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  • From Rail to Road and Back Again? A Century of Transport Competition and Interdependency ed. by Ralf Roth, Colin Divall
  • Stève Bernardin (bio)
From Rail to Road and Back Again? A Century of Transport Competition and Interdependency.
Edited by Ralf Roth and Colin Divall. Burlington, VT: Ashgate;
New York: Routledge, 2015. Pp. 446. $144.95.

All too often, edited volumes are nothing more than a collection of essays brought together around a theme much too vague and general. That is not the case here. Indeed, Ralf Roth and Colin Divall have produced an edited volume with a strong thesis, six years after the announcement of their book project at the Seventh International Conference on the History of Transport, Traffic and Mobility (T2M) in Lucerne, Switzerland: “rail transport did not vanish in the twentieth century any more than road transport vanished in the nineteenth century” (p. 32). The argument comes as a major breakthrough in transportation studies. It goes along with a stimulating proposal to study not only a competition, but also a mutual “interdependence” between rail and road (p. 32).

The first part of the book focuses on railway companies, seeking to understand how their leaders responded to road transportation in Europe and the United States. Roth underlines that railway networks long remained “quite coarsely meshed,” which brought their promoters to push technical innovations, such as containers, to benefit from road infrastructures (p. 60). Keith Harcourt confirms the analysis through the case of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, whose leaders looked at containerization as “a means of fighting road competition” (pp. 120–21). Divall goes one step further in searching railway-company magazines to uncover the many projects developed to compete with road transportation in Britain. Roy Edwards, in his detailed study of the 1921 Railways Act, shows evidence that companies also tried to convince public authorities to help them compete with road transportation, with limited success in Britain.

Terry Gourvish sheds light on public authorities, emphasizing their role not only as regulators, but also as key actors in the railway sector, though they were unable to compete with road transportation after the Second World War in Britain. In contrast, Richard Vahrenkamp underlines the role of state-run transport companies at the beginning of the Nazi period in Germany in preventing long-haul trucking companies from developing as fast as in the United States. Similarly, Bruno Carrière shows that a regulated coordination of rail and road led to the “rehabilitation” of the railway in France, bringing with it “unprecedented levels of innovation, especially commercially” (p. 192). Albert J. Churella also underlines the importance of public support from the government, when he discusses the missed opportunity for the Pennsylvania Railroad to develop its own standards for containerization in the United States.

The second part of the book investigates the limits of the “innovative [End Page 1014] success story” of road transportation (p. 215). The analysis first acknowledges a slow process of adoption of the car in rural areas, where farmers used it to save time and increase their income. To Reiner Flik, it is a sign that the success story of the car did not depend only on the development of road infrastructures. Bruce Seely then adds that the construction of highways took decades, especially in the United States, where engineers had to find new sources of revenue to make sure their projects were achievable. Reiner Ruppmann presents a nuanced viewpoint on highway construction in Europe, with countries either pioneering or following innovations in the field. As shown by Peter Merriman for Britain, highway construction was sufficiently complicated that it has led some governments to consider the motorway “a somewhat experimental enterprise” (p. 325).

Mathieu Flonneau continues with the theme of experimentation when he analyzes the case of Paris. He argues that streetcars did not simply vanish due to the political mobilization of a powerful road lobby during the interwar period. To him, demographics are important to the Parisian story, where an increase in population led to the development of a large and flexible bus system, to the detriment of streetcars. Massimo Moraglio explains how the tram appeared as a “compromise winner” in the struggle between rail...


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