National Railway Networks

National Rail Networks :: Look Back in Time

No one can overlook the importance of railroad infrastructure and the challenges of distance in historical economic advancement. If a country can’t get its goods to a robust marketplace with money, the economy doesn’t grow. Ship, truck and airplane transport are all part of the modern trade and transport equation, but rail is often the cheapest way to ship goods overland.

The world’s first national rail networks began in Britain, with the first inter-city line connecting the industrial midland city Manchester with the port of Liverpool in 1830.

So which country forged a national rail network next?  Seems like it was Egypt.  Other countries like France may have had short rail lines in place, but not an network that could move goods for long distances overland. Egypt’s rail system connected ports on the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea until the Suez Canal was opened in 1869.

2016 UPDATE:  The Railway Museum in Cairo has reopened.


I recently visited Cairo and hoped to visit the Egyptian Railway Museum which occupies a large area adjacent to track #1 at the main railway station.  In front of the station sits an antique locomotive, part of the Egyptian rail network built by Robert Stephenson.    The Stephenson family produced notable civil engineers, designers of railroads and bridges. The Stevenson family (writer Robert Louis Stevenson) were lighthouse engineers.

The locomotive designed and built by Robert Stephenson holds a place of honor in front of Cairo’s train station and nearby signs pointed to the museum inside the station. It appeared to be a replica.

As I walked closer, I saw the railway museum was in a state of deplorable ruin with massive piles of rubble outside, windows broken out, and an abandoned dozer tilting on piles of broken stones and tile.   The museum building was a wrecked shell.  Was a renovation project placed on hold because of the disruption caused by deep-seated unrest back in early 2011? Or was the building destroyed as a byproduct of cultural editing and property destruction undertaken during the “Year of Morsi” ?   I could only wonder.


The petition with millions of signatures pleading to remove Morsi was delivered to the high court on May 30, 2013, the afternoon I left Cairo.  About thirty days later, massive popular demonstrations were underway in Tahir Square,  early July 2013.   Subsequent to the citizen petition, the Egyptian army removed Mr. Morsi from office.  But that’s another story.

Historical Background on Railroads

The first section between Cairo and Alexandria was built in 1854.  By 1856-1858, Egypt had a functioning railway network, which fitted the British interest in keeping the region stable and  to secure faster communications and transport routes to India, the crown of British colonial resources.

Britain’s main interest centered on stabilizing the region, so the government tended to support the Ottoman Empire (theoretically sovereign over Egypt at the time) against all challengers, while British merchants tried to find business opportunities in the Nile Valley and Suez.  An “overland route” opened between the port of Alexandria and the Gulf of Suez in the 1840s and Robert Stephenson’s railroad, completed in the 1856, improved the route.

American continental railroads were instrumental in opening the western wilderness to travel and trade.  Russia, with distances far greater than the U.S.,  opened a single line from Moscow to St. Petersburg in 1851. With more land distance than the U.S. to cover, and few or no western and southern ports, Russia understood the value of connecting the capital and to ports in the Far East. Russia had 36,000 miles of rail by 1900 and opened the Trans-Siberian RR in 1903. Japan built rail connections between Tokyo and Yokohama in 1872.

Egyptian Railways Museum closed for destruction

Egyptian National Railways Museum 

Egyptian Railways Museum 19th c locomotive

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A Room of Your Own

Library of Congress, Jefferson Building, Main Reading Room.

Library of Congress, Jefferson Building, Main Reading Room.

Too bad there are no bunk rooms in Congress.  Back in the 19th century, Representatives bedded down in boarding houses along the streets behind the Capitol Building.

With bunk rooms in the Congress, citizens who want to communicate face to face with elected representatives — an aspiration of that wistful idea that the USA is still a government by and for the people — could troll the halls of Congress during the day, overnighting in the hypothetical people’s bunk room.

Some Members of Congress may nap or stay overnight in their offices. Speaker Paul Ryan does, sparing taxpayers a hotel tab. Corporate communications execs (aka lobbyists) enjoy expense account suites at an array of hotels on Capitol Hill.  No uncertainties for that group.

