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"Mapping Britain's Railways" by David Spaven: Edinburgh meeting of 30th October 2012

David Spaven signing copies of his book d

David Spaven signing copies of his book "Mapping the Railways" after his presentation.

© John Yellowlees, 2012

Britain invented the railways, and it can be no coincidence that ours is also the best-mapped country in the world. HarperCollins approached David and co-author Julian Holland, and the topic soon turned out to be a visual feast with which they received great help in writing their book first published in 2011 from Chris Fleet, curator at the Map Library in the Causewayside building of the National Library of Scotland.

The eight eras of development show how the railways and mapping have changed. In the original railway revolution up to 1860, maps were used by surveyors promoting their projects and show them consolidating early wagonways, sometimes using county maps.

During the railways' pre-eminence from 1860 to 1901, the Railway Clearing House fostered cooperation and J Bartholomew of Edinburgh introduced new standards of clarity to promoters' maps. The major find while writing the book was the Irish Channel Tunnel prospectus of seven options for linking Ireland with Scotland. A particularly fine 1896 map from the North British Railway was bold in style, and showed the systems of other companies with which it operated in association but not rivals such as the Caledonian.

Alan Jowett has mapped the railways at their zenith from 1901 to 1922, and observes that whereas the last railways to be built were often the first to close, the earliest docks and harbours were usually the first to be lost.

During the years of the Grouping from 1923 to 1948, George Dow produced a diagrammatic map of the Great Northern suburban network to be read in LNER compartments and may have been the inspiration for one of its customers Harry Beck to produce his world-famous map of the London Underground.

BR devised passenger and freight regional maps showing the new marshalling yards that were to have a short life as competition from road haulage removed the need for trip working : the Ordnance Survey map of Millerhill showed both sides of the yard and the new access from the East Coast Main Line. The Beeching Report used red and green dots for stations' receipts, and in Scotland Stranraer and Thurso were the only green dot stations other than Galashiels and Hawick to be proposed for closure.

The author's personal favourite modern map is the BR Passenger Network Map of 1968, by which time the vast majority of lines proposed for closure had met their fate and the Waverley Line with three months to go was excised as the mapmakers had clearly decided that no last-minute campaign would save it. Maps of routes for development included Freightliner, but all of its Scottish depots except Coatbridge closed in 1987.

Maps of lines reprieved from closure reflect the politics of the time including the Heart of Wales Line because it ran through three marginal constituencies, but another story to be mapped was the subsequent addition of routes not originally proposed for closure, in which eastern Scotland and the eastern counties of England fared especially badly.

For the era of recovery after Beeching, BR was a leader of mapping among railways the world over, though a few of its accompanying advertisements were less good. Maps show the passenger revival with over 350 stations added and 500 miles of new passenger route - the peak year was 1987, but devolution has since given fresh impetus in Scotland, Wales and London.

However freight was in continuing decline, as witnessed by the rationalisation of networks among the coalfields. A map promoting tourism on the Kyle map before the second closure proposal in 1971 showed the Scottish Region learning a lesson from Waverley Line closure by its determination that such an event should not recur on its watch, and was a precursor to the marketing of the Settle & Carlisle Line during its closure proposal in the 1980s.

Privatisation saw the end of a unified style, with for example CrossCountry Trains showing the complete network of other operators but East Coast focusing on its own spine and Virgin highlighting its individual routes.

The National Rail Map draw the eye to routes such as the Cambrian and Cumbrian Coasts which have retained lots of stations in preference to ones like Ayr-Stranraer which have not, but the Association of Train Operating Companies map is too angular and the National Rail one distorts geography while introducing a hierarchy of four types of route. Transport Scotland's map of the new Borders railway is diagrammatic but clear, showing the interchange facilities that will be available at each of the seven stations.

The Scottish Region thanks Edinburgh City Council for hosting this fascinating event.

Copies of Mapping the Railways can be obtained from HarperCollins

Other books by David Spaven:
"The Waverley Route" available from Argyll Publishing
"Britain's Scenic Railways" available from HarperCollins

Report and photograph by John Yellowlees.


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