A large parcel arrives and inside is a hefty book that is total eye-candy for any railway, design, or architecture fan. It’s all about the railways, but so much more than that for what it’s really about are the drawings that engineers and designers created so that the railways could be built.
Exceptionally detailed blueprints for steam engines, wagons, bridges, stations, all meticulously drawn, and here 130 examples of some of the very best have been chosen to tell the history of the railways.
A book about the railways starts before the steam locomotive was invented, in the era when railway carriages were pulled by horses, and some of the innovations to get more than one horsepower from a horse. Eventually steam arrives, and Trevithick’s engine gets a look in, and naturally, The Rocket is in here, and the Flying Scotsman gets several pages devoted to it, including a tri-fold page pull out. The only one in the book and given to the most famous steam locomotive.
Not just steam, but diesel such as the Deltic, and electric from the early days to detailed drawings of the APT and Intercity 125. And the exploded 3D diagram of the Intercity 125 is a delight to look at.
There’s even a section given over the APT’s rival — a tracked hovercraft concept, of which the prototype can now be found in Peterborough.
Possibly the most curious locomotive in the book is one built for export to Russia, an ice locomotive built on large metal sledges and had two 5-feet diameter wheels that dug into the ice to push the locomotive along. Although not really a success, they were the ancestor of the modern snowmobile, so their little-known legacy lives on.
Of course, a locomotive with nothing to pull is not much use, so plenty of space in the book looks at how people and cargo travelled by train. From the basic seating for ordinary passengers to the Royal Carriages, which here are so lavishly illustrated that it seems likely they were seen by someone rather more important than a railway manager.
Even the railway directors had their own richly decorated carriages to travel in private away from the customers they supposedly served, and that private travel extended to the rich who could also hire their own private carriages to travel in.
And the dead.
One chapter looks at the role the railways played in war, both as troop and weapons transports, but also hospital trains to carry the wounded away from war. Detailed drawings from the War Department of armoured trains are almost too delightful to look at for the function they served.
Far more hospital carriages were built than armoured trains though – as the book notes 822 ambulance carriages were built or converted by the British railway companies, some very early on in the first world war in anticipation of their requirement. The few surviving photos of these ambulance carriages are from before they went into service. By all accounts, they were a ghastly way to travel once the battlefield wounded were packed in for transport home.
Architecture is wide-ranging as you would expect from maps showing where the railway was to be built, a selection of stations (Waterloo’s booking office is an eye-opener) to bridges and station master homes. Waterloo again gets a look at the unbuilt air-raid shelter to house 3,000 people under the station.
Even things you might not initially think are railway engineering are here – from a church in Crewe for the works staff, to Euston’s war memorial, to early medical prosthetics for railway workers who lost a limb in the factory.
As a book, it’s both a history lesson in the many topics it covers, but the drawings are what really stand out. Not just the brilliance of the draftsmen that created the originals, but the quality of the reproduction in this book. It’s pretty much an art book in print quality, and that’s delightful as a cheaper reproduction would not have given the wow factor that you get here.
Buy a copy for your partner or flatmate and you will be rewarded with many hours of fascinated silence punctuated only by the soft sound of pages turning and the occasional gasp of breath as a new drawing catches the reader in wonder.
The book, Railways: A History in Drawings is by Christopher Valkoinen, who when not writing beautiful books, works in the archives at the National Railway Museum and is a qualified steam locomotive fireman.
It’s also a big heavy book, so if buying from a shop, make sure it’s at the end of the trip to save carrying it too far. Otherwise, annoy a delivery driver instead, as the book is available from Amazon, Foyles, Waterstones, the Science Museum, and direct from the publisher, Thames and Hudson.