Obituary: Colonel Michael Cobb, army officer and railway cartographer

Colonel Michael Cobb, army officer and railway cartographer. Born: 10 September, 1916, in London. Died: 23 June, 2010, in Devon, aged 93.

After a first career as an army officer, Michael Cobb embarked on a second as a cartographer. Fuelled by his love of railways he then undertook a remarkable project, to map Britain's railways. He achieved the feat and was awarded a PhD from Cambridge University at the age of 91.

Born in Harrow Weald, part of the London Borough of Harrow, in 1916, Michael Herbert Cobb was educated at Harrow School before good grades earned him a place at Cambridge University. He enrolled on to a degree in mechanical sciences at Magdalene College in 1935 and upon completing his studies he joined the British Army's Royal Engineers as an officer in 1938.

In 1939 he was posted to France to join the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). However, after battle had begun on 10 May, 1940 with the German invasion of France the BEF were forced back to the ports and eventually evacuated across the Channel. Cobb only just managed to book his seat as the last ship left Dunkirk.

After the evacuation of Dunkirk, Cobb joined an airborne commando unit. He spent the majority of the war in Scotland training commandoes in preparation for Airborne Operations' on D-Day. As it turns out they weren't required for the French invasion and instead were shipped off to North Africa and then the Far East. In 1944 their vessel was hit by a torpedo and sunk in the Mediterranean. Years later Cobb described this as "an interesting experience", undoubtedly not what he was thinking at the time.

When hostilities finally ended Cobb remained in the army, undertaking surveys in areas such as Burma and Egypt as the commanding officer of 42 Survey Engineer Regiment. He joined the Royal School of Military Survey, Berkshire as its superintendent in 1956. He retired from the army in 1965 at the rank of colonel and began work as a cartographer for Geographia. An intuitive mapper, Cobb recognised the importance of simplicity and was the first to suggest the removal of contour lines on road maps, rationalising that drivers did not need to know about the local topography.

He retired from this second career in 1971 aged 55, when he began to truly indulge himself in his love of trains and railways. His passion had been sporadically satiated during his military years when he drove a Nigel Gresley K4 Mogul on the West Highland Line when his commando unit was in Scotland.

His passion was genuine; Cobb had attempted to travel on every line in Britain since the 1920s and was dismayed by the mass closures instigated by Dr Richard Beeching's 1963 report, The Reshaping of Britain's Railways. The result of the first Beeching Report was the closure of almost 4,000 railway route miles.

As Cobb spent more and more time enjoying his retirement an inevitable plan began to form.For a railway lover and a former professional cartographer it seemed obvious to him that there would be a comprehensive map of Britain's railway lines and stations. There was no such thing, however, and in 1978, after toying with the idea for some time previous, Cobb set about the mammoth task of recording and mapping the entire British railway network including lines and stations which opened from 1807 and 1994. What he had begun was not just a map, but a historical document highlighting economic trends and transport modal changes.

In 1996, a mere 18 years later Cobb completed The Railways of Great Britain: A Historical Atlas and in 2004 it was published thanks in the main to the financial backing of his childhood friend James Collyer-Fergusson.

It was a significant piece of work, 646 pages of finely detailed cartographic expertise, although Cobb remarked when the second edition went in to publication in 2006 that it had given him the opportunity to correct some errors. "I am a cartographer and the first edition had lots of silly mistakes I'd failed to spot. However, I'm much happier with the reprint edition."

The icing on the cake came when it was suggested that he submit his work to his old university at Cambridge as a PhD. It had never occurred to Cobb that it would be a legitimate piece of academic work: "I was 62 when I started and never even thought of a PhD. In fact I don't regard myself as an official PhD really; I did this in my own time, no-one was chasing me. I went to look at stations for five years, but otherwise it's all from the history books."

Scholars at Cambridge were hugely impressed with Cobb's achievement and Dr Richard Smith, head of the university's geography department and also one of the examiners of Cobb's submitted work, commented: "The atlas is a remarkable piece of scholarship. I was deeply impressed by the systematic way the cartographic enterprise had been carried out and the attention to detail which enables one to chart the dates of opening of every line and station It is a definitive record. It is not just of interest to the enthusiast but a vital tool for anyone seriously interested in the economic geography and history of Great Britain. There is nothing like it."

In July 2008, Cambridge awarded Cobb his PhD, and he became the oldest person on record to achieve that level of academia from the university. His graduation was watched by more than 40 members of his family, who travelled from as far away as Spain and Texas.

Michael Cobb, who had lived in Collumpton, just north of Exeter in Devon for several years, died aged 93 on 23 June, 2010. His second wife Elizabeth predeceased him and he is survived by his three sons from his first marriage, to Colarie.