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Charles Dickens and the rail of two cities

A century and a half ago, the great English author watched trains replace stagecoaches and London's subway system begin. He 'would have been surprised at how long it has taken Los Angeles to build its rail system,' a UCLA professor says.

May 08, 2012|Kurt Streeter
  • Jonathan Grossman, a professor of English at UCLA, rides a Metro train. His new book, “Charles Dickens’s Networks, Public Transport and the Novel," examines the great English author's views on the Victorian-era revolution in transportation. "Dickens would have been surprised at how long it has taken Los Angeles to build its rail system," Grossman says.
Jonathan Grossman, a professor of English at UCLA, rides a Metro train.… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

"Here we are — no, I mean there we were… Flash! The distant shipping in the Thames is gone. Whirr!… Dustheaps, market gardens, and waste grounds. Rattle!...Shock!...Bur-r-r-r! The tunnel…I am… flying for Folkestone…Bang!… Everything is flying."

-- "A Flight," by Charles Dickens, describing a rail trip from London in the journal "Household Words," 1851

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Who knew that Charles Dickens, master scribe who brought us Scrooge, Copperfield and tale upon cautionary tale of hard 19th century life, was a transit aficionado with a story to tell traffic-snarled Angelenos about their plight?

I didn't.

Then I met Jonathan Grossman, a UCLA English professor who has spent years studying Dickens' views on the Victorian-era revolution in transportation, from horses to carriages to trains to steamships.

"Dickens was constantly analyzing the relationship between transportation and society," said Grossman, author of the new book "Charles Dickens's Networks, Public Transport and the Novel."

"He tried to reflect back to the people of his day how the revolution they were experiencing was affecting their culture," he said. "If he were alive now, looking at Southern California, it's easy to imagine him doing the same."

Intrigued, I invited Grossman for a light-rail ride. We ended up taking a trip from his thriving suburban hometown of South Pasadena to USC, which like UCLA is one of the region's most important and vibrant institutions. We couldn't have made this trip until last month. Train service has finally come to USC via the Expo Line, which is scheduled to link downtown to Santa Monica by 2016 — 204 years after Dickens' birth.

"Dickens would have been surprised at how long it has taken Los Angeles to build its rail system," the professor said as our Gold Line train eased into Chinatown. "He was so into the power of rail. Amazed by the sense of making you fly without effort. He'd say that creating a network can change the way a place views itself."

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In the 1830s, Dickens was an avid rider on what then was a popular form of mass transit — the stagecoaches that play a pivotal role in books like "The Pickwick Papers." He watched trains replace stagecoaches and London's subway system begin.

By 1870, the year Dickens died, London's transit system was arguably better than the one serving Los Angeles today.

That's right: 1870.

L.A. was just a dusty cow town then, but that's no excuse. As the city boomed. we tore out our sprawling streetcar system to make more room for the almighty automobile. It wasn't until the early 1990s that trains began carrying people again from one side of the city to another.

The rail network that's being created — at a frustrating pace by multiple bureaucracies and warring politicians — has real merit. Parts are even fantastic. But taken together, it's a disjointed mess with too many slow trains, too many transfers and not nearly enough service to prime locations.

Let's put it this way: USC has train service now. Wonderful. That subway to UCLA? Don't hold your breath.

It's different in London and has been since Dickens' day.

As Grossman tells it, Dickens heralded the way the working class now traveled with the upper crust. The man known as "The Inimitable" loved the controlled chaos, the way trips outside London that once took days suddenly took a few hours. "The world," Dickens said to a friend, "was so much smaller than we thought. We were all so connected … without knowing it, people supposed to be far apart were so constantly elbowing each other."

Grossman described how, for Londoners in the 1800s, "the transit network created a sense of togetherness, a sense that this is your place, your community."

I didn't get that feeling as I battled last week for a freeway lane change with a maniac, perched in his giant Escalade, tossing me a middle-finger salute as he nearly drove my Civic into a ditch.

But community is exactly what the professor and I felt as we transferred to our third train of the day. We were now on the last leg of our journey to USC, surrounded by school kids and secretaries, lawyers and unemployed accountants, old and young. Surrounded, basically, by L.A.

Grossman noted how we'd been on the rails for just over an hour. A drive under ideal conditions would take half that time. Not good. But then he looked out the train at a street jammed with cars and smiled.

Dickens would have embraced the automobile, the professor said. But he would also have found a way to skewer our belief that as we sit in our cars we're masters of the universe, disconnected Scrooges cut off from the rest of the world, not responsible for anyone but ourselves.

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