The Big Idea: Jonathan Glancey

Today’s Big Idea is a little different, with a large visual component. That’s because today’s big idea is about visual ideas. Jonathan Glancey, co-author of Logomotive: Railroad Graphics and the American Dream, walks us through the images of railways through the years, and what they mean for the companies who used them, and the people who interacted with them.


If there’s a big idea steaming through Logomotive: Railroad Graphics and the American Dream, it’s one that emerged as Ian Logan and I marshalled the book with Sheldrake Press. The original idea had been for a re-issue, in a more handsome and polished format, of Lost Glory: Great Days of the American Railways, published in 1977, a small and wistful book of photographs Ian had taken in the late Sixties and early Seventies of US railroads and their trains shortly before so many were swallowed up by large combines, became a part of Amtrak, or, as it seemed, simply vanished.

Ian’s photographs touched a chord when we looked at them afresh forty years on. Those that depicted faded logos and advertising slogans on the sides of weathered and rusting boxcars conjured not just railroads that had seen better days, but an American way of life that appears to have slipped away not only as those old railway companies faded from sight and public consciousness, but as a new, management-style corporatism insisted that local identities should go and everything, everywhere should be much the same as any other thing and any other place. 

Look, for example, at the classic Florida East Coast Railway logo, in use from 1936-60, evoking the state’s climate with an idyllic vista of sea, sun and palm trees and then switch your focus to the soulless modern “FEC” logo.  The contrast between these two images is very much Logomotive’s big idea. What pre-“business attire” logos, like the Florida East Coast’s said about American railways is that each was a distinctive part of a one of the near inexhaustible local landscapes and regional identities of the United States. 

The Santa Fe’s cross-in-a-circle logo, devised not by a professional ad agency, but, in 1890, by the railways traffic manager, J J Byrne, toying on a train journey with pen, paper and a silver dollar, evokes the Spanish mission world of New Mexico and southern California even before these were a part of the USA. The Santa Fe, which once operated some of the most glamorous of all American trains, among them the Chief and Super Chief, made a great play in its visual presentation, from logos and dining car menus to advertising and architecture with the character and heritage of the region it ran through, whether images of pueblos, American Indian chiefs, energetic cowboys or epic scenery. The Santa Fe, like so many other US railways, knew where it belonged and was clearly proud of its south western stamping ground. 

From the Amtrak era, railroad logos, liveries and what new architecture there was, appeared to take their cues from the aesthetics of gas stations, insurance companies, oil corporations and international modern graphics as if they belonged everywhere and nowhere at the same time. 

I’d been thinking about this change for years before joining forces with Ian Logan and Logomotive. As a child I borrowed a book from a London public library called Far Wheels: A Railroad Safari (1959) by Charles Small, an American oil executive who travelled the world on business yet never failed to squeeze in visits to characterful, and largely doomed, local railways. What Small saw all too well is that the very nature of his business was one of the reasons the obscure railways he visited in remote corners of the world would soon enough disappear, whether in the blazing East African escarpment or the backwaters of Japan. I found a copy of Far Rails again, some thirty years ago in a second-hand bookshop in Brooklyn. I opened it on a page that described the long-gone Chemins de fer du Kivu in the Congo as “a 60-mile narrow-gauge streak of rust.” How I long to be able to travel back to the mid-1950s and ride that African railway.

As I do the railroads of the USA at their zenith in the late 1930s, when speed, glamour and sophistication were matched by enterprising engineering, confident design and architectural prowess. Interstate Highways and inter-city and continental jets stripped American railways of their passenger traffic. What remained when Ian Logan began photographing US trains and their habitat were mighty freight trains and their faded logos and slogans. Railroads today continue to transport vast quantities of goods and raw materials across the USA, reliably and even highly profitably. What has gone – the glory that has been largely lost – is the American passenger train and a particular American dream that went with it. 

In his Introduction to Logomotive, the English architect Norman Foster – who first went to the States on scholarship to Yale in 1964, and was awed by the epic country that welcomed him – describes the American railroad system at its zenith as the “ultimate marriage of machinery, branding, graphics, color and lifestyle” at a time “when to evoke the words of Gertrude Stein, ‘There was a there’ and the railway systems magnified the difference between places”. This, I think, adorned with a host of tantalising illustrations, is the ‘big idea’ cantering through the pages of Logomotive.

Logomotive: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Sheldrake Press

9 Comments on “The Big Idea: Jonathan Glancey”

  1. Yeah, this is a book I’m going to want to lay hands on, either for my own self or for my local public library. Preferably both.

    Yes, I’m another person who lives in the intersection between science-fiction and rail fandoms.

  2. I was only half way through reading this, when I ordered the book for my railfan husband.

  3. I work with Positive Train Control systems for a living, and can confirm that trains are cool as hell.

  4. Railroad design is fascinating, from the opulent cars to the Art Nouveau/Deco designs that evoke speed, strength and luxury, plus the little regional lines with their quirky branding. I don’t know if I can justify picking up this book, even for our local library, but it is decidedly interesting!

  5. I went on a multi-day train journey north through Kazakhstan some years ago. They still used Soviet-era rolling stock, and the first locomotive had a red star on the front. Unfortunately it was too dark to get a photo; it really had that classic train design look to it

  6. This is a very different Big Idea and I am totally here for it. Not a big railfan, but just enough of one to find this cool and know at least some of the stuff he’s talking about. Don’t know as I’ll pick this book up, I’m trying to purge my library, not grow it, but it could merit checking out from the public library.

    If they’re anything like this quality, I fully support more out of the ordinary Big Ideas.

  7. Man, that “Florida East Coast” rebranding is fuuuuugly.

    Someone should be ashamed they got paid to commit that atrocity.

  8. All right, you hooked me. I’ve been a train nut (and especially a steam nut) for nearly sixty years, and this book hits me right in the feels. I just went and ordered it from my local indie bookstore (BookPeople, in Austin–I’m pretty certain yer dad’s appeared there) and now I just have to contain my impatience until it comes in.

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