The Unity Express: A Social Network
Before there was Facebook, there was the railway. The railway delivered our mail, our news, our distant relatives and friends. It helped provide our telegrams, our food and our clothes. It was a high-speed connection to a big wide world that expanded with every new mile of track. But how did railways become so important in keeping us connected? What kinds of connections did they make? And, in the age of the internet, are these once magnificent social networks important to us any more?
The fundamental job of the railway is to make geographical connections. Tracks connect factories and businesses for the transport of goods. They connect station with station for the transport of people. As the rail network grew throughout the nineteenth century tracks crept over borders and were laid between states. Express trains raced from city to city, country to country. The world at once became a smaller, faster place. Passengers and freight alike could cover vast distances in less time than it took to wind a watch.
But the physical connections made by the railways were not the only ones to have profound effects on global society. Communication—the connection between people and places—was radically changed. Local news became national and international as the distribution of newspapers was spread by the rail network. News travelled faster and further than it ever had before. Letters and parcels raced across continents, spreading, in Auden’s words ‘gossip from all the nations.’ Families and loved ones could keep in regular contact with one another. Christmas cards could send the season’s greetings in ever greater numbers. Soldiers would smile at their packages from home in their remote and muddied trenches. Telegraph wires were stretched along railway tracks to create a new system of technological communication.
While the railways were busy moving goods and newspapers, they were also moving people. In train carriages, people suddenly became passengers and connections were immediately formed between them. There was the connection between your seat, the price of your ticket and your class. There were connections to be made between trains at connecting stations. And connections were formed between individual passengers who found themselves sitting in a public, often claustrophobic, environment with other travellers for the duration of their journeys.
Our broadband connections and dial-up speeds are frequently more important to us now than our train timetables. We forge friends in chat-rooms, not carriages, and our mail is electronic. The steam train is a museum piece, a relic of the distant past. But are we really satisfied with a trip to London on Google Maps? Can you really experience Istanbul on the internet? Is the romance of the rail, with its chance encounters, physical speed and enormous social history, really dead?
The world daily grows ever smaller and people forge more and more electronic connections between them. Yet still trains take us on journeys that cannot be replicated online. They offer us spaces for material exchange and demand that we share a single world-view – at least all the time you’re looking out the window. A train journey gives us time where once it gave us speed, allowing us the opportunity to sit back and take in our surroundings. On a train journey, you really are all in it together. No need to worry about an overwhelming volume of emails or phone calls. Just relax and get to know the people around you. Who are they? And where are they going?
The railway today connects us to a shared past where people sat down in rooms together and communicated face-to-face. The train may have lost out to digital technologies in the race for high-speed connections but the beauty of its social service persists. The train carriage is the perfect venue to connect with people and places; it is public transport and public forum all in one.
The Unity Express train connects people with places, histories and technologies by taking the railway back to its roots. Communication and the exchange of ideas fuel the project and prove that the train can still be an important social network. The railways were created in a world consumed by speed and greed. Can the railway finally help us, then, to think about connecting with one another to change this world? Let’s see how many world-views there really are on a train…
Becca Harrison, August 2011