I just realized that I didn’t actually compare ships and railway networks in my article, Naval Empires, Land Empires. Let’s do that now, complete with my obvious bias for the Anglo-American navy side of the argument.
Ships carry packages and bundles of goods, and travel freely between ports… or can even completely leave the route. The focus is on the individual ship. You can go to ports off the route with a fair amount of ease… and perhaps danger, too. There is only a limited amount of security available, and if you leave the major ports, you are on your own. Between the weather, pirates, accidents far from help, and even war, shipping is a high-risk venture.
There are big ships… and there are small ships. There are major lines… and there are free traders. A big line can go bust, and a small trader can grow. There are government-subsidized lines, but plenty of room for a entrepreneur, even a small one, to make his mark. A range of options are available, things are unpredictable, the unexpected can strike at any time.
The passenger or the owner of cargo has plenty of choice, saying yes or no to any ship as he pleases… as his money goes to the lowest-cost shipper, or the shipper who delivers a quality/timely product. The man with the wallet sets the agenda.
Railroads carry streams of goods, and they are tied to the route. The second it leave the route, that train is done. The focus is on the efficient network, not on particular engines or cars. If a city is not on a rail line, it gets nothing from the railroad, and needs feeder trucks (spaceships?) to receive any goods. There is a great deal of safety… and a great deal of surveillance and monitoring, as well. If you send a package, it will almost certainly arrive: a low-risk environment.
All trains (and their analogues) are owned by major powers: large corporations, or directly by the State. Usually, there are no free traders at all: the enormous cost of starting up a railway serves as a great barrier to competition, never mind the paperwork! A railroad is an ideal playground of a bureaucracy which owns the rails, the engines, the schedule, everything but the passengers and the goods.
And if you don’t like it… tough. Expect to pay monopoly/cartel prices for a service that need not fear “unsafe, unregulated competition”. The railroad tells you how much you will pay, and decides what will and will not happen. The man who run the railroad sets the agenda.
Vast centralized empires like their safe & predictable railroad paradigm. Sprawling decentralized empires prefer their vision of the daring seagoing skipper. Between the top-down group-first format and the bottom-up individual-first format, I’m going bottom-up. Even at the cost of safety and security.
After all, there ain’t a lot of adventure potential, riding a well-run and orderly railroad that sticks to the schedule, running smoothly through safe, civilized lands.
A badly-run railroad is even worse: a lot of bother, wasted time and money, and you still have no control of your destiny.
So, after all that railroad hostility — it embodies way too many things to me, little of it good — I can at least give links to a cool sci-fi railroad as a grudging attempt at balance.
(And a sci-fi scene by the same artist, which has nothing to do with railways, but just looks cool.)