There was some excitement at expedition HQ this week when a package arrived from from the team behind the European Rail Timetable. I last held “The Bible” back in 1988 and it was an immediate trip of nostalgia into past European rail adventures. Back then it was produced by Thomas Cook who had been printing the “continental” timetable since 1873. Today it still produced in the familiar format, and is now run independently since Thomas Cook discontinued their involvement in 2013.
In today’s world to some it would perhaps be inconceivable that there was a time when there were no smartphones, and the only way to plan a trip was using a paper timetable. Yet on my trips around Europe in the 1980’s the guide was probably the second most important possession that I carried after my trusty blue coloured British passport. But it was more than just something that told you how to get from A to B. It had a certain spiritual and comforting quality about it. When the chips were down it could always be called upon to provide a solution. As disciples we studied the special language of notes and symbols. It became indispensable. I had not realised how much of a devotee I had become until I lost it.
I remember the day well. I was on Nice station platform with two school friends, feeling rather smug at having just completed the run down to Marrakech and back without too many problems. The supermarket supply run had been completed, and we were concentrating on securing our own compartment on the night train to Rome. Bagging a compartment back then involved either sending one person in at each end of the carriage in a pincer movement, or sometimes even bundling one person through the window in middle of the carriage.
My role on this occasion was the easy one – to look after the bags whilst the compartment was grabbed in our well rehearsed tactical manoeuvre. The guide was right next to me on a bench as this went on. At this point I was distracted by a couple of rather easy on the eye ladies on the opposite platform. I must have been day dreaming, as the next thing I remember was looking back and seeing the train slowly gliding away from me. Rowan Atkinson has rather stolen this sketch from me in his “Mr Bean’s Holiday” movie. I needed to run for it, but that wouldn’t look very cool, so I kind of casually walked backwards a few steps towards the train before turning and jumping on. I made it to the carriage behind the one I needed – I should mention that the train wasn’t speeding, just going at a walking pace and there were no locking doors back then.
Whilst this was a thankful outcome for me, it left two problems. The immediate one was that I was in a couchette carriage and it was locked at both ends, and the less immediate but far more serious was that I was guilty of leaving our trusty and semi religious rail timetable on the platform bench. The rest of that trip we felt somewhat listless and without a properly planned route. The lack of our own timetable meant we could make it from A to B, but had no idea where C was going to be until we got to B, or that it might have been more interesting to go via D.
Today it clear to see how we have become conditioned to search for what we think we need online. Rail operators suggest routes that they think we are looking for, but little known alternatives and options can be hidden from the results. The conditioning effect is that you start to imagine that they don’t exist or are not possible on the dates you type into your screen.
The first thing that crossed my mind on consulting my new Bible was that if I am to recreate the correct route of Orient Express, I should consider the “boat train” to Paris. Many of us will forget that before we dug the Channel Tunnel this was the norm, but today jumping on the Eurostar is the default choice. The printed timetable shows me the ferry connections to take me from London to Paris together with connecting trains. I can also see a much wider variety of routes across South Eastern Europe. I have become too reliant on following the online route suggestions of others, sometimes in isolation of the alternatives.
The remaining winter nights will fly by as I create routes and connections of my own by carefully scanning the pages and relearning the codes and conventions of the European rail timetable. Of course I will still use this in conjunction with online timetables, but like going walking in the mountains with just a GPS, I shall have a map and compass (aka the Bible) with me as well.