European Rail: Celebrating 140 years of Thomas Cook Timetables
“Hey, come on,” said our neighbor as we sat in spring sunshine, exclaiming in mild delight at the timetable that had just been delivered by the Berlin postie. “Look,” he said, “it is just a train timetable.”
One book: 140 years of travel history
But the March 2013 issue of the “Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable” is not just any timetable. This edition marks the 140th anniversary issue of the book that has become the bible for rail travelers across Europe.
During almost the entire life of Europe’s railways, the Thomas Cook timetable has become the indispensable companion for train travelers across the continent. The book started life in 1873 as “Cook’s Continental Time Tables and Tourist’s Handbook” and was for several decades known simply as “Cook’s Continental” — those who really affected familiarity with the European railway scene would abbreviate the title to “The Continental” or the ever terser “Cooks.”
Nowadays, it has morphed into the “European Rail Timetable” (“ERT”).
The anniversary issue of the ERT is packed as always with rail and ferry schedules from across Europe, throwing in a few trams and buses for good measure. If you need to know on which dates the Moscow to Belgrade train carries through carriages to Skopje, this book has the answer.
This current March 2013 issue has a supplement on cruise trains and rail-based holidays. And the regular “Beyond Europe” section is this month devoted to China (even including cross-border rail services from China to Pyongyang in North Korea).
There are previews of the summer 2013 European rail schedules, most of which will be introduced this year on June 9.
In addition there is a wealth of material to mark the 140th birthday, with a retrospect on how the book has evolved over the years. That includes facsimile reproductions of old schedules (going right back to 1873).
And Thomas Cook marks this anniversary by introducing a new regular feature called “Route of the Month.” It is just a couple of pages of prose, evoking the spirit of a particular journey. They kick off with Salzburg to Vienna. But the idea recalls the very earliest days of the publication. Back in 1873, it was more than just a timetable, but also a handbook for tourists. The “Route of the Month” gives new life to that idea.
Brand power: Thomas Cook
The title may have changed over the years but this monthly publication remains the defining product of the entire Thomas Cook brand. The company has its roots in 19th-century railway history and even though many of Thomas Cook’s clients may nowadays opt for the plane over the train, the company’s trump card and key selling point is its ability to build on a rich historical tradition firmly rooted in the early work of the company’s founder.
Developments in technology have served only to underline the importance of good timetable information. Mark Smith, the rail travel guru who runs The Man in Seat Sixty-One website, nicely captures the success of the ERT in his comment: “Internet or no internet, nothing rivals the Thomas Cook timetable for laying out the routes, trains and options for travel across Europe and beyond, and I’d be lost without it.”
The one thing you will certainly not normally see on the cover of the ERT nowadays is a steam train. But in a nice gesture to history, the March 2013 issue does recall the age of steam. Oddly, the very first edition of the book in 1873, apart from the obligatory train pic on its cover, also included a camel. The camel was eased out to make way for a Rhine steamer in 1900.
This very special edition of the monthly timetable is certainly one for the archives — every bit as handsome as the March 1973 centenary issue that has now become a rarity much sought after by collectors.