Here’s CityMetric’s summer reading list

A book! On a beach! Who'd have guessed that'd be the title illustration for this piece? Image: Usestangerines via Flickr

It's been a largely wet, dreary summer here in London, and if you're sensible you'll have booked yourself a sweet escape to some sunnier clime – be it Cornwall or Santorini. No doubt that trip will involve lounging by the pool (or the secluded Cornish cove) for hours on end, reading a book and sipping some beverage or other. 

But what to read? Contemporary fiction is exhausting and overrated, you've covered the classics already, and there's no point reading political books as everything's changed too much by the time you get to chapter two, anyway. 

Fear not: here's a collection of the best summer reads for fans of urbanism, infrastucture, cities, public transport, and all such good things. 

A Walk In The Park: The Life and Times of a People's Institution, Travis Elborough

What good is a city with no breathing space? From the historic (and etymological) origins of parks in manorial Norman Britain to the foundations of royal forests and the formalisation of public parks in the 18th and 19th centuries, this book covers the full story of the lowly but vital park. And if you can't live without a political diatribe in your tome of choice, the afterword is full of the predictable rampages against austerity, Donald Trump, and privatisation. 

Mmm, green. Image: Amazon.

Pros: Historical, green, everyone loves a good park.

Cons: Touches of soapbox, tangetial at times, dangerous whiffs of NIMBYism. 

Fun tidbit: Charles II grew rather fond and jealous of Versailles during his exile on the Continent and shoved a Versailles-style avenue of trees in St Jamess Park, along with a long, fenced court for playing a game called Pelle Melle. This game inspired the names of Pall Mall and The Mall, in the area. 

Walking in Berlin: A Flaneur in the Capital, Franz Hessel (translated by Amanda DeMarco)

1920s Berlin. Christopher Isherwoods playground, the Weimar Germany of culture, glamour, cultish art-films like Metropolis, and the faint but definite smell of Nazism – the full package is laid in this deliciously colourful, cosmopolitan book. With essays divided into geographical chunks, you can tackle the book in daily doses – if youre one its adoring followers – or peruse it in bitesize chunks from afar if youre not. Its more than just a travel guide, though.

Its got definite touches of novel and confessional to it, too, which make it all the more enjoyable, if a little outlandish. 

Comes with groovy cover imagery. Image: Amazon.

Pros: Look intelligent, Berlin is fabulous, historical chic. 

Cons: At times pretentious, lots of Hessels spots dont exist anymore, not that fun to read if you're not in or into Berlin. 

Quote to fire at ex-London-hipster Berlin emigrés: Theres really no reason to visit Neukölln for its own sake.

Night Trains: The Rise And Fall Of The Sleeper, Andrew Martin

Trains! Finally. For true train fans, the night train has a particularly seductive mystique. The son of a British Rail employee, Andrew Martin chronicles the long historical arc of the European night train via todays Eurostar, the chat-up venue of the Blue Trains bar car in the 1950s, the Orient Express, and Agatha Christie herself. It's an attempt to relive the glory days of these great locomotives – as much cultural landmarks as mere timetabled services – through their modern counterparts.

Obviously, this is equal parts nostalgia, appreciation of modernity, and grumpish growling, but Martin has great insight, and knows an awful lot about trains. 

A seductive billow of smoke. Image: Amazon.

Pros: Trains, fuzzy European feelings, chic mid-century vibes.

Cons: May elicit sad European feelings, not enough pictures, can feel too much like youre reading about someone else having fun on trains youd like to be on.

Enjoyable moment: A visit to Hell Station, just around the corner from Trondheim Airport in Norway. 

Wild Ride: Inside Uber's Quest for World Domination, Adam Lashinsky

Uber is the tech worlds (and the urbanism worlds) marmite, so if you're going to love or hate something so passionately, you might as well try to get clued up on its history. Lashinsky plots the rise of Uber, and its seemingly inevitable global takeover, through exclusive interviews with Uber's founder and ex-CEO, Travis Kalanick, and other bits and bobs along the way. 

Nothing like the sweet smell of allegations of misogyny and exploitation to get you up in the morning. Image: Amazon.

Pros: Important subject matter, lengthy and exclusive interviews, not too long.

Cons: A little glorifying at times, history may not be kind to this book, things around Uber are moving a little too quickly. 


Cringe-inducing closing line: Adversity, after all, had become part of the journey. 

The New Urban Crisis: Gentrification, Housing Bubbles, Growing Inequality, and What We Can Do About It, Richard Florida

Though written from an American perspective for a US audience, this book clearly has vast significance on our side of the pond – and Florida write an appropriately-sized preface to the UK edition that claims London is, in fact, the epicentre of what I have come to term the New Urban Crisis. There are graphs, charts, and maps galore, and a healthy dose of case studies in specific cities and neighbourhoods alongside more generalising pictures based heavily in facts and studies.