What is the general public to do about participating in government? Studies suggest that whatever the public thinks, their views have  almost no impact on those who craft America’s laws. Yet, US citizens continue to visit their representatives in the House and Senate. While there might be a handshake and photo op with the elected representative, usually visitors are met by interns or junior staffers, the nodders and smilers who fill in the background space.   The elected representative is probably lunching with a lobbyist-communicator from a special interest group or on an expense-paid junket to a foreign country called a CODEL (Congressional Delegation).

After security officers shoo away visitors to the capitol buildings, people who are not flush with corporate expense accounts could rest their sore feet at a nearby AirBNB room, or in a pinch, head to a city shelter for the homeless,  a reality-based DC experience.  There’s an inexpensive international travelers’ hostel some 13 blocks west of North Capitol Street which borders Capitol Hill. The best value lodging for earnest citizens intent on scolding or sharing ideas with their Congressional Reps would probably be out along the Interstate highways where edge-city lodging is cheaper.

Whatever your participation role in your government, don’t miss an opportunity to visit the Library of Congress Main Reading Room  which is a treasure.


Guide to Lobbying Congress, Washington DC

Hotels in Ottawa near Canada’s Parliament

Mexico’s Palacio Nacional is near a stunning array of hotels at all price points

London offers affordable lodging near Houses of Parliament

European Union guide to the composition and processes of the EU Parliament

Russia’s government centered in the Kremlin is a keystone to Moscow’s history and geography.

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Continental Divide Trail : Volunteer Adventure

Do you know how to weather out a lightening storm without being hit?  Our trail boss during a work-team volunteer week on the Continental Divide Trail taught us:  crouch low as you can and stabilize with three points on the ground, two feet and one hand.  You should be away from the tall trees and their roots, but not out in the open.  If you’re in a group, spread out to minimize passing current if there’s a strike.  Strive to be the lowest object.

Volunteers marking trail route for Continental Divide Trail. Image:

Volunteers marking trail route for Continental Divide Trail. Image:

In mid-September I had a fab week as a trail builder in southern New Mexico on the Continental Divide Trail. The CDT is one of several long distance trails in the lower-48 and it runs from Mexico to Canada up the spine of the continent.

The CDT Coalition in Colorado coordinated volunteer work teams and logistics. Turned into a fine low-cost vacation, suitable for families with adolescent and teen children. There were useful tasks for people of all different sizes and work capacities.  All I had to do was get to a meeting place with camping gear — they provided cook, meals, tools, etc.  We worked some of the day, took hikes the rest of the time. We had plenty of rest breaks.

Continental Divide Trail work team takes a break.

Continental Divide Trail work team takes a break.

Continental Divide Trail  volunteer team opportunities  are various lengths throughout the spring, summer and early fall.  Work trips are scheduled from April to end of Sept — all free to participants and in various states along the trail.

Don’t want to work as a volunteer?  You can hike or ride a horse along the trail. Completing the CDT is considered one of the “triple crown” trails in the USA, along with the Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian.



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A Chain Around the Earth – Acknowledgements

Fantastic project — a model of investigative historical travel reporting. Movie version?

Nellie Bly in the Sky

Nellie and her bag“To so many people this wide world over am I indebted for kindnesses that I cannot… thank them all individually.  They form a chain around the earth. To each and all of you, men, women and children, in my land and in the lands I visited, I am most truly grateful. Every kind act and thought, but if an unuttered wish, a cheer, a tiny flower, is imbedded in my memory as one of the pleasant things of my novel tour.” Nellie Bly 1890

I’m with Nellie. My trip couldn’t have been so successful … or even ever happened…without the ‘kindnesses’ shown by so many. I send my heartfelt thanks to the countless people en route who helped me along the way and also to all those who generously donated to UNICEF  through my Footsteps of Nellie Bly page.

