Railroad tracks with a blue sky

Historians have studied railroads for over one hundred years. Railroads and trains have fascinated people in multitudes of ways. The size and speed of the early engines enthralled America. The public has followed along as tracks were built, trains ran, products rolled, and built the modern America.

Yet what has been often overlooked is a critical take on the multiple ways that railroads have affected people and places. Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s influential “The Railway Journey” offered some of this criticism. It was instrumental for some of us to realize that there is a deeper level of analysis of the impact of railroads on life.

The most popular modern magazine on railroads is Trains. This magazine appeals to railroad buffs and fans. Recent articles on the Transcontinental Bicentennial focus on the type of ties and the difficulties of the engineering on the Pacific Line. The Transcontinental was indeed an engineering marvel, but it also affected countless changes in the world in all sorts of ways.

Recently the Union Pacific Railroad became willing to engage with the difficulties the railroad has brought on people. The Council on Native American Heritage (CONAH) along with AERO – Asian Employee Resource Organization (AERO)BEN – Black Employee Network (BEN), Latino Employee Network (LEN) and others have brought to focus those that the railroad has effected in various ways. The work that the UP has been doing is not done and really points to the need for a new level of scholarship.

Critical Rail Studies would entail the next levels of critical analysis of railroads and associated topics. Coming out of the brilliant Railroads in Native America Symposium in Omaha, Nebraska in September 2019, this field would encompass many ways in which the railroad affected life, work, environment, culture, and related topics. This field of study needs to go beyond the typical railroad history of company mergers, routes run, engineering feats, or engine types and deal with the difficult history of railroads.



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July 2024