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Tom Zoellner

Early coal mines had major problem with methane explosions. A 'fireman' was paid 5 times usual wages: his job was to walk down a suspect tunnel and dig a coffin sized hole. He would then lie in the hole, pull a board lid over himself, then poke a lighted candle through a small hole ... and hope for the best.

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George Stephenson remembered as the "Father of the Railway" even though he was really a promoter rather than an inventor. But as Charles Darwin said, (talking about scientific discoveries) "credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not the man to whom the idea first occurs."

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Indian Rail spectacularly over-staffed. Most estimates agree that only 20% of employees actually do any real work, and most of those are the manual workers doing track maintenance. Policy always favours manpower over new equipment, because "population is the biggest problem ... we can hire people for a hundred rupees a day (less than 2 dollars) so why bother with an expensive communications system when can pay a driver's assistant to hold a walkie-talkie?"

As well as over-employing, Indian Rail has another social directive - keeping third-class fares vanishingly cheap. You can cross the whole continent for about ten dollars. Most daily commutes are less than 5 cents. The carriages are filthy and the crowds are smothering, but the fare is what keeps poor people getting to work and being able to feed their families.

When rail first being laid in China, there was hardly a line that didn't cross an ancestor's grave. This was blasphemy for rural families, but they could be bought off. So naturally an industry sprang up temporarily borrowing spare ancestors and burying them in the path of the railway long enough to collect the payoff.

Modern train line Beijing to HK built religiously level and almost entirely on elevated pylons above the roads and tracks, so needs to slow only for the station stops along the way.

Basic truth of railways - there is no better way of hauling heavy commodities. But for freight trains, there are no frills. Locomotives are just platforms for big engines. At the end of the day the cab can be washed out with a high pressure hose.

The men who built the pioneering railways - the Vanderbilts etc, not just in US but in South America and Estern Europe - were in many ways scoundrels, but without them and their capitalist greed and drive would the railways have been built?

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