Zoellner, a travel writer, the gem of Amtrak is the dining car — not for the food, he writes, but for “the enforced seating with strangers.”

In “Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World — From the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief” (Viking, 346 pp., $27.95), the author sets out to ride the rails in America, Britain, Russia, India, China and Peru. The result is partly a book about meeting strangers, in the vein of Paul Theroux’s 1975 classic, “The Great Railway Bazaar.” But Zoellner doesn’t keep his focus on the “bazaar” of travel. He wants to sell the reader on the idea of passenger trains.

He traverses Britain from the north of Scotland to Land’s End, but his main focus is the story of railroads’ beginnings two centuries ago. His India chapter is mostly about how that country uses trains to transport and employ the poor. There he climbs down and interviews workers who keep the system running, and it is the best chapter in his book.

Zoellner is an associate professor of English at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and his account of the Trans-Siberian has a long section on Leo Tolstoy. Zoellner also wants to meet the Russian people, but he doesn’t speak Russian and has made the mistake of traveling “hard class,” in which nobody speaks English.

In China he takes the train to Tibet, which interests him because the line is new, built in 2006. But China’s central government built it for the same reason the czars built the Trans-Siberian: to tie down a claim to a remote territory. The investment, he writes, “made no economic sense whatsoever and played no role in a larger transportation or energy strategy.”

Zoellner’s book doesn’t focus on those things, either. His love of trains is sentimental. The train, he says, is part of our history. It is “the lost American vehicle of our ancestors.” In a country with excessive individualism, he writes, train travel offers “a vestigial whiff of a commonality among citizens, rich and poor, a mode of collective destiny, ‘this thing we all do together.’ ”

The Trans-Siberian appealed to Zoellner because it would put him in a steel box among ordinary Russians for seven days. The Russians thought he was crazy to go that way.

Zoellner writes evocatively of being rocked by “the tidal motion of the cars” in an Amtrak sleeper. On a cross-country train, “there is space to get up and walk around,” to find conversations and walk away from the dull ones.

Yet the train for which he makes a pitch at the book’s end is the proposed high-speed line from San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles, where he lives. And he has described that sort of train: the Liverpool-London express, which travels at 125 miles per hour. There are no sleepers on it, nor many conversations. It takes only two hours and has “the pinched feel of an aircraft.” He gets through it in his book, and in life, as fast as he can.

Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle writer.



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