The best rail map ever

Friday 8th December 2021

Regular blog readers will know how much I love a good map. So I was delighted to receive an invitation from a ‘long time ago’ colleague* in the bus industry, Alex Nelson, to a launch lunch for the latest edition of the splendid National Rail Map he produces every year as a commercial venture.

(*Alex worked for Go-Ahead North East in the late 1980s and early 1990s during the time the company bought Brighton & Hove and became a plc.)

The map

It is an absolute masterpiece in cartographic design showing all the different Train Operating Companies and their territorial reach as well as a whole host of fascinating statistics such as the most and least used railway stations by region according to the last figures from the Office of Rail and Road (ORR).

Uniquely it shows each and every one of the ORR’s official list of 2,569 stations across the network including every station in the metropolitan areas and in London too. I don’t know of any other map that achieves such a comprehensive feat.

It’s even got the next new station to open (on Monday) on the line between Ely and Ipswich at Soham.

And for completeness it also shows those stations which are officially still open, (ie not closed) but which don’t have any trains calling. For example, Manchester United Football Ground.

This edition even includes the location of race courses as a bonus feature.

It’s all the more impressive when you hear the back story of the map’s origins. It was designed by a keen 15 year old, Luke Gardner, who used what was then his fairly primitive home computer using the basic ‘Windows Paint’ software to put the first map together.

Here’s a very early version of that original map, courtesy of Luke and Alex. It’s fascinating to see the iterations of the map in subsequent editions, and marvel at those original cartographic skills of a teenager.

Luke’s original map

That was twenty odd years ago and when it came to the attention of Alex who spotted a piece about it in Rail magazine and by then had left Go-Ahead and was busy running a tour business eventually leading him to establish an independent rail ticket and information website – he had registered and still runs nationalrail.com (a great place to buy your rail tickets) (as opposed to nationalrail.co.uk) – as well as Chester-le-Street station where he re-established and ran the derelict ticket office from 1999 as an independent venture, leading to huge success in reinvigorating the station and growing the number of passengers and trains calling there. In the 2000s, Alex took the initiative to also begin producing maps as a commercial venture, including the UK National Rail Map in 2009.

It’s had a number of tweaks since then and is now produced by graphic designers working for Alex but the original design devised by Luke (who now works as a timetable planner for TransPennine Express) is still followed, not least the 45 degree and 90 degree layout depiction for the railway lines which would surely have impressed Harry Beck, the all time master of diagrammatic map designers, were he still alive today.

Luke and Alex with the latest map just published

Alex kindly invited a group of map minded friends along to his launch lunch, including Luke (pictured above), in the impressive surroundings of the Clothworkers’ Hall in the City of London, and the tension built as he opened the parcel which had arrived containing the first copies of the latest map hot off the press from the printers.

Alex unpacks supplies of the new map

As highlighted, the detail contained on this map is quite incredible and I heartily recommend its purchase which can be done on the railmap.org.uk website for a very reasonable price of £11 plus £8 post and packing in the UK. It makes for an ideal Christmas present for either yourself or the map lover in your life. Copies of earlier editions of the map are also available for the ridiculously low price of £2 too.

Among the notable guests at yesterday’s launch was the legend that is Barry Doe who also has his very own network rail map – now in its 51st edition – on his website showing all the Train Operating Companies and their coverage by line.

It’s another masterpiece of map production putting any official offering from National Rail/Rail Delivery Group to shame.

It was great to catch up with Barry again – we first met at a conference in Llandudno at which we were both speaking in the early 1990s, as he reminded me, confirming his amazing memory and command of detail is as astute as ever. There’s no one who can touch Barry for extensive knowledge of rail ticketing and rail and bus timetables, maps and networks. A true transport oracle.

Alex proudly shows his amazing map

We’re very fortunate to have both these maps produced independently by Alex and Barry.

While on the subject of maps, before closing I must also give a shout out to Go Cornwall Bus for kindly sending me a copy of the three updated timetable books published in September which now feature all bus routes in Cornwall – both the tendered Transport for Cornwall network and First Kernow’s commercial network.

impressively these also contain comprehensive network bus maps. In previous blogs I’ve been critical of the lack of integrated information previously available in Cornwall so I’m delighted to see a proper integrated approach to bus information has now been achieved and to give praise where praise is due.

Well done to Go-Ahead, First Kernow and Cornwall Council for the production of these books which look like they’ll now be a regular feature and I’m sure will be much welcomed by residents and visitors to the area. Long may it continue, and First Kernow continue to develop and promote their innovative commercial bus routes specifically aimed at the leisure market to supplement this.

Roger French

Next blog: Sunday 12th December 2021

8 thoughts on “The best rail map ever

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  1. Being a cartographer myself I can fully appreciate a nicely produced map. It is nice to see a clearly readable map considering all the station names. He should be congratulated

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, I hadn’t realised that Soham was re-opening. That’s excellent news and thanks to all those who have campaigned for it. All we need now is the Snailwell loop so trains can run to Cambridge (which is where people really want to go!). To be fair, Network Rail say as much.

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  3. The combined Cornwall timetables and books are certainly a great improvement over having to check with two completely separate publications to get the full picture, and its a shame that it has taken so long to get to that stage. Hopefully proof checking will be improved in the future, as there are sadly quite a number of silly mistakes in the timetables, and an even larger number of mistakes, omissions or confusions on the maps. But they are an awful lot better than the extremely poor route diagrams that Stagecoach now produce for Devon (see their website for examples). However, back in Cornwall, the inclusion of First services within the TfC timetable books, and on their maps, does make the branding of Go South West services as TfC rather confusing, especially as an increasing number of Go South West services are commercial, and actually nothing to do with TfC at all. In my mind, it is fine for all the publicity to be provided by TfC, but Go South West buses should carry their own fleetname, rather than TfC. I am rather surprised this situation has not been objected to by First.

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  4. Go Ahead. Yes I have always thought it to be a sound company but no it’s not been well run. Its about to suspend trading due to breaking the age old basic rule that ‘ Turnover is vanity, Profit is sanity and Cash is reality’ . This is what did for my old company. It may survive or be sold at a lock bottom price. Big or small that basic rule applies.

    Nice map though

    Don

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  5. What a great map. Similar to the Real Time Trains website it does raise the rather embarrassing question of why the ‘official’ versions are so poor. Especially when in theory they should have much greater resources behind them. Or maybe that’s the problem, management by committee means nothing actually gets done?

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  6. I don’t get why Barry Doe’smap is a masterpiece, it has two Aylesburys but no Warrington, Wigan or Stockport and just gives up in the cities. What use is that?

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