The book closes with a manifesto of sorts, firing of a series of guiding principles for policy makers that are reasonably hard to disagree with: make clustering work for us and not against us, invest in the infrasturcture for density and growth, build more affordable rental housing, turn low-wage service jobs into middle-class work, tackle poverty by investing in people and places, lead a global effort to build prosperous cities, empower cities and communities. The usual sort of stuff. 

BIG WORDS little words, Shard on the side. Image: Amazon.

Pros: Comes endorsed by Michael Bloomberg, hits all the big issues, good basing in facts and pleasing charts. 

Cons: Can veer towards tub-thumping, very American-focussed.

Best map: London's neighbourhoods broken down geographically into primarily creative class, primarily service class, and primarily working class, produce by the Martin Prosperity Institute using Office for National Statistics data. 

Brutal London, Simon Phipps

A classic. Though detractors would call it a coffee table book, at best, its just as fun to take a slice of Londons Brutalist corners with you to the beaches of the Algarve. Beautiful black-and-white photography throughout pairs with sparing touches of text at the front and back of the book to please both lookers and readers.

Brutalist works are divided by London Borough, and each section comes with a handy map so you can easily locate your nearest local slice of Brutalist goodness if you fancy an excursion. If you hate Brutalism, look away now. 

Calm down, Brutalism fanatics. Image: Amazon.

Pros: Beautiful Brutalism, great photography, good for sun-tired eyes as there aren't that many words 

Cons: Horrible Brutalism, barely any words, the black-and-white effect can get a little monotonous after your 37th hi-rise. 

Fun tidbit: Thamesmeads Southmere Lake – which Stanley KubrickA Clockwork Orange uses in a particularly gruesome scene to violently dunk the droogs underwater  was originally intended to mirror the calming effect of water in Swedish housing developments. 

Seeking New York: The Stories Behind The Historic Architecture Of Manhattan – One Building At A Time, Tom Miller

The texture and detail of the contents page tells you that this is going to be an enjoyable read. A colour-coded map divides the island of Manhattan up into sections, each with four or so choice architectural intrigues, on a pleasingly small scale. Think Sugar Hill and Bowery, rather than just a vague North of Harlem or Downtown.

The book is full of beautiful sketches of buildings alongside quality colour pictures of sites as they are today, occasionally alongisde historical shots of the buildings or their developers or early owners. Miller goes into great detail with each building he chooses, but manages never to bore.

Whether its witty extractions from the New York Times of the day, or extracts from historical documents pertaining to the original owner or developer of a particular site, he gets behind the archiectural conversation into the personal historical level that makes this more than just an archi-wonks pastime. 

As much an encyclopedia as anything else. Image: Amazon.

Pros: Beautifully laid out, attention to detail, wide range of sources. 

Cons: Several key buildings aren't discussed, and some of the contemporary photography is disappointing. 

Fun tidbit: The death of 14-year-old John McTaggart on February 6, 1903, was blamed on the newly erected Flatiron Building due to the bizarre wind currents its unusual shape occasionally whipped up. The messenger boy was attempting to round the 23rd street point of the building against the wind, Miller writes. After attempting three times, he was reportedly blown into Fifth Avenue and fatally injured by an automobile.” 

Got any others? Tweet us. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

What are Europe’s longest train journeys?

The Orient Express was a pretty long train. Image: Getty.

For reasons that aren’t clear even to me, a question popped into my head and refused to leave: what’s longer? Britain’s longest train joruney, or Germany’s?

On the one hand, Germany is quite a bit larger – its area is 70 per cent more than Great Britain’s. On the other hand, Great Britain is long, skinny island and Germany is much rounder – the distance from John O’ Groats to Lands End is over 1,400 km, but you never have walk over 1,000 km to cross Germany in any direction.

And it turns out these factors balance almost each other out. Britain’s longest train, the CrossCountry from Aberdeen in Scotland to Penzance in Cornwall, runs 785 miles or 1,263 km. Germany’s longest train, the IC 2216 from Offenburg in the Black Forest to Greifswald on the Baltic coast, is exactly 1,300 km. Germany wins by a tiny distance.

Except then I was hooked. What about the longest train in France? Spain? Italy?

So I did what anyone would do. I made a map.

The map above was all drawn with the Deutsche Bahn (Germany Railways) travel planning tool, which rather incredibly has nearly every railway in Europe. The data quality is better for some countries than others (the lines in France aren’t quite that straight in real life), and the measurements may be a bit off – it’s not always easy to find the length of a train service, especially when routes can vary over the year – but it gives us a good idea of what the routes look like.

