Popular Science Monthly/Volume 25/June 1884/Geography and the Railroads


IT should be regarded as a prominent purpose, in any scientific description of the earth, to point out how geographical influences have impressed their mark on organic and inorganic nature and in the field of human civilization. Alexander von Humboldt set an admirable example of the manner in which this should be done when he studied the relations existing between the geographical structure and the vegetation of different regions. Remarks upon the influence of soil and climate on plant-life are as old as the study of botany itself, but a scientific plant-geography has been developed only since Humboldt took the subject up. It has been followed by the study, upon similar principles, of geographical influences on animal life; and since Carl Ritter's time the diversified aspects of human civilization have been subjects of unceasing study from similar points of view. In this study, religious ideas, personal, civil, and legal rights, customs, and all the features of social and political life have been examined with reference to the influence of geographical conditions in shaping and modifying them. At first sight the management of railroads would seem to be one of the least amenable of all subjects to this method of consideration. Originating and brought to a considerable degree of perfection in England, the railroad system has been transplanted bodily into other countries, without considering any modifications of its methods necessary except in obedience to the most imperative exceptional physical requisitions. Yet modifications and individual differences of character have been impressed upon the railroad service of different countries by the silent working of varying geographical conditions. These differentiations were especially studied by the late Max Maria von Weber, whose theories respecting them are expounded in a posthumous work recently published in Berlin, in which he has considered the subject under the headings of the “Geography of Railroad Life” and the “Physiognomical Aspects of the Railroad Systems of Different Civilized Nations.”

We may in the first place regard the manner in which the function and service of the railroad system are dependent upon the form and relations of a country's boundaries. The construction of the railways in insular countries is governed wholly by mercantile considerations, while, in countries whose boundaries are exposed, military and political objects claim prominence. Thus, an English railway-map affords a most accurate picture of the relations of the country to production and trade, and of the office of the railroads as the medium of communication between the great coal and iron fields on one side and the world's mart on the Thames on the other side. But the ramifications of the German system would be incomprehensible to one who did not consider that, equally with mercantile requirements, the political interests of a congeries of small states, the central situation of the empire among a number of jealous and ambitious powers, and the great military deficiency of the absence of a natural eastern boundary, have exerted a dominant influence in its arrangement. The clearly mercantile features of the organization of the railroads in states whose natural boundaries give them security are thus neither more nor less appropriate than the military and administrative methods prevalent in states whose political integrity is precarious; and we have, in the degree to which additional defensive resources are needed, the first element of individualization according to geographical conditions.

The shape and extension, though the most obvious, constitute only one of the features in which the railroad system is affected by geographical conditions. Regarding the lines in the mercantile aspect, we find that the relative importance of their freight and passenger traffic is likewise subject to such influences. While in Germany freight is the all-important element in estimating the value of the business done by the railroads, and it would be thought folly to depend chiefly on the receipts from passengers, this is not the case in all countries. Herr von Weber gives a table of the relative value of the passenger and freight business of six countries, from which the results are deduced that in Austria it is as 1 to 4; in Russia, as 1 to 3.2; in Prussia, as 1 to 2.7; in England, as 1 to 1.3; in Italy, as 1 to 0.9; and in Denmark, as 1 to 0.5. In the first three countries here named, the excess is very largely in favor of the freight traffic; in England, the values of the two kinds are more nearly equal, while in Italy and Denmark the excess is on the side of the passenger traffic. The first three countries are continental, the last three are maritime. Where there are abundant water-ways to compete with the railroads, the freight, which seeks the easiest routes, goes to them, and the railroads have to rely more largely upon passengers; where water-ways are more rare, as on the great Continental plains, the freight is of necessity carried on the railroads, and they find in it the source of their most lucrative business, by the side of which the passenger traffic may sink into relative insignificance.

With equal acumen Herr von Weber has remarked a differentiation in conformity to geographical diversities in the means and apparatus which railroads employ in the performance of their work. At first sight it would appear that the wagons in which the goods are carried, which to-day are found on the Atlantic coast and in a few days more are removed to the borders of Asia, which in going scale Alpine ridges, and are before long to be returned to the ocean on routes passing through and under the mountains by tunnels, should be of uniform construction. Herr von Weber divides the equipment and appurtenances of a railway line into two groups, the first of which includes those articles that are stationary or which circulate only within a limited area, and the second those that are liable to be moved over the whole circuit of an extensive and complicated system. To the former class, of fixed elements, he assigns the road-bed and superstructure and all their accessories; to the other class, or that of movable properties, belong the wagons. Between the two classes are the locomotives, which only rarely go outside of the particular system to which they belong. “While the fixed organs,” he says, “answer their purposes the more completely the more exactly they are adapted in individual character to the conditions of the place, the movable properties are more serviceable in proportion as they are constructed so as to be susceptible of a more general adaptation.” The former elements are wholly subject to the influence of geographical conditions, and are conformed to the diversities of provincial and even of local circumstances and requirements; the latter set particular geographical conditions at defiance, and only do homage to them at the line which separates districts between which no direct intercourse by railway exists. On the East Prussian bogs sleepers will be required of a different character from those which may be used on the sands of the marches; French locomotives are different in structure and performance from those used in Germany. But the freight-wagons are the same over the whole Continent; and it is only after crossing the ocean that the question of adapting the rolling stock to different conditions becomes a living one.

