Terror Of Trains

PrintPrintEmailEmailWhen four airplanes crashed in acts of terrorism on September 11, 2001, killing thousands of Americans, many of the millions who watched the horror on television made a secret vow: I am not going to step onto an airplane again. They knew this decision was irrational, and ultimately untenable, but it seemed the one small thing that a terrorized populace could do. We could opt out of the technological sophistication that had made such wholesale slaughter of innocents possible. We could return to seemingly simpler, more controllable ways to be transported: automobiles, buses, and trains. In the days after September 11 these began to seem comforting—even, in the case of trains, gently nostalgic. Air travel dropped almost 40 percent in the United States right after the attacks.

Therapists and phobia specialists talk about how our collective “illusion of safety” was temporarily torn away on that day, but a portion of the population has always been afraid to fly. Being lifted 35,000 feet into the air and carried through the sky at 500 miles per hour somehow defies the basic rules of our earthbound human physical reality. To see an already intimidating technology twisted into an obscene and unimagined missile of death struck a deep, almost inchoate, chord of fear.

Air travel has since rebounded almost to pre-September 11 levels, and the everyday miracle of flying has been reincorporated into most Americans’ mental and emotional geography. But that step could never have been possible without a much larger one that took place a century before the jet age, when a new kind of vehicle changed forever the way Americans could travel. That swift and powerful vehicle was the very one that now appears so reassuringly low-tech and safe: the railway train.

In the mid-nineteenth century, before which humans were never transported any faster than a horse could gallop, trains provoked in many people not only excitement but a raw fear at least as strong as today’s fear of flying, and for similar reasons. The trepidation became so marked and so common that it acquired its own name—railway neurosis—and, ultimately, its place in history as perhaps the first recognized psychosomatic illness. Many historians credit railway neurosis, and the battles the diagnosis caused among doctors, with a key role in the development of the field of psychotherapy. The arguments that raged about railway neurosis pointed the way toward the treatment of shell shock in World War I and even toward our understanding of the lingering effects of the trauma of September 11.

Railway neurosis began as a condition called railway spine, which was not considered psychological at all. Railway spine was first described at length in 1866 by a British surgeon, John Eric Erichsen, who defined it as a physical reaction to being in a train accident, not too unusual an event in the early days of railroading. Erichsen outlined an exhaustive list of symptoms, all, he speculated, caused by “concussion of the spine” and resulting “chronic inflammation of the spinal membranes and cord.” These included “defective memory; confused thoughts; diminished business aptitude; ill temper; disturbed sleep; hot head; impaired vision; impaired hearing; perverted taste and smell; impaired sense of touch; attitude changes; gait changes; loss of limb power…numbness; coldness; weight loss; sexual impotence.” Many of these arose quite a while after an accident, and in victims who did not appear outwardly to be injured—signs, in today’s post-Freudian world, that at least some of the symptoms might be psychological in origin.


Erichsen himself, even as he insisted that railway spine was corporeal, seemed to hint at the role of the emotional in it, that there was something truly new and different about the interaction between humans and trains. “In no ordinary accident can the shock be so great as in those that occur on Railways,” he wrote. “The rapidity of the movement, the momentum of the persons injured, the suddenness of its arrest, the helplessness of the sufferers, and the natural perturbation of the mind that must disturb the bravest, are all circumstances that of necessity greatly increase the severity resulting to the nervous system.”

The perturbation of the mind induced by train mishaps was indeed natural. Railroads were unlike anything people had experienced, huge, loud, preternaturally fast, thrilling—and terrifying. So great was their effect on people’s imaginations that H. G. Wells wrote in 1902 that the nineteenth century would “almost certainly have as [its] symbol a steam engine running upon a railway.” Trains were the ultimate expression of the leap into modern life. The historian Stephen E. Ambrose argued in Nothing Like It in the World , his account of the making of the transcontinental railroad, that people in the second half of the nineteenth century lived through greater societal change than any generation’ before or since, and largely because of railroads. The nation shrank precipitously the moment the transcontinental railway was completed, and a journey that had taken several months became, instantly, a seven-day jaunt. But trains also encompassed the dark side of technology and industrialization. When they ran amok, they did so on an uncontrollable and inhuman scale.