Let’s start with the UK. The Aberdeen to Penzance route isn’t really for people who want to go all the way across the country. Instead, it’s a way to link together several railway lines and connect some medium-to-large cities that otherwise don’t have many direct services. “Cross-country” trains like these have existed for a century, but because they crossed multiple different company’s lines – and later, multiple British Rail regions – they tended to get ignored.

 

That’s why, when it privatised the railways, the government created a specific CrossCountry franchise so there was a company dedicated to these underused routes. If you want to get from Edinburgh to Leeds or Derby to Bristol, you’ll probably want a CrossCountry train.

The usual route is Edinburgh to Plymouth, but once a day they run an extra long one. Just one way though – there’s no Penzance to Aberdeen train. 

The longest train in Germany is weird – at 1,400 km, it’s substantially longer than the country itself. On the map, the reason is obvious – it takes a huge C shaped route. (It also doubles back on itself at one point in order to reach Stuttgart).

This route takes it down the Rhine, the biggest river in west Germany, and through the most densely populated patch of the country around Cologne and Dusseldorf known as the Ruhr. Germany’s second and third longest trains also have quite similar routes – they start and end in remote corners of the country, but all three have the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area in the middle.

You’re not meant to take the IC 2216 all the way from north east to south west – there are much more direct options available. Instead, it’s for people who want to travel to these major cities. They could run two separate trains – say, Offenburg-Dusseldorf and Griefswald-Cologne – but making it a single route means passengers benefit from a bit more flexibility and helps DB use its rolling stock more effectively.

France’s longest train exists for a very good reason. Most of France’s high-speed lines radiate out from Paris, and it’s very hard to get around the country without going to the capital. Usually to get from Marseille on the Mediterranean to Nantes near the Atlantic, you’d need to take a TGV to Paris Gare de Lyon station, then get the Métro across the city to Gare Montparnasse.

Once a day though, this TGV avoids this faff by stopping in the suburb of Juvisy and turning around without going into the centre. This lets passengers travel direct between the coasts and reduces the traffic through Paris’s terminals in the rush hour. The exact length of this route isn’t clear, but Wikipedia says it’s about 1,130 km.

Spain’s longest train is very different. This is the Trenhotel sleeper service from Barcelona to Vigo, and it’s pretty fancy. This is a train for tourists and business travellers, with some quite luxurious sleeping cabins. But it is a regularly scheduled train run by the state operator Renfe, not a luxury charter, and it does appear in the timetables.

Being dry, hot and quite mountainous in its middle, most of Spain’s cities are on its coast (Madrid is the one major exception) and as a result the train passes through relatively few urban areas. (Zaragoza, Spain’s 5th largest city, is on the route, but after that the next biggest city is Burgos, its 35th largest,) This is partly why overnight trains work so well on the route – without many stops in the middle, most passengers can just sleep right through the journey, although there are occasional day time trains on that route too if you want to savour the view on that 1,314 km journey.

Finally, there’s Italy. This is another sleeper train, from Milan in the north to Syracuse on the island of Sicily. It goes via Rome and travels along the west coast of... wait, it’s a train to the island of Sicily? How, when there’s no bridge?

Well, this train takes a boat. I don’t really have anything else to add here. It’s just a train that they literally drive onto a ferry, sail across the water, and then drive off again at the other side. That’s pretty cool.

(As I was writing this, someone on Twitter got in touch to tell me the route will get even longer in September when the line to Palermo reopens. That should be exciting.)

So those are the longest trains in each country. But they aren’t the longest in Europe.

For one thing, there are some countries we haven’t looked at yet with very long trains. Sweden has some spectacular routes from its southern tip up into the Arctic north, and although the Donbass War appears to have cut Ukraine’s Uzhorod to Luhansk service short, even Uzhorod to Kharkiv is over 1,400 km. And then there are the international routes.

To encourage the Russian rich to take the train for their holiday, Russian Railways now run a luxury sleeper from Moscow to Nice, passing through France, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Czechia, Poland, Belarus and Russia. This monster line is 3,315 km long and stretches across most of the continent. That’s got to be the longest in Europe, right?

Nope. Incredibly, the longest train in Europe doesn’t actually cross a single border. Unsurprisingly, it’s in Russia, but it’s not the Trans-Siberian – the vast majority of that’s route is in Asia, not Europe. No, if you really want a long European train journey, head to Adler, just south of the Olympic host city Sochi. From there, you can catch a train up to Vorkuta on the edge of the Arctic Circle. The route zigzags a bit over its 89 hour, 4,200 km journey, but it always stays on the European side of the Ural mountains.

Bring a good book.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray often tweets about this kind of nonsense at @stejormur.


All maps courtesy of Deutsche Bahn.