Insider Insights: Author Mark Ovenden Tracks Train Travel's History

by  Molly Fergus | Jul 20, 2011
Fast train
Fast train / zssp/iStock

For some travelers, maps are strictly utilitarian – a way to get from point A to B without straying too far off course. But for Paris-based writer Mark Ovenden, author of Transit Maps of the World and Railway Maps of the World, cartographic appreciation is far more inspirational. “People who love traveling pick up my books and say ‘I was there, went there with so and so, that’s where we fell in love,’” Ovenden says. “I love the idea that maps can connect with people and connect with where they’ve been.”

The British broadcast journalist and map enthusiast spent his childhood amassing charts, diagrams, and railroad posters. Today, he’s turned that hobby into two surprise hit coffee table books. The most recent, a chronological collection of the world’s most intricate, influential, and artistic train charts titled Railway Maps of the World, debuted in the U.S. in April. In honor of its release, we chatted with Ovenden about maps, traveling, and his take on the future of the rails. Plus, details on how to win a copy of the book after the jump.

What sparked the idea for this book?

I have always collected maps, since I was a young lad - or as we like to say in England, since I was a nipper. My dad had old maps that he used to hand down to me - rail maps and car maps and road maps - and I collected them. I spent hours and hours in my bedroom looking over maps and envisioning what it would be like to visit those far-off places.

As I grew up, I started my own collection of transit maps, and I wondered why there wasn’t a book of these somewhere. I started putting one together on my own in the early 2000s. When I approached a local train publisher who had done a few other books of maps, he bought it right away.

Finally, Metro Maps of the World came out in 2003 [it was published as Transit Maps of the World stateside in 2007], and it was a bit of a surprise hit. Penguin asked me to do another book with them, and we decided on mainline railway systems, which I didn’t know as much about.

What surprised you most about the history of train travel?

One of the biggest things I learned – and must have forgotten from school – was that if it hadn’t had been for trains, we probably wouldn’t have had the Industrial Revolution, and we certainly wouldn’t have the inland cities of North America and Asia that we do today. Before trains, the quickest we could move about was by horseback. Then we developed some canals, which were obviously very useful but very slow. Without railways we wouldn’t be living in the world we are in now; it played an incredible role in opening the continent.

One of the saddest things I learned is that America’s rails were just absolutely decimated after the arrival of the car. I have stories in the book about how oil companies bought up street cars and rail companies and ran them into the ground. Back in 1971, when Amtrak was created and the U.S. essentially nationalized the railway, there were less than 500 cities served. It went from one of the best systems in the world to one of the worst.

Americans are pretty hooked on their cars. Do you think that will ever change?

The really good thing in the last few years is that high-speed rail has transformed the way we look at getting around. I’m in the middle of Paris, and I can take a high-speed train and get off at the Mediterranean Sea in three hours. People are realizing how great high-speed rails can be and seeing that there might be a different way of using our resources more wisely, and that gives me great encouragement. I see a rail renaissance coming, even in America.

You’ve already covered metro maps and train routes. What transportation sector is next?

I’m currently working on my next book, which is an homage to 150 years of the London Underground’s design. It comes out in 2013, on the 150th anniversary of The Tube.

Do you think paper maps will become relics as travelers turn to Google Maps and GPS for directions?

I don’t see them as mutually exclusive. Quite a lot of people have asked me if this is the end of the printed map. And I don’t think it is. It’s not the end of the printed book just because there’s an iPad. I love playing with Google earth, I think it’s a fantastic tool, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to go out and find a map. There’s something wonderful about holding the paper and looking at it from different angles. I do hope that printed mapping carries on.

Some of the maps in your book are as artistic as they are functional. Do you decorate with your favorite pieces?

Yes, I’m afraid I do live my hobby and my work in the same place. I have railway posters, metal signs, station names, waiting room signs, even a lovely New York subway exit sign in my apartment. I must get it from my childhood. My auntie wallpapered her smallest room, the water closet, in old maps.

Want to win a copy of Railway Maps of the World? Relay your favorite train travel memory in the comments by July 31st, and we'll select a winner at random.

See our Top 10 Train Trips and Top 10 Train Trips in Europe articles for more trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find the lowest rates on flights, hotels, packages, and more travel deals.

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