Railroad Maps Vol. 2, and the process behind it

Posted by David Lassen
on Thursday, January 2, 2020

The preliminary cover of Railroad Maps Vol. 2
We’re about to deliver our special issue, Railroad Maps Vol. 2, and thought there might be some interest in a look at the map-making process — in this case, how it looks from the editing side. (We showed a little bit of the design process in Matt Van Hattem’s editor’s note in the original printing of Railroad Maps Vol. 1, back in 2013.)

First, a few notes, based on some questions I’ve received online:

— None of these maps were included in Railroad Maps Vol. 1.

— While the majority of maps have previously been published in Trains, there are four new maps, and three others that appeared in other special issues but not in Trains. Of the remainder, no more than three or four are unchanged from the original publication. Most of the contemporary subjects have been updated to reflect 2019 information, and all of them have had corrections ranging from minor to significant.

 — If you have a favorite map that hasn’t been included in either volume, it likely is a foldout map. We’re limited to four foldouts in these special issues; early in the planning process, I tried to increase that to six for Vol. 2, but that was not feasible for production reasons. Many of the foldouts remain uncollected in either issue.

The final version of the Australia map.
As for the process of putting together a map, let’s look at one of the four new projects, Australia.

Mapmaker Bill Metzger and I had talked about for a while, because Australia is an unusual place from a railroading standpoint, with three gauges — standard, 5-foot-3 broad gauge, and 3-foot-6 narrow gauge — still playing a major part in the country’s rail network. And, in part, I have to thank rail analyst Anthony B. Hatch for inspiring this project — he felt our “rail gauges of the world” map (also in the special issue) didn’t really reflect the complexity of Australia. I couldn’t disagree, other than saying it wasn’t really the point of that map.

The Australia map is an atypical project, because, as a non-U.S. subject, it precludes use of  many standard tools for research and fact-checking. Kalmbach’s David P. Morgan Library is largely rendered irrelevant. (The library’s index lists 81 titles with Australia content — out of 12,723. Eighty of those predate 2010.) So are the various North American atlases and online sources that are generally indispensable.

We probably couldn’t have tackled the subject without the help of one man — Mike Moy, operations coordinator at Southern Shorthaul Railroad. Mike falls into a category of friendship that didn’t really exist before the internet — a man I consider a good friend even though we’ve yet to meet. (We know each other via Facebook thanks to my brother and longtime Trains contributor Blair Kooistra, who have friends in Australian railroading thanks to a trip several years ago.) Mike provided a wealth of crucial reference materials — links to maps, track charts, and all sorts of other information. Later, he connected us with people who reviewed the map and provided the boots-on-the-ground knowledge that no amount of distant research can duplicate. This is why you’ll see Mike, Robert Tauffe, and Bob Stack thanked in the small print. They saved us from many errors; any that remain are strictly our fault.

With all that, here are six steps in the process of creating the map you’ll see in Railroad Maps Vol. 2. The images are photos taken off the bulletin board in my wall, so the quality isn't ideal, but hopefully you'll get the idea.

Version one.
Version one

The original iteration would not be unrecognizable to anyone who sees the finished product. Bill has developed his basic approach to a couple of knotty questions: how to indicate each of the three gauges, and how many areas are complex enough to require inset maps. Unlike most of our maps, where colors reflect different railroads, colors here represent gauges — except in the isolated Pilbara region of Western Australia, where they do indeed represent different mining railroads. Determining which tracks were which gauge was no small chore; Bill spent a lot of time looking at Google Earth (as I eventually did while editing.)

Bill has determined ways to indicate electrified railroads and routes with passenger service, and decided that each city with rail transit should have their own inset map. These will prove to be a huge challenge, because the networks of Melbourne and Sydney, in particular, are complex enough that they could easily be worthy of their own two-page maps. 

Version two.
Version two

The most noticeable change is the Perth inset has been relocated because of my concerns about having it on the opposite side of the map from Perth.. (Brisbane has a similar issue, but space precludes a similar relocation.) The key, explaining how we’re depicting the various gauges, electrified lines, and passenger service, has been added, as has the list of abbreviations for operators. We’ve continued to add more notes about interesting details, and there are other small refinements: for example, we’ve added every station stop on the two famous cross-Australia trains — the east-west Indian Pacificand the north-south Ghan.

Version three.
Version three

From this point on, the changes are generally incremental, not dramatic. Place names are being corrected, the most tangled portions of the map are slowly being tweaked (as in Melbourne, where we discover we’re missing one line), and additional notes are added.

Version four.
Version four

The most visible change is that the background has changed on the inset maps, the sort of thing that Bill will often do as he recognizes ways to improve the look of the project. You’ll also note that a box has appeared to explain Inland Rai, a major infrastructure project that will allow rail traffic to bypass Sydney. It was this version we sent off to Mike Moy, who enlisted some of his rail-industry contacts to do their own reviews.

Version five.
Version five

Our Aussie friends responded with copious notes, pointing out details like misplaced junctions or improper notations on operators. While we were already showing some of Australia’s many heritage railways, they suggested others significant enough to merit inclusion. They also caught some place-name misspellings, no small thing when you’re dealing with communities like Wallangarra, Warrnambool, and Wollongong.

Version six.
Version six

Very close to the finished project above, and on pages 10-11 of the special issue, with just minor tweaks still to come.

Once Bill and I consider the map finished, we circulate it to the rest of the Trains staff for additional review; after any resulting tweaks, which at this point should be minor, it comes back to me for a final review. (In this case, that followed my first draft of this blog post, which was a good thing; I found one error while reviewing the map for the first time in a while.) And with that, the map is finished and goes to press.

How much time goes into a map? Bill’s ballpark figure is that he spent 120 hours on Australia; I’d guess I put in a third to a quarter of that on my end. It’s safe to say that one new Trains Map requires more time than I spend on the rest of a given month’s magazine. That’s one reason we’ve decreased their frequency, although the main reason is Bill’s desire to lighten his workload. After more than 15 years of contributing maps to the magazine, he’s certainly entitled.

So that’s one map. Multiply that by 40, and you’ll have a sense of what has gone into this project, We hope you enjoy the final result.

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