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Meet the Man Behind the Map: Washington, D.C.'s and Baltimore's Historical Trains, Subway-Style

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The remnants of abandoned train lines are still visible to this day, often drawing curiosity from what David Edmondson calls "legacy train nerds." As a railway enthusiast, himself, Edmondson became tired of not knowing where these train lines were or how they connected, deciding to take it into his own hands to map each line in a colorful subway-style map. He describes his maps as "quasi-geographical train service diagram[s]" that are able to show the rails and also the service of each train. By utilizing 1930's railway timetables, he's completed a map of the San Francisco Bay Area's historical trains and is currently working on one that will cover the Washington, D.C. and Baltimore areas. To create these and more maps, Edmondson started a Kickstarter project with a $250 goal that has already been exceeded and is currently reaching $1,000. Now, with a delivery date for the D.C./Baltimore map set in May, Edmondson was able to take some time to talk to Curbed DC about what inspired him to start this project, what other areas of the U.S. he hopes to cover, and how the D.C./Baltimore map is unique from the Bay Area map he's since completed.

What interested you in starting your project to create historic railroad maps?

Basically, I was sick of not knowing what [the] train services [were] that ran on the abandoned lines I saw on Google Maps or heard about from legacy train nerds. More than knowing that the B&O Railroad ran here or whatever, I wanted to know where that B&O train went, whether it linked up with other train companies, what stops it used, and so on. Old maps ... just show the rails but not the service, and the timetables show the service but not the rails. The genius of a subway-style map is it can show both. It's quasi-geographical train service diagram, which is exactly what's missing from old train discussions nowadays.

What areas in the U.S. are you hoping to cover?

I want to cover two types of areas: where I've lived (San Francisco Bay Area, Vancouver, Seattle, D.C., and soon Ithaca, NY), and the major hubs (certainly New York and Chicago, but also Los Angeles, St. Louis, Toronto, and Atlanta), though not necessarily in that order. I'd also like to cover Mexico City, which hasn't had intercity train service in quite a while.

How long does it typically take to create each map?

The San Francisco map took me about two months to build over God knows how many hours. The D.C./Baltimore map is proceeding a bit faster, if only because of the lessons learned from San Francisco, and that should be done before the middle of May.

Why were you interested in covering the D.C. Metro area?

Chiefly, it's because I live in Washington, so it only seemed natural to map it after mapping my childhood home in the Bay Area. Also, unlike the San Francisco Bay Area, much of its regional railroad infrastructure is derelict or freight-only. There's a lot more history to uncover ... which means my map can tell a much more fresh story of what we once had.

What have you found so far in the D.C. Metro area map? Anything surprising or peculiar?

I'd started the D.C. map using my 1937 timetable, just as I had with the San Francisco Bay Area, but then I heard about the Washington, Baltimore & Annapolis Railroad, which ceased operations in the mid-1930s, before my 1937 timetable was published. The WB&A ran a light rail train from 15th & New York, NW, down H Street and out to Annapolis and Baltimore. It would be as if the D.C. Streetcar left the District on its own tracks then shot out to either Baltimore or Annapolis at 60 miles an hour. As soon as I read about that company, I knew I had to include it. I'm now using a really badly-scanned 1921 timetable so I can show our systems at or near their height. Other oddities? Baltimore had [an] extensive ferry service operating up and down a number of rivers, including the Potomac and the Rappahannock. If you wanted to be scenic about your trip to Baltimore, you could leave by steamer rather than train, though it might take you all day rather than just an hour. Baltimore, itself, had what seems like a dozen rail stations for its various companies, which I'm sure was a huge pain to navigate as a resident and will certainly be a challenge to map legibly. Last oddity: I was surprised that VRE trains actually run slightly slower than they did back in 1937, taking about 1:07 to get from Manassas to D.C. rather than 1:01. As much as I'd like to see VRE reactivate rail all the way out to Front Royal, it's still very old track designed for a very different countryside. We built modern high-speed roadways, but we're still stuck with the railroad equivalent of gravel roads.

On your Kickstarter page, it says that there may be "some unforeseen design complications" with the D.C.-Baltimore map. What do you mean by this?

It's possible the map would end up being significantly more complicated or challenging to build than I thought it would be, which might delay printing and, therefore, shipment of the posters. I don't think that will happen, but this map will have over 500 rail and ferry stops listed, many more than San Francisco. Lurking somewhere in the timetables could be a graphic design monster that will be particularly tough to slay.

You more than surpassed your $250 Kickstarter goal. With these extra funds, will your project grow or change in any way?

My $250 Kickstarter goal was the minimum I needed to buy a store domain and do a first print run. Now, my Kickstarter is how people can preorder the printed maps they're looking for. However, as promised, after D.C. I'll tackle St. Louis and Toronto. If we get above $1,500, I'll take on state and regional train systems. The basic shape of the project, however, will remain the same.


Any future goals for your North American railroad maps?

My goal is simple: to take over the world. No, actually, it's to help support me through my master's degree, which I'm starting in August. I'd love for these maps to help bridge the worlds of railfans, who are rightly nostalgic for the long-passed Age of Rail, and transit advocates, who are fighting to improve the very contemporary world of buses, trams, and trains. Especially in cities without much long-distance rail left, perhaps seeing a map of what once was will help spark a conversation about what could be again. And maybe, just maybe, I'll be flying over the railroad towns of Iowa someday and know that the Iowa Pacific ran twice-a-day service from Sioux City on those old rails.
· New Maps of Historic North American Railroads [Kickstarter]
· David Edmondson's Twitter [Twitter]