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Book review: Great Railway Maps of the World

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 February, 2015, 10:49pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 February, 2015, 10:49pm
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Great Railway Maps of the World
by Mark Ovenden
Particular Books

Although Great Railway Maps of the World is light on the text and heavy with the images, that does not mean it isn't conducive to enlightening reverie. It delivers 130 or so pages of colour railway maps from the earliest days of steam travel to the modern age.

Inevitably, this is mostly a story of (possibly reversible) decline. There is the loss of thousands of branch lines in Britain, but even more striking is the juxtaposition of Argentina's railways in 1989 with those in 2001. The former picture looks like a thumb stuck into a butterfly net, the latter like a thumb with a string dangling off it.

You don't have to be nutty about railways to revel in the book; you simply have to appreciate good design, in which the demands of conveying information and stimulating desire contend. Anyone who has ever nodded in appreciation at Harry Beck's London tube map - reproduced here, but overlaid with all the overground rail services available in the 1930s as well - will marvel at Kim Ji-hwan's 2009 Tokyo tube map. It still looks as though it came from the future. I'm not sure I'd like to use it to find my way around, but it is a thing of beauty.

Generally, because the history of railways began before abstraction in art, the maps follow the routes in geographical accuracy; the ingenuity of the designers lies in how to turn that into fancy. Ovenden notes that as the railways grew, designers were encouraged to give their imaginations wings.

Then there are the pleasures of nostalgia, real or imaginary: you can delight in the art of, say, the early 20th century, designed to inspire a weary population with holiday destinations. On one page alone there are posters from between 1907 and 1911, claiming "the most interesting route to Scotland" (with a Black Grouse holding a ribbon in its beak saying "the cock o' the North"); and a lion proudly looking over a stylised, foreshortened route from Mombasa to Port Florence with the legend "step by step through nature's 'zoo'". Those quotation marks around "zoo" prompt a raised eyebrow (isn't nature's "zoo", um, nature?), as does - for different reasons - the phrase "Sunny South Wales".

But you want to believe in such things, and the green-washed poster for the Norfolk Broads, whose train line underneath has a section labelled "Poppyland", is like a dream of the Broads themselves. We travel here, not only in space and time, but into and out of ourselves.

Guardian News & Media