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The railway combined rapid movement and the possibility of transportation across large distances. As difficult it is to imagine today, in the age of jet travel, the transition from stagecoach to train was a rocky one. In 1843, after the railway lines from Paris to Rouen and Orléans had been inaugurated, German-Jewish writer Heinrich Heine wrote:

What changes must now occur in our way of viewing things and in our imagination! Even the elementary concepts of time and space have begun to vacillate. Space is killed by the railways, and we are left with time alone. … I feel as if the mountains and forests of all countries were advancing on Paris. Even now, I can smell the German linden trees; the North Sea’s breakers are rolling against my doors.

In the words of cultural historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch, the railway created “a revolutionary rupture with (all) past forms of experience.” His book The Railway Journey remains the eminent source. The railway freed travel from the constraints of human and animal muscle power (and stench) and — to the extent that the network expanded — from geography itself. It also introduced a number of new sensory and psychological experiences. In this context, the mechanical vibration from the engine was seen as particularly threatening, often inspiring fears that the train would derail. Drivers complained about “the trepidation of the machines, the regular but perpetual movements that it transmits to the entire body and to the lower extremities in particular,” as a French article about influences on the health of train conductors recapitulated in 1857. Some early drivers came up with arrangements to cushion the shocks and jerking vibrations, but over time they got used to them. First- and second-class passengers profited from upholstery, but for some time they still suffered from fatigue as a result of the unfamiliar movements. Train passengers also experienced a sensation of disorientation, but gradually got accustomed to the new mode of travel.

More… “Adventure and Pain…”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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At a station in India

 

A man in tattered clothing jumped into the car as the train lurched forward violently, sending him unintentionally crashing into a group of five women near the door. They radiated femininity in their colorful Indian outfits and ornate jewelry, but their soft faces contorted with fury as they unleashed unexpected hell onto this imposter. Suddenly the women were screaming and beating this man. As quickly as he had leapt onto the train, he was thrown off. The concrete platform seemed to do him no harm; he bounded up immediately and pursued the train, cursing the women who cursed right back at him.

From my seat, I watched the spectacle with wide eyes.

“It happens every day, on every train. Sometimes it’s a lot worse,” a lady wearing an elegant salwar-kameez, a traditional Indian outfit, sitting next to me said in a dialect of Gujarati, since my expression… More…