My fascination with railroad typography began a few years ago when my car overheated on a desolate stretch of highway in California's San Joaquin Valley. While I waited for the car to cool down, I wandered to a nearby railway siding that paralleled the road.
As I moved among the rows of massive steel boxcars parked on the train tracks, I discovered a larger-than-life specimen book of curious and corroded letterforms. Stenciled onto the sides of the train cars were words and symbols, numbers and safety warnings. They were rusted, repainted, and retouched to create unexpected compositions of type and color. Time and the elements had further worn these letters, and sometimes their messages were cryptic or indecipherable. One boxcar, scrawled with mathematical calculations, had been used as a giant blackboard, perhaps for the tracked reckonings of a brakeman. Mergers within the railroad industry had left many train cars repainted with the logos of their new owners, or bearing the markings of a company that was long defunct.
Interest in the letterforms on trains is not without historical precedent. More than a hundred years ago, Warner Bailey, a clerk working for the Boston and Maine Railroad, noticed a plethora of lettering styles painted on boxcars. As he traveled throughout the Northeast on business trips, he sketched the various ampersands he saw during his free time. He counted more than 140 type styles, which he meticulously copied into his notebook like an industrial-age scribe.
Today, the eccentric British hobby of transporting—the railroad buff's equivalent of birdwatching—continues to gain popularity in the U.S. Equipped with binoculars and notebooks, trainspotters obsessively records the serial numbers of locomotives to catalog the freight trains that travel a particular route. Like that of the trainspotters, my interest in the markings on trains is equally esoteric. But rather than follow the migration patterns of the railroads, I search for visual inspiration and chance encounters with found typography. Armed with a camera, I continue my trek along the railroad tracks.
Note: This article originally appeared in Print Magazine, ©Philip Krayna.