The Beauty of Transport – an Introduction

People who work in transport are happy to talk about operations or engineering. But they get very shifty and uncomfortable when the conversation turns towards transport as part of culture, or in provoking emotions, or in making the physical environment more beautiful.

I’m not entirely sure why this is the case, but I suspect it’s partly because, let’s face it, a certain kind of person goes into the transport industry. The kind of person who likes timetables, lists, and routines. And I say that as the proud holder of a degree in transport management, so it’s not a criticism of the many friends I have in the world of transport.

Now I’m no expert on art, architecture, literature, music, engineering, film or aesthetics. But I am interested in them, and how transport interacts with them. And that’s what this blog is going to be about. Because with a very few exceptions, no-one else in the transport industry wants to talk about it. So I might as well have a go.

To me, transport has had a profound impact on culture, and it’s worthy of celebration. It has very genuinely made the world more beautiful, although it’s a knack we seem to have forgotten in this country. I once heard an architect say that architecture isn’t art. That’s fair enough, because essentially art exists for its own sake. But there is artistry in architecture. We could exist in a world without architects in which every single building is a featureless, entirely function-led, dull grey box. Yet we don’t care to live in that world (except possibly at universities developed in the 1960s, as far as I can tell), and it’s just the same with transport. Bridges, tunnels, air shafts, stations and depots don’t have to be beautiful, but so many of them are. Because the developers of those transport systems were, or are, proud of them.

Once upon time, when the railways were built, they made a statement. The stations were attractive, the bridges were grand, even the tunnels were castellated. Many of these grand structures were hated when built, but we have grown to love them. Now, when the government announces the route for High Speed 2, the thing it is most proud of is the fact that most of the route has been hidden away out of sight. The bridges and the new stations on High Speed 1 are anonymous to the point of embarrassment. We could, and should, do better. And don’t think you’ve got away with it either, Midland Metro (aka The Invisible Tram Line), you’re on my hit list too.

So, what’s the plan? To celebrate the physical infrastructure which transport has bequeathed to us which makes our environment more pleasurable. To celebrate transport’s influence on art – books, films, television, song, sculpture… To urge transport developers to be proud of their transport systems and make them attractive, eye-catching, emotion-triggering, and bold – and to point to good examples of where it’s still happening. To lob the occasional brick-bat. It’ll be mostly, but not exclusively, focussed on the UK because that’s where I live.

What’s not the plan? To discuss which car, or plane, or train is the most attractive. Why? Because there are plenty of other places you can go for that kind of trouser rubbing activity (no offence, I’m no more immune to trouser rubbing than the next blogger). My background is in public transport so this blog will tend towards that part of the industry, though I’m certainly not ignorant of the beauty of some road and car-related infrastructure (yes, honestly), as well as that for aviation, and this blog will cover that too.

This isn’t one of those daily blogs. I hope to do something on an approximately weekly basis, so why not set up your details so that it gets delivered directly to your inbox? I hope you’ll enjoy coming along for the ride, and maybe pointing me in the directions of some topics to cover?

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