Acadia Acadia

I must first acknowledge the support from my husband David Stanton and…

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Follow the Sun

Following the Sun —  A Bicycle Pilgrimage from Andalusia to the Hebridesfollowing the sun book cover

The premise for this cycling trip from Cadiz, Spain to Scotland is to follow the sun, a passionate interest of author John Hanson Mitchell.  He explains the trip took place during the “early years of the Common Market, long before the creation of the European Union and the advent of the Euro.”   The Common Market  was established in 1958, decades before the book was published.  Could he have meant the early years of the European Community, formed in 1967?

Was the journey during the late 1950s and early ’60s? Stretching a point, it could be about the 1970s, or 80s, or even the 1990s, since the Euro didn’t become the European-wide currency until January, 2002.  Perhaps it doesn’t matter, but this traveler, who has happily plodded over much of the same ground, was eager for more context.

Was Generalissimo Franco alive or dead?  Was Spain struggling with the Basque separatism movement during its violent phase?  Did the ride unfold when France was mired in the divisive war with Algeria or coping with the violent social fallout of radicalized Muslim terrorists?

The Viet-Nam war was a huge issue in France during the 1960s and early ’70s. An American traveling in Europe at that time, even a low-tech, slow-moving cyclist on a Peugeot clunker would face questions about American foreign policy.  The author does mention being thanked for American assistance to Europe during WWII, which might hook the narrative to the 1950s.  Even now, French country folk of a certain age insert a thank you for Liberation Day in conversations with wandering Americans.

spain mealEventually I gave up trying to get a bead on historical context and wheeled along with the author.  And it’s a great ride.  Mitchell artfully describes landscape, curious characters and local cuisine.  He never misses a story and samples the local plonk, usually with a talkative companion.

Interwoven with the journey narrative are tidy summaries of historical or scientific detours relevant to the place, weather or festivals encountered by the author.  Religious cults, folktales, myth, pilgrimage routes and culinary lore expand the thread of the author’s trip by bicycle, car, train and ferry to arrive in Scotland for the summer solstice.

En route,  we learn of the westerly winds that permitted Christopher Columbus to push further west off the edge of the earth and eventually sight the islands we know as the West Indies. This provides a segue into the solar influenced civilizations of the new world.

Ever mindful of the sun, Mitchell discusses bird and animal behavior related to the sun and solar eclipses.  We hear about the religious and intellectual growth of Spain during the enlightened years of Muslim rule. He touches on bullfights and the Mithraic cult of the bull and sun, early Christian rituals, Greek myth, harvesting grapes and how to cut peat. All of it is fascinating material, lucidly presented.  Alas, the book lacks an index.

andaluciaSeveral times Mitchell mentions sojourns in Spain and France prior to this bike pilgrimage, so we can assume he knows the languages, always useful for independent travelers. Either he diligently recorded his encounters back then, or he plays with memory.  It would be useful to know whether he kept a diary at the time.  To report conversations that took place 15, 30, or  40-odd years ago stretches credulity, though many writers do this.  For example, in “A Time of Gifts” and “Between the Woods and the Water,” Patrick Leigh Fermor described his walk across Europe at age 18. He wrote these books as a mature adult and occasionally quotes the people he met years earlier, but explained that he was using detailed diaries as a source.

Mitchell acknowledges contributions from friends he saw during the journey.  While I believe it is possible for a writer to have vibrant memories of significant journeys and other experiences in life,  it seems only fair to let readers know about invented dialogue based on memory.  Then we’re more likely to accept that every encounter really took place and wasn’t a mirage or convenient authorial invention.

Peat O’Neil writes about travel for many publications, print and online.  Author of “Pyrenees Pilgrimage, Walking Across France.


Follow the Sun by John Hanson Mitchell.  Counterpoint, Washington, D.C.  ISBN: 1-58243-136-1, 280 pages  $26.00 US; $39.50 CDN



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Organizations ~ Workshops ~ Opportunities

  1. SATW Society of American Travel Writers

    A professional association of North American travel writers, journalists, photographers and other travel industry media members.
  2. International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association

    IFWTWA is a resource base for professional journalists, editors, broadcasters, culinary professionals, public relations specialists, tourist boards and CVB’s.

