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Excellent concept, let down by poor detail design.
on 9 October 2012
This really is an inspired idea - why didn't I think of it first? The book does precisely what it sets out to do, presenting on each left-hand page a picture of a section of the British railway system on 1 January 1923 - the day on which almost all the remaining independent railways were assimilated into the `Big Four' - the Great Western, Southern, London Midland & Scottish and London and North Eastern Railways. On the opposite right-hand page, the same area is shown as at 1 January 2012.
Great Britain is covered by 38 pairs of pages at a scale of 8 miles to the inch; several of these incorporate inserts showing major rail centres at a larger scale. At the end of this main section, a further seven paired maps at larger scales depict Greater London (East and West). Derby & Nottingham, West Yorkshire, South Wales, Glasgow and Liverpool & Manchester.
The 1923 maps identify the national network, separately identifying freight only lines. Also identified are narrow gauge and miniature passenger-carrying lines and significant standard gauge lines closed to all traffic before 1923. Slightly anachronistically, railway works and motive power depots are shown as at 1 January 1948, together with steam depots opened by BR after that date.
The 2012 maps show all of the above lines, together with lines opened subsequently. The current national network is identified, and the remainder of the lines are colour-coded to show what is happening on the trackbed today. Apart from lines closed to all traffic, the maps identify lines absorbed by London Underground or by other light rail, metro or tramway services, lines currently mothballed, preserved lines, former standard gauge lines re-laid as narrow gauge or miniature railways and other commercial or preserved railways of non-standard gauge. There's quite a bit more detail, including identification of trackbed officially designated as bridleways, cycleways or footpaths, and even sections of trackbed now absorbed into the road network.
So, with so much useful information presented in an accessible and comparative form, what's the downside? Well, in essence, it's the basic design. No doubt the maps were created at a significantly larger size than the versions ultimately printed, and it seems that little thought has been given to how the finished product would appear at the interface with the reader. It may well be that the fault lies with the publisher rather than the compilers; in recent times the Ian Allan group has acquired something of a reputation for poor design and production, though in this case the production standard (print clarity, paper quality, binding, etc) is pretty good.
Essentially, we humans, even if blessed with 20/20 vision, are imperfect scanners. Most of us have no problem in distinguishing colour if we see it in blocks - even fairly small blocks - but as the shape tends towards an almost one-dimensional line it becomes more and more difficult to distinguish colour accurately. The darker the colour, the harder the identification becomes - to many people, thin lines of black, dark maroon, dark blue and dark green are virtually identical. So, to simplify a complex principle, if colour coding is to work successfully the lines need to be thick enough, the colours chosen should contrast as much as possible and in general lighter shades are to be preferred. In addition, the ultimate print colours need to be very carefully matched to the original graphics.
This problem is most serious in relation to the 2012 maps, because they utilise so many colours. One reviewer observes that his main interest in the book would be to compare the national networks then and now. Both maps show these lines in black, but there are so many other dark colours on the later map that the network fails to stand out. If the other colours covered a wider range - bright orange, turquoise and chestnut brown spring to mind as colours not used - and were lighter in tone, this problem would be solved, especially if the line thickness were increased by at least 50%.
The red shades are a particular cause of confusion. The line from Sheringham to Holt, in Norfolk, is a heritage line. For about a mile-and-a-half beyond Holt Station, the trackbed was used to construct the Holt by-pass (A148). On the relevant 2012 map (18A) it is to all intents and purposes impossible to distinguish between the colours used to represent these different uses. The same map is also used for the lower half of the front cover, and again the colours are indistinguishable - though they are significantly different from the colours inside the book! Another example of confusion is in the key to the maps. The 2012 key has separate entries for national network stations, seasonal/workmen's/restricted access stations and stations with no service as at 1 January 2012, but even with the aid of a magnifying glass I'm unable to discern any difference between them.
On a different topic, another reviewer mentions the small print size. I agree, though I accept that a larger size, or a less condensed typeface, would inevitably cause difficulties in congested areas of mapping. Anyone with 20/20 vision will be able to read station names, etc, without any real difficulty - but then, many of those likely to wish to buy a book of this kind may not enjoy perfect vision. Increasing the basic scale from 8 to 7 miles per inch would add (if my arithmetic is correct!) about an extra 12 paired pages, and would thus raise the recommended retail price by two or three pounds, but the increase would result in a much more easily legible product. Certainly there is room for different opinions, but my personal view is that the added clarity would be worth the extra cost.
Finally, this is a first edition, and as such inevitably contains its share of errors. So far as I can see, most - perhaps all - of these are procedural rather than technical. For example, the `legend' (key) to Map 28 runs from item D to item L, whereas the map itself shows items A to I. Presumably this results from a late change to the precise area covered by the map; the items in both cases are in the same order, so the only residual error is in mis-spelling `Seaton' as `Sneaton' in the reference to the Seaton Snook freight only branch. The inhabitants of Wyke Regis in Dorset, just above the throat of the Isle of Portland, will no doubt be concerned to find that their hometown was apparently overwhelmed by the sea between 1923 and 2012 but this, too, is merely a procedural error. Such mistakes, especially in a book of this kind, are unavoidable. There is probably no field of human endeavour in which Murphy's Law holds true more consistently than in the task of editing! If you buy the book and find other errors, please drop a line to the publisher so that corrections can be made in future editions.
And future editions there will surely be, because this book has huge potential among railway enthusiasts, and updates will be demanded as the picture changes. The compilers certainly deserve five stars for their efforts, but the final product is seriously impaired by the weaknesses in production to which I have referred and for which I have tried to suggest possible solutions. Even so, the book as produced will fill a gap in more than a few railway libraries - buy it, check it, contribute your corrections and opinions and let's all look forward to a superb second edition!