The following out of these principles in their particular applications would carry us too deeply into details. A single example of the manner in which local conditions may rule can be drawn from the history of early railway-building in the United States. Here “were made in incredible haste those lines that stretch toward the West, over extensive tracts of wild land, plains, river-bottoms, and prairies, pushing through the forest which afforded the principal part of the material for their construction. Thus arose, as the direct result of local conditions, that method of construction the rapidity and temporary character of which received the specific name of ‘American.’ The substructure was hastily thrown up, a rude mass of loose earth and rarely well ballasted, while the superstructure was built with long stringers of wood which in the scarcity of iron could be armored with only a thin, flat strap-rail. With a superabundance of wood, extensive depressions of the ground were crossed with trestle-work instead of embankments; the excellent quality of the wood permitted the rapid erection of high, broad-spanned wooden bridges; and the forest also furnished the material for the construction of wooden station-houses, water-stations, turn-tables, and everything else that could be made of that material.” Now, with the growing scarcity of wood, and abundance of iron and steel, and the greater facility of transportation afforded by the railroads themselves—heavy steel rails, firm embankments, iron and stone bridges, and more substantial buildings, are taking the place of the former flimsy structures, and the “American” type of railway-structure as above described has nearly become a thing of the past.

Still, having the earlier American railroads in view, Herr von Weber shows that the solid wagons of European construction could not be trusted to the insecure foundations of these imperfectly finished tracks. The stiff carriages must be made more flexible, and thus originated the adjustable trucks of the American cars and locomotive. The locomotive was furnished with an armor in the shape of the raking cow-catcher or the plow-shaped pilot to remove from the track logs, cattle, or whatever else might be found upon it; with a head-light to illuminate the track; with a bell to give warning at road-crossings and places where the public were exposed to danger; and with a spark-catcher, required by the former universal use of wood as fuel for the furnace. In this manner the physiognomy of the American locomotive was the outgrowth of the novel physical and geographical conditions of the new continent.

With these and other studies conducted in a similar spirit, of the problems which the geographical configuration of each country imposes upon its railway service, and the means which it permits or indicates for attaining a solution of them, Herr von Weber has undertaken to lay a scientific basis for his observations on the physiognomy of the railway systems among the principal civilized nations. He also offers some remarks on the special aspects of the service in different states; and in this category he has not omitted to indicate a geographical influence in points the determination of which would be regarded as wholly casual were not the evidence on the other side so strong. The traveler on the English railways must have remarked the quiet and self-sufficient manner in which every person, from the train-master, or conductor, to the porter, performs his duties; it is pleasant to have these observations not only confirmed but also shown to be the sign of just that which ought to be, by a writer who is an authority on the art of traveling. The English railway service owes its “physiognomy” to two circumstances: first, to the fact that England is the native country of the railway, in which the very people among whom the new institution grew up were intrusted with its working, and furnished a personal service “to the manor born”; and, secondly, to the purely mercantile character which, by the natural features and situation of the island, the railway administration is able to maintain. The business at an English railway-station is done in the same style as in an old mercantile house, where, instead of special directions having to be given all the time, it is understood by every one that he knows what his duties are and how he is expected to perform them. The case is different in Germany, where the railway system was transplanted already made, and it was necessary to create a personal service, and where the configuration of the boundaries had its influence, not only on the laying out of the lines, but also on the whole system of administration. It would not have been possible to secure certainty in the management if there had not been at hand a host of officers trained under military discipline, who, unqualified to act freely, knew well how to obey. An English engineer has described as the basis of the German service intelligent command and strict obedience. English management expects its subordinates to be intelligent enough to do the right thing without a special order. “If we should characterize ‘intelligent self-reliance’ as the genius of the English system, ‘organized instruction’ of the French, and ‘skillful daring’ of the American, that of the German is unquestionably exact discipline.”

Herr von Weber brings out many other features in illustration of his theory, and, without assuming that he has made even an approach to exhausting the subject, summarizes his conclusions in the remark that “the railway system of every region having distinctly marked geographical characteristics appears to be a product of its physical structure, soil, and climate, just as its flora and fauna, except that man has stepped in as an intervening agent between the natural conditions and their product. At some future period, when railways shall have spread over the whole earth, account will be taken in the particular adaptation of the new institutions of yet more widely differing and more distinctly marked geographical conditions, and the forms they assume will become so diversified that we shall be able to speak of the geography of railway-life as we now speak of the geography of the animal-world and of the plant-world.”—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from Das Ausland.