  3. Travel Writers Organizations | Travel Writers Exchange…/travelwritersorganizatio
    A network to develop or further your travel writing career.
  4. MTWA – Midwest Travel Writers Association

    Midwest Travel Writers Association (MTWA) is an organization of travel professionals, including writers, photographers and travel publicists.
  5. International Society For Travel Writing

  6. Travel Writers Association | Facebook…/TravelWritersAssociation/10675458937829…
  7. North American Travel Journalist Association
    Political Unrest and Natural Disasters Pose Real Dangers for International Travelers.
  8. Bay Area Travel Writers

    A Professional Organization of Travel Writers and Photographers.
  9. Travel Writers Association
    The Travel Writers Association is both a professional and social network of travel writers, bloggers, publishers, travel related business and corporation 

10. Numbers Kit for Creative Types

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Hitchhiker’s Guide to Earth

I wonder what happened with this project initiated by Everett Pompeii?  Everett is a college student currently studying

Classic Travel Ad Stickers

Classic Travel Ad Stickers

in Japan who contacted me in 2012.

Here are his words:
 “The more people you inspire to get out there, the better off the world is (in my view, anyway). Before we get too far, a bit about me. I’m a college student from the US, but I’m studying abroad in Japan. On the way here, I backpacked and hitchhiked through most of Australia, New Zealand, and the US’s East Coast. I’m currently working on a how-to manual specifically for travelers like me; it’s called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to: Earth. The project is on a crowd-sourcing website Kickstarter, and it runs until June 29th, 7:00 PM EST.”
Everett asked me for advice and seems like a blog post might help spread word about his project.  Does he know I have about 20 different blogs? Check out his travel blog to learn more about this enterprising nomad’s paths.

Books for Writers – Print and Kindle
Japan Travel Guide – Kindle
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Getting the Story

IMG_6016Once You’re There —

Look around, check out the neighborhood near the hotel, inn, guesthouse, hostele or private home where you are staying, study the map and plan efficient ways to visiting significant landmarks or monuments.  Figure out where the business sectors of the town or city are located.  Research where the sports or entertainment districts lie.  Note the location of public spaces – parks, piazzas, markets, plazas, waterfront or harbor quays. Pay attention to landscape and topography; you may not want to be trudging uphill in the afternoon heat.

Align outdoor research tours with the weather.  Raining in the morning?  You might have to postpone the walk through the area and grab the local transport whether its a bus, cab or a scooter-pulled jitney.  Launch your research where people are congregating — is it a food market a kid’s playground? A factory or museum, school, library, church or upscale shopping area?  Of course,  with appropriate garments (boots, umbrella, rain hat, rain pants and coat)  you need not let rain change your plans.  Indeed, experiencing the mood of a locale in all kinds of weather is the way to really understand the place. How local people react to the weather is also part of the research.

If there is a concierge at the hotel, introduce yourself. Or make certain the desk manager knows of your interests.  Behind-the-scenes tours won’t be offered if no one knows what you are writing or what media outlet you write for.  On the other hand, be discreet about how you describe your project, lest you be inundated with information. Perhaps you are reviewing the hotel; you may not want your true purpose known to staff, as the management may lavish special treatment designed to influence your opinion.  Maintain your own agenda, but be sensitive to interesting alternatives that may arise.

For example, in Malucca, one of the earliest British colonial settlements in Malaysia, I stayed at the youth hostel.  The couple managing the hostel were engaging, energetic, and outgoing. Making the most of their continuing supply of guests, they ran tours on the side and invited the half dozen or so backpackers in residence to visit a rubber plantation. A small fee would cover petrol and lunch. Two of the hostel guests, a lawyer and a teacher, both Americans, passed up the tour, saying they didn’t want to pay the $15 fee, which they considered too expensive for a home-grown tour in a rural area. This was before internet wi-fi was available for travelers, so comparison shopping would have been by word of mouth, phone or on foot.  Still, $15 was hardly big money even back then.

