The railways that sprang from the Industrial Revolution revolutionised transport, and journeys that had once taken months could now be completed in weeks or even days. Industry benefitted from the efficient movement of goods, and passenger services allowed people to commute greater distances while fostering a new means of travel and tourism. But nothing lasts forever, and today the railways are a ghostly shadow of their former glory, offering a wealth of historic abandonments that have been documented by urban explorers.
While rail travel remains an important means of transport for goods and people, it was upstaged by cars and planes during the twentieth century and never quite recovered. Depleted natural resources, and the longterm inviability of many industries in a technologically advancing world, have contributed to the network of abandoned railway lines winding their way across the continents.
Ironically railways have advanced, with bullet trains and improved high speed links connecting capital cities like Paris and London. In an age where air travel is increasingly frustrating due to cost and security issues, fast modern trains are comfortable, convenient and environmentally friendly travel options. But so much of the infrastructure has been eliminated that reinstating it is a colossal undertaking, although some countries are taking steps to do so.
It’s not all bad news, as many railway routes have become scenic cycle routes (like the Tissington Trail, above), and abandoned tracks provide a nostalgic glimpse back to the golden age of railways. That romantic notion of wondering where the tracks lead can now be realised without even buying a ticket, and photographers can indulge in the strange visual beauty fostered by urban and industrial decay.
When railways become abandoned, a much wider infrastructure is either dismantled or neglected. And without constant maintenance and human intervention, it doesn’t take long for bridges and tunnels to become unsafe or even collapse. While some are maintained for hikers, used for power cables or even converted into road tunnels, many are firmly shut-off to the public behind vast iron gates.
Surplus locomotives are usually scrapped or saved by museums. It’s rare for trains to be abandoned for long periods of time on the very tracks they once operated on. But as we’ve seen with aircraft abandoned in isolated and inhospitable regions, rusting train carcasses can linger on for years. One of the most famous train graveyards in the world is at Uyuni in the Bolivian desert (above). These rusty wrecks have been abandoned since the 1940s and have become a major tourist attraction.
(Images via English Russia)
More isolated train carcasses lie along the dreaded route of Stalin’s “Railway of Bones” in the far northern reaches of Russia, deep inside the Arctic Circle. Like Uyuni, railway engines still stand on their original tracks in this sinister place that claimed almost 15,000 lives.
With tracks dismantled or abandoned and no trains to serve them, railway stations have also been left to the mercy of dereliction, demolition or developers. Stations range in size and stature from small provincial holts to magnificent terminals like Michigan Central Station in Detroit, and while some are repurposed, most are either bulldozed or left to the vandals. Find out more on our Rust Belt Road Trip.
At Urban Ghosts we find abandoned places historically fascinating and visually intriguing, reminding us of how fleeting life is for buildings and objects as well as people. We hate to see old places demolished, and welcome any visionary reintegration of their historic character into the modern world.
(Images by author)
New York’s High Line is a perfect example of what can be accomplished when a group of people comes together to save an industrial structure that may hold appeal but little apparent functional use. But its reincarnation as a popular public park near the Chelsea neighbourhood proves that an industrial landmark can be the perfect Sunday stroll.
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