Grab your tickets and climb aboard Train, Tom Zoellner's full-steam-ahead, rollicking express ride on the great trains of the world. Part memoir and part history of the railroads in several countries, Zoellner's chronicle of days and nights spent crammed in crowded coaches or sleeper cars, chatting with crossing guards at remote outposts in India, or marveling at the engineering of formerly grand stations now in disrepair recalls both the romance and the risk of riding the rails.

Recollections of a tearful young girl lost in a book he glimpsed on a train ride on a snowy Pennsylvania night some 20 years ago prompt Zoellner to recall that the railroads "summon forth a vision of past sweetness, a lost national togetherness." Throwing his belongings in a backpack and punching his tickets, he hops several trains for a close-up look at the marvel and the possibilities of the rails. He boards trains across the world, starting in Britain—where he rides from the northern shores of Scotland to a spot in the southwest near Cornwall called Land's End—and moving on through India, Russia—where he rides the famed Trans-Siberian Railway—China, Peru and Spain. Along the way, he chats with passengers, yearning for a glimpse of the ways that trains have formed and continue to influence their lives.

Although the sound of a faraway train whistle often stirs nostalgic longings, Zoellner reminds us that railroads were built on the backbones of many laborers who lost their lives in the effort to stretch gleaming tracks across a nation. In India, for example, the "Bhor Ghats became the deadliest stretch of railway construction in Asia where . . . the death rate was close to one-third due to gunpowder blasts, falls from cliffs, and cholera."

In the United States, millions ride commuter trains every morning, but Zoellner points out that, according to an Amtrak study, 98 percent of Americans have never taken a passenger train to travel to their destinations. Zoellner sits in on a rail conference in which politicians and others discuss the future of rail travel, especially high-speed rail travel in California, and while the participants bicker about policy, they nevertheless recognize the potential of the rails.

Zoellner keeps his narrative firmly on the rails in this absorbing round-the-world journey.

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