Railways and trains are central to the plot and symbolism of Dombey and Son. As George Landow writes, "On the one hand, Dickens, unlike many contemporaries, recognized the ways this new transportation technology could effect Victorian cities for the better... on the other hand... he often associates locomotives and the trains they pull with monsters, cacophony, and even death." This fearfulness about railways may have stemmed from an uncanny sense of foreboding. On June 9, 1865 (almost 20 years after the publication of Dombey and Son), Dickens was travelling by train with his companion Ellen Ternan and her mother when the train derailed. 10 passengers were killed in the accident and another 40 were injured. Dickens survived, and helped a number of passengers, but was severely traumatized by the suffering and death he witnessed. He also narrowly avoided losing the manuscript to his novel Our Mutual Friend, which he was writing at the time.
Ambivalence about railroads in the Victorian era had broader impact, and was also tied up with economic ventures, which is interesting to consider in light of how Dombey and Son raises questions about responsible business practices. The history of the railway begins with the invention of the steam engine in the mid 1700s; although initially intended for pumping water, it seemed possible that these engines could be used to power mobile locomotives that could pull cars along tracks. By 1825 a public steam railway was open, and in 1830 the first intercity route began to run between Manchester and Liverpool.
As it became clear that railroads were an efficient and rapid way to transport both goods and people, demand increased for more tracks. The majority of track construction (which by 1850 would total 6000 miles) occurred in two concentrated bursts, the first between 1835 and 1837, and the second between 1845 and 1847. The second period of intensive railroad growth coincides with the writing of Dombey and Son. This burst of development and growth was exciting, and also provided the tempting possibility of lucrative investments. Many individuals chose to invest in railroad companies, a phenomenon that came to be called "railroad mania."
However, during this time period there was very little legal protection for investors. Through both outright fraud and genuine mistakes borne of overconfidence and a lack of planning, many investors ended up losing a great deal of money and creating a generalized financial crisis by the late 1840s. Victorian novelists like Anthony Trollope and Wilkie Collins would describe the impact of the crisis and bankruptcy in some of their fiction. While the exact nature of the dangerous investments on which Carker in this novel are not specified, Dickens may have had railroad investment in mind. In any case, the uncertainty and instability generated both economically and socially by this new innovation clearly impacted his writing.