All Aboard! Railway Maps of the World

We’ve been in touch with train buff, map-lover, and Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society Mark Ovenden to learn more about his latest book Railway Maps of the World.

Please tell us a bit about the book. Is it about trains or cartography or design or all of the above?
Yes, it is all of the above plus a whole lot for the geographers in all of us. What jumps out immediately from looking at these incredibly diverse maps from all over the planet is how the railways have influenced our lives since their inception.

The book is divided into two halves: the first is more historical. It details the story of how the cartography developed and how early rail lines were planned, surveyed, and tested. I take a look at how maps were used in competitive rail company propaganda. Then I track the arc of the frenetic period of railway mania when rail tracks were being thrown down all over the globe to the decline in the 20th century when politicians and the automotive industry ran down the railways to the present day and near future where we are witnessing a huge revival of rail transport.

The second part of the book is something that surprisingly has never before been seen in print: a complete atlas of official maps of every national passenger rail operator in the world. I wanted to be the first to make this comprehensive atlas—which geographers will no doubt find useful—and I was aiming for there to be something in the book for people bit by the travel bug.

Where did the idea for this book come from?
I’ve got my parents and family to thank for my fascination with train travel. Growing up in the U.K. during the 1960s and ’70s was a remarkable experience because Britain once had the second most dense rail system in the world (after Belgium). My family went on many “Awaydays” (a group ticket at discount prices) and I would take my tiny transistor radio with me and annoy other day-trippers when I tuned into never-before-heard local radio stations as we whizzed up the country. I’d collect the rail maps and had a fascination with comparing other cities to the London Underground diagrams. The collection built up through the years, but I’d followed a career in broadcasting. Some point in 2001-2002 I was asked once again for one of my map collections. I began to wonder if there was a book of all these maps together. As it happened there was no such compendium, hence my life changed completely as I set out to make that book happen. In 2003 Metro Maps of the World was published (renamed Transit Maps of the World for American publication in 2007) by which time I’d quit my job at a TV channel and became a full-time author of books about rail cartography.

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How’d you go about compiling the 500 images that are the heart of the book?
I guess one reason why a book like this has not existed before is the difficulty of getting maps from obscure parts of world. With over 120 countries still operating passenger services, I have to admit it did start to send me a little crazy tracking them all down! However the Library of Congress’s map room contains one of the most outstanding collections on the planet. And the National Railway Museum in York, England, is also a fine resource. But really the book would not have been possible without the Internet. In all, I ended up with over 5,000 images from which I had to select at least one from each country for the Atlas section, and enough to showcase the different styles to demonstrate how diverse rail cartography has become.

Do you feel that folks are rediscovering rail as a viable mode of travel, especially given the upsurge in environmental consciousness and concern?
Absolutely. Traveling by train is less-CO2 intensive compared to road or air transport. But it’s a bigger picture than that: the physical manufacturing of cars, their built-in obsolescence and wastage, the cost of petrol and insurance and maintenance of personal vehicles is just unsustainable. To say nothing of the damage roads do to the environment. Traveling by train is so much less stressful, less dangerous, and more sociable than being stuck on the roads, in traffic jams, breathing other people’s exhaust fumes. It’s a no-brainer. And with trains now being powered by more energy-efficient power plants, there’s nothing to beat rail travel for short, medium, or even long journeys.

What’s been your favorite train-travel experience?
There have been so many, but one of my dearest memories was just a little while ago on the preserved Isle of Wight steam railway with my young nephews and nieces; 21st-century kids getting excited about traveling on Victorian technology trains! Maybe the best is yet to come. I’m planning on having my 50th birthday on a train! How cool would it be to bring your 100 closest family and friends to some exotic destination like Vienna or Cape Town or Perth and speed them through a weekend of partying and dinners and catching up on old times on some elegant train like the Orient Express.

We’re giving away a copy of Railway Maps of the World to a commenter who tells us what their favorite rail route is and why. Commenting will end at 2 p.m. EST tomorrow, May 5.

Photos: Cover, Viking; Maroc Vintage; Poster, The Mike Ashworth Collection, London.