Train Time

This is post about trains and time.

We’re all familiar with the idea of time as an expression of position, movement and speed. In fact, the whole universe is defined by its expansion over time. The big bang theorises the connection between time and space. This is one of the reasons that Einstein’s Special Theory is so important. It’s no coincidence that Einstein’s ideas are always presented by analogy to train, or tram, travel.

The railways were the mechanical and engineering expression of the increasingly regimented and relentlessly time-driven society that is characteristic of industrial economies. Nowadays, we can theorise this kind of timekeeping as one of the formal constructs of Modernity.

The sociological and philosophical consequences of this technological system of thinking have been described by Walter Banjamin, Paul Virilio and Giles Deleuze amongst others. They’re not good, and I’ll post about it all later. You can probably guess where this ends!

Adam Curtis has made a series of films about this too. You can get to them here

In the context of railways, time is defined through punctuality. This is understood as an expression of consistency and reliability. We find this a useful measure of railway service. In addition, we comprehend the smooth running of the railway system as a meaningful expression of the general reliability and discipline of society. Accordingly, the consequence of railway systems is greater than the sum of their parts.


Railway stations always have clocks prominently displayed. You can’t really separate the idea of time from that of the railway system. In fact, the railway system can be said to have extended the concept of time, expressed consistently and precisely through hours and minutes, across the whole of the country and society. Because of the extension of the railway, its mechanical and systemic organisation can provide a very accurate measure of people and resources in movement.

This doesn’t mean that, before the railways, time didn’t exist. It just means that most peoples’ concept of time was defined by daybreak and dusk. In this context, public clocks were quite rare – usually attached to the church tower. The railway station added another visible clock into each community.

Nowadays and because we have conceived of the railway as an integrated system of machine, environment and service, we see the modernist clockface everywhere. It’s become the standardised expression of the concept. The default image for this signifier is the Mondaine clock for the Swiss Railways. You may know that Switzerland has one of the most reliable train services in the world. That can’t be a coincidence. Switzerland and clocks; it’s uncanny!

Italy has had a reputation for the opposite. It’s often said the dictator, Mussolini’s, great achievement was to get the Italian trains running on time. Maybe, but at what cost!

In the old days, each railway terminus displayed a massive clock that said something about the ethos of the company (that’s semiotics again). Here’s the clock at St Pancras

And here’s the clock at the old Gare D’Orsay in Paris

Train Time

The standardisation of railway time is quite an interesting story. Wolmar (2007.104) describes it briefly.

The proliferation of railway companies during the 1820s and 1830s produced a series of practical complications where routes crossed. It was difficult, in the first instance, to convince different companies of their mutual dependency above their individual self-interest. Accordingly, there were problems relating to the sharing of information, accounting and reporting standards and in allocation of revenues. The Railway Clearing House was established in 1842 as an attempt to coordinate and standardise the work of all these different companies. The standardisation of time, based on Greenwich Mean Time, was finally agreed in 1851 and enshrined in law in 1880.

The standardisation of railway time, so as to facilitate the integration of services between the different services, was a significant step forward in the provision of a consistent and convenient service. The standardisation of time tended to promote a coordination of service so that travellers could jump from one service to another. Indeed, the benefits of standards, consistency and co-ordination were so evident, that they were extended internationally in 1884.


George Bradshaw (1801-1853), cartographer and publisher, conceived the idea of a fully ingrated timetable of railways for the whole of Britain. Bradshaw was a Quaker and follower of Swedenborg. His association with Nonconformist thinking probably made him aware of the Utilitarian school of philosophy. Bradshaw’s idea of increasing the general utility of the railway service beyond the provision of a specific service was a completely utilitarian improvement. The same may be said of several standardisations of the 1840s.

The speed of railway evolution in the 1840s made the frequent publication of his guide a necessity. The guide was conceptualised as a monthly publication to ensure that the published information was as up-to-date and accurate as possible.  Bradshaw began publication of his guide in 1842. The project was fraught with difficulty.

Quite apart from the political and business issues of sharing information, the printing of timetable information provided for a number of technical challenges. The neat tabulation of numbers, in small format, required very careful typesetting in letterpress. Also, the repetition of numbers required a disproportionate volume of particular symbols. The advent of commercial lithography, where letters and numbers could be drawn on to stone, eventually resolved some of these practical problems.


The close-setting of many small numbers also proved difficult to read. This difficulty tended to compromise the stated purpose of the timetable. Accordingly, the printing of timetables also raised a number of issues relating to aesthetics, legibility, form and function.

The University of Reading has a big collection of bits of paper. In the academy, bits of paper are called ephemera. Railway ephemera is a a big sub-group of this category. Some of this material, along with its historical and technical evolution, has been presented in their Designing Information before Designers (2010) research project.

Tufte (1990.46) has described some of the ways in which the display of this kind of numerical information can be improved. Implicit in the visual presentation of this numerical data are a number of assumptions about resources and demand. Tufte wants the form and function of these charts to be integrated.

Robin Kinross, who is an expert on typography, has written about timetables as a kind of exemplar of Modernist thinking in information design. Paradoxically, the minute you begin to think about timetables as an integrated expression of form and function through rational design (like Tufte) you understand that this is an impossible ideal. The design can never be neutral, it’s always charged with meaning. So, the intellectual neutrality of Modernity (presented through the appeal to scientific methodology and to the purity of numbers) is a a kind of fantasy.

There’s a book about the the idea of objectivity as a methodological construct in science. It’s listed below. I’ve also added a book about observation; because observation and objectivity are conceptually associated.

In the 1960s, the British Railways identity was turned into a consistent system of expression by the Design Research Unit (DRU). You can read about this stage in standardisation on my friend, David Preston’s, blog

Actually, David has just posted about the standardisation of LNER type in the 1930s.

That’s Eric Gill, sculptor and type designer, in the beret.


Crary J (2001) Suspensions of Perception Cambridge MA, MITP

Daston L & Galison P (2010) Objectivity Cambridge MA, MITP

Kinross R (1985) The Rhetoric of Neutrality Design Issues No 2

Stiff P, Dobraszczyk & Esbester M (2010)

Designing Information before Designers – Print in Everyday Life Reading and London, St Bride’s Library

Tufte E (1990) Envisioning Information Cheshire CT, Graphics Press

Verilio P (1986) Speed and Politics Cambridge MA, MITP

Wolmar C (2007) Fire and Steam London, Atlantic

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One Response to Train Time

  1. martin doherty says:

    Just to say that if the author had travelled on a Swiss train as recently as last July he’d have discovered that the punctuality of the Swiss railway is really something of a myth-I was surprised to experience just how regularly the trains were late!

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