Lines of beauty: A collection of the very best train maps

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Nerdiest thing ever or key to understanding the modern world?

On the contents page of Mark Ovenden's Great Railway Maps of the World is this writer's favourite example of the kind. On one of the various exits from Manchester's grand, but tired, draughty, and ultimately quite grim, Victoria station is a huge tiled map of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway from Liverpool in the west over to Goole and Hull in the east (and as far 'down south' as Macclesfield).

The map of the railway, pictured right, which ran under that name from 1847 to 1922, is one of many period adornments to a station that's suffered from modern indignities – including having the huge shed of the MEN Arena plonked on top of half of it.

And, as unusual as its age and material makes the map look – it's nothing compared to some of the other designs in Ovenden's book – which include panoramic illustrations of Japan's railway empire in the Twenties and a wonderful illustrated map of Mont Blanc's ski lift. The "map", inevitably, is just a vertical red line placed over a drawing of La Dame Blanche.

Beauty mixes with oddity here too. Take Ernesto Michahelles's jaunty tourist poster/railway map of Italy featuring allusions to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's take on Italy with a picture of lemons next to the words: "Do you know the land?"

Less colourful, but infinitely more useful, are the many practical maps featured, which can range from design genius of a highly-stylised, and not actually very accurate map of Rome's line connections from Fascist-era Italy) to the vastly complicated tangles of an 1893 map of America's huge Pennsylvanian Railroad and its myriad connections. The transcontinental sprawl it depicts is now almost incomprehensible to modern eyes trying to work out how to make it from Fort Worth to Chicago.

Ovenden's previous work was a collection of the greatest underground maps and designs but, as wonderful as Harry Beck's London Underground planner (which actually features here within a London Railways map) and its ilk are, the romance of the overground railway pours from the edges of many of the images in Great Railway Maps .

The story of a continent is told by the maps and adverts for the Canadian Pacific Railway and the vast atlas of America's transcontinental railroad, to maps of the tram system which connected neighbourhoods in Los Angeles between 1901 and 1963.

Yes, a book of railway maps may sound, frankly, quite literally trainspotter-ish, but few other subjects can envelop such a heady mixture of design, history, geography and – more often than not – usefulness. It's well worth alighting on.

'Great Railway Maps of the World' by Mark Ovenden (Particular Books, £20) is out now. To order a copy for the special price of £16.50 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit independentbooksdirect.co.uk

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