Show Summary Details
Restricted access

Reflections on Rails and the City

George Revill

As the articles in this special section show, railways mark out urban experience in very distinctive ways. In the introduction, Steven D. Spalding makes plain there is no clear relationship between railway development and the shape and size of cities. For many cities, suburban rail travel has been either substantially insignificant or a relative latecomer as a factor in urban growth and suburbanization. Walking, tramways and the omnibus may indeed have had a much greater impact on built form, yet the cultural impact of railways on the city life should not be minimized. Iconic city stations are both objects of civic pride and socially heterogeneous gateways to the promise of a better urban life. The physical presence of substantial tracts of infrastructure, viaducts, freight yards and warehousing, divide and segregate residential districts encouraging and reinforcing status differentials between communities. Subways, metros, and suburban railways open on to the often grubby quotidian underbelly of city life whilst marking out a psychic divide between work and domesticity, city and suburb. Railways not only produced new forms of personal mobility but by defining the contours, parameters, and possibilities of this experience, they have come to help shape how we think about ourselves as urbanized individuals and societies. The chapters in this special section mark out some of this territory in terms of, for example: suburbanization, landscape, and nationhood (Joyce); the abstractions of urban form implicit in the metro map (Schwetman); the underground as a metaphor for the topologically enfolded interconnections of urban process (Masterson-Algar); and the competing lay and professional interests freighting urban railway development (Soppelsa). In the introduction Spalding is right to stress both the multiple ways that railways shape urban experience and the complex processes that continuously shape and re-shape urban cultures as sites of contest and sometimes conflict. As Richter suggests, in the nineteenth century only rail travel demanded the constant and simultaneous negotiation of both urban social disorder and the systematic ordering associated with large technological systems and corporate business. Thus “the railroad stood squarely at the crossroad of the major social, business, cultural and technological changes remaking national life during the second half of the nineteenth century.”

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or log in to access all content.