The Maps That Made The Railways.(Christian Wolmar at the British Library 21st February 2017)

The Maps That Made The Railways

Christian Wolmar……on the station platform in Mumbai,India.

The British Library in London has been running an exhibition under the theme “Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line” (ends 1st March 2017)

Tom Harper, “lead curator, maps”, introduced Christian Wolmar with the presentation “The Maps That Made The Railways”.

He started by drawing attention to his failed…but fun…failed enterprise in running for parliament, and then launched into his subject with some vigour!

“Maps and the railways are symbiotic….”, that is having an interdependent relationship. Before the railways, people hardly needed maps, since their travel was limited to just a few miles around their place of birth, and the occasional trip to the nearest town….which might be less than 10 miles away.

At least the railways helped in ending the phenomenon of the “village idiot”,….brought about by localized in breeding…but now the railways meant you could find romance much further afield!!

So to the maps…. a selection with some explanatory notes as to their usage follows..

An early map of the Stockton to Darlington.. maps are representational, not necessarily accurate…

Note the strange misrepresentation in graphic maps…

…looks like the trains are about to climb Mt Everest!

US railroad maps….eg the Baltimore & Ohio…show that the railroads, built cheaply, went round obstacles ….

and the maps showing the contrast in railroad development in the US..and the effects on the Civil War


Contrast German ..towns connected, whereas French Railways centred on Paris as a hub..


Maps also show that whereas US & UK railways were unplanned, other countries planned their railways, strengthening the identity of the nation, but also ironically, making them subject to wars and invasion…by their very railways.

Transcontinental railways and the relevant maps were discussed… the US transcontinental,  Canada’s triple(what a waste!) transcontinentals.. and the Trans Siberian(what a tremendous achievement in 10 years!.


US,Canada,Trans Siberian maps….

In micro ways, the railways brought benefits to towns, stimulating development..

The first map is 1857 , the second is 1896

The role of railways in the First World War…use of the railways, and the little railways that were temporarily laid narrow gauge lines to transport munitions etc to the front..i.e. the trenches..led to the stalemate on the Western Front. It turned out that increased mobility lead to entrenchment.

After the war, the railway companies had to smarten up their act to keep business in the face of road transport…as the following examples show…



In the Second World War, railways became targets……

The London Underground Maps (Harry Beck’s inspired graphic..and certainly not to scale…) have set the tone around the in Moscow Metro map..

Maps on the Beeching cuts..and HS2…..both controversial in their own specific ways , were shown..

The evening was rounded off with Questions from the audience..

The last questioner asked what would a map of the UK look like if the franchises were coloured according to the nationality of the (state funded) railways that owned them…

An enigma that the audience was left with…….

When one is located…it will be added here!!!

And here is one, kindly referred to by Andrew Smithers (

First published in The Times

..and for those who need a map available on the National Rail Enquiries site, here is the link..