There’s a certain romance to rail travel that no other method can match. Maybe it’s the feeling, seated by the window, of watching the whole world unfold around you. Maybe it’s the social aspect, or simply nothing more than decades of movies and books contributing to the warm and fuzzy image.
Whatever the reason, it’s hard to deny there’s little more romantic than the thought of taking a long steam train down, say, the old Orient Express or Trans-Siberian route. But, caught up in our nostalgic reveries, it’s easy to forget these railroads often exacted a heavy price: during their construction, dozens died due to combinations of lax safety, extreme temperatures and negligence. This, then, is their story – the story of 8 of the deadliest railways ever constructed, as seen by their builders:
Tren a Las Nubes (Argentina)
The ‘train to the clouds’ is one of Argentina’s biggest tourist-draws. 130 miles long, it spans a length of Argentine wilderness best-described as ‘lunar’: a haunting, desolate world of jagged mountain ranges and cavernous skies. Bleak, beautiful and rendered in stark, uncompromising iron – this tourist extravagance nonetheless came at a hefty price. During the period of construction (1921-48), upwards of 400 people are said to have died: victims of industrial accidents, vicious weather and the often-dizzying heights the line reaches. Worst of all, by the time the lengthy construction ended, the route was already obsolete. Air and road links across the Andes had improved so much; the newly-inaugurated train was no longer needed: its towering bridges now little more than a monument to the workers who died building an empty dream.
White Pass and Yukon Route (Alaska/Canada)
Depending on how you look at it, the history of the railroad in America is either one of industrial triumph in the face of the odds; or one of exploitation and degradation, forging a powerful nation over the bodies of immigrant labourers. The White Pass and Yukon Route is no exception. Built to get prospectors into Klondike with (hopefully) fewer casualties, the 110 mile line was assembled in two years – including a 3,000ft ascent over 20 miles. Unsurprisingly, this meant working all winter long in some of the harshest conditions imaginable. Temperatures fell as low as minus sixty, with workers spending a frozen February at the very top of a mountain. There was even a murky shootout in the town of Skagway, involving the railroad company and a local crime-boss; an operational hiccup it’s hard to imagine happening anywhere but Wild West-era America.
The Death Railway (Thailand)
It’s rare that something as seemingly-innocuous as a railway gets listed as a ‘war crime’, but the story of the Burma Railway is one of near-unimaginable brutality. Built by Japan in WWII, the railway utilised forced labour – encouraged by beatings, executions and deliberate starvation. Sprawling through the middle of dense jungle, spanning over rivers and ranging 258 miles, the line claimed the lives of 90,000 Asian captives and 16,000 Allied POWs. Diseases such as Cholera tore through the workers, while supervisors like the convicted war-criminal Hiroshi Abe directly caused the deaths of 3,000 soldiers. Nowadays, the Death Railway has been broken up – large sections reclaimed by jungle or swallowed by the Vajiralongkorn reservoir, its violent memories submerged beneath some million tons of rushing water.
Canadian-Pacific Railway (US/Canada)
For all it advanced the emerging American economy, the Canadian-Pacific Railway was a milestone in exploitation that showed how hollow the ‘America Dream’ could be even then. Famously, when the line reached the Rockies, it was said that four Chinese labourers died for every mile of track laid. Those that survived were often scurvy-ridden, roped into the most-dangerous of jobs, and often denied hospital treatment in event of an accident. Thanks to the ugly spectre of racism, the negligent conditions of the job often spilled over into outright cruelty: expenses were deducted from Chinese earnings, reducing the work to near-unpaid slave labour. The families of those killed were often denied compensation or not even informed of their relative’s death. In all, it was a vicious, barbarous project: one that brought extreme wealth to a limited few, at the cost of hundreds of lives.
Duffy’s Cut (USA)
In 1832, a Philadelphia contractor hired 57 Irish workers to help lay 30 miles of track through the dense Pennsylvanian woods, known as Duffy’s Cut. Two months after work began; a cholera outbreak swept the countryside, triggering a mass-panic. By the time it subsided, all 57 workers were dead: buried in a mass-grave alongside the tracks they had laid. At the time it was reported they were victims of the epidemic, but subsequent research has suggested that they were shunned and refused treatment at best… and murdered at worst. An excavation at the grave site in 2009 uncovered evidence of blunt trauma – as if the workers had been beaten to death. We may never know what really happened, but it’s now thought the panicked locals blamed the outbreak on the Irish and killed them to stop it spreading further. A small historical marker marks the position of the grave, site – perhaps – of a massacre that’s never been acknowledged.
Panama Railroad (Panama)
No other railroad story is quite as ghoulish as that of the Panama Railroad. Built in the mosquito-infested tropics by slaves and poor migrant labourers, the line claimed the lives of up to 10,000 people – mostly thanks to diseases like malaria and yellow fever. Conditions were appalling, workers hounded to the point of exhaustion and –damningly – the company had little reason to keep them alive. At the time, corpses were big business: selling for large sums to European medical schools in need of training cadavers. Company representatives therefore made a habit of collecting their dead and selling their bodies to the highest bidder. The trade proved lucrative, allowing the company to fund its own onsite hospital for its less-dispensable employees.
Gotthard Tunnel (Switzerland)
Few railways have such a disquieting length to fatalities ratio as the Gotthard Tunnel. Stretching a mere nine miles through solid rock face, construction nonetheless claimed the lives of 200-odd workers. Thanks to lax safety standards, sudden inrushes of water were prone to flooding the tunnel; collapses were frequent and a severe hookworm infection nearly brought the project to its knees. When workers finally threw down their tools as part of a strike in 1875, the Swiss army brutally crushed the rebellion – massacring four men and wounding thirteen others. In all, it took a decade and hundreds of lives to complete the tunnel: a near-unnoticeable blip on modern journeys, where the entire length can be traversed in under seven minutes.
Modern Railways (China)
(Images: Russia Today, low resolution screenshots via YouTube)
Finally, we come to China’s modern railways. A celebrated expression of the newly-emerging superpower, the story behind these revolutionary high-speed lines however is no different from any other on this list. Rumours of non-existent safety procedures, poor construction and neglect have fuelled stories of death, injury and violent high-speed crashes. Perhaps the growing problems are symptomatic of China’s headlong rush into a brutal form of modified early-capitalism. But it seems unlikely they will abate: as newly-minted 400mph rail-links spread out across the countryside like a silver web, linking cities once many hours journey apart – the need to keep up the pace of development becomes ever-more urgent. Right now, in the stampede to keep construction going at the cost of worker’s lives, it seems history is once again in the process of repeating itself.