I found their attitude difficult to understand. Two Swiss students and I accompanied our host.  It turned out that this side trip was both interesting and rewarding.  I came away with a travel story and photos about how rubber is harvested and cured.  Perhaps the  two American visitors just didn’t have sufficient curiosity about the region they were visiting.   When we returned and described the day’s adventures, they complained that they wished they had gone along. Un-huh.

Curiosity is standard equipment for the travel writer and indulging it, our pleasure and profit.  More tips on how to research and write travel stories is featured in my book Travel Writing by L. Peat O’Neil.

Recommended Resources:

Vagabonding by Rolf Potts

Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing by Don George

Writing Away – a Creative Guide to Awakening the Journal Writing Traveler 

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The Trouble With Travel

Serving Food.

Serving Food.

The current annoyances of travel suggest that we’re regressing to the era when over-loaded conveyances jolted along on rutted and choppy routes, travelers stopped to eat tainted or days-old food at communal buffet dining halls, then tossed and turned on well-used beds in sour smelling rooms frequented by pests.  They paid dearly for lackluster service.

They were harassed and frisked by authorities at border crossings, entry passages and toll gates.  Officials were schooled in greed and capriciously enforced whatever laws existed. Vendors might be predators and the traveler was at the mercy of circumstance.  A heavy purse helped ease the journey, but displays of obvious wealth risked attracting brigands and robbers.

Was that the 5th century, 17th century, or the 21st?

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Iceland offers a landscape like none other I’ve experienced.  In one day, I napped under the sun in a grassy field at the southernmost point, then climbed high up beside a waterfall that seemed taller than the New York’s Chrysler Building.

Another day I trudged upwards towards a snow covered mountain/glacier, though didn’t have enough daylight hours to reach the glacier. On the old lava fields, I walked hunched over, studying the new plant growth with subdued shades of ochre, umber, violet and earth green.  The summer’s endless daylight was long past by mid-September, but small flowers bloomed in the scrub.

In other spots, geysers (Could Iceland have invented the word?) spewed sulfurous steam and over there in the next field, ponies and cows grazed.  On the one hand you have dramatic geology lessons; on the other butter and cheese machines munching in bright green fields.  The light is outstanding, and few trees interrupt the horizon.  I visited in September the harvest season.  Another time, I visited in early June when it was foggy.

Iceland's terrain

Iceland’s terrain

Tundra and vegetation on long-dead lava flows resembled Haleakala volcano on Maui and the wild blueberries tasted the same as those I foraged on a long hike in Kamchatka, which goes to show that no matter where the terrain sits on the globe, if it’s volcanic, there are similarities in soil fertility and auric relationships.

The folks in Iceland are about what you might expect from descendants of Vikings — tall, strong, taciturn – and that’s the women and children.

Icelandic Beers

Icelandic Beers

Food and Drink

Icelandic beer can be hearty befitting a country with long dark winter nights.  When the sun finally comes out after Spring equinox,  it stays up all night by Mid-summer.

Protein is the big ticket item — fish, beef and lamb.  At the airport duty free shop where I killed time browsing for polished volcanic minerals, a woman was filling a suitcase with frozen Icelandic beef.  She said there was a special arrangement for Americans to import Icelandic beef for personal consumption. Best to check State Department and Customs regulations before filling your carry on with shrink-wrapped steaks.

Weather Changes

Sun one minute, hail the next, rainbows and back to sun, all in an hour.  Fields of wild ponies and very muscular cattle.  Bring garments you can layer.  Gloves, a lightweight hat,  rain jacket + pants are essential.

Iceland Travel Books

Land of the Sagas, Jon Krakauer and David Roberts

Top 10 Iceland Eyewitness Travel Guide – Kindle

Iceland Travel Reference Map

Buy at my web store

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