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140 years of publishing history: the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable

By Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries |

Thomas Cook Publishing this week marks 140 years of the European Rail Timetable. It was in March 1873 that the company launched the first such timetable. The title has changed over the years, and many of the book’s devotees still allude to the book as Cook’s Continental.

Titles and designs may change, as indeed do train times, but the simple concept enshrined in the book has remained essentially the same over 140 years of publishing history. And that concept is magnificent. The inaugural edition used an economical layout to capture the principal railway and steamer services across the continent. It even included the main diligence routes — remember in those days rail routes were limited in some parts of Europe, so travellers had perforce to turn to road transport. The Gotthard route to Italy did not open until 1882 and the first Simplon tunnel didn’t open until more than 20 years later.

The diligence (or post-chaise) has been consigned to transport history. And the European Rail Timetable has kept up with the changing fashions in travel. The camel which featured on the front cover of the inaugural edition was a gesture to Thomas Cook’s affection for the exotic (Egypt was emerging as big business for the company in 1873). In 1900, the camel was replaced by a Rhine steamer.

Happily, the modern timetable still makes space for Rhine steamers. That is more than just a nod to tradition. The river steamers are still by far the finest way to travel up the Rhine Valley from Koblenz to Bingen and, merely by including the schedules, the book’s compilers nudge travellers into making more adventurous journeys. Each monthly edition of the European Rail Timetable plots an infinite web of travel possibilities.

The March 2013 issue of the European Rail Timetable is a handsome special edition that includes a supplement celebrating the history of the book. It contains additional features and tributes by Mark Smith (who runs the Man in Seat Sixty-One website), Simon Calder (of The Independent) and ourselves. Of course, the March timetable also includes bang up-to-date timings for rail and ferry services across Europe. There is also a preview of the upcoming summer schedules for selected routes.

You can purchase the March 2013 anniversary issue direct from Thomas Cook Publishing. It is not necessary to have a monthly subscription. Specialists at TCP have also been working on a lovingly restored reprint of the original March 1873 issue of the Continental Timetable. If you are interested in finding out more about this special reprint, please contact Emma Foster at Thomas Cook Publishing.

We conclude with two extraordinary facts about the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable. In its 140-year history, the book has only ever had five editors: John Bredall, CH Davies, HV Francis, JH Price and current editor Brendan Fox. Few titles have enjoyed such steady stewardship.

The March 2013 edition of the timetable is Issue 1521 in the series. Nothing special in that you might think. But the longest running timetable series in publishing history is Bradshaw’s Guide to rail services in Britain. When that ceased publication in 1961, it ran to 1521 editions. So just one more issue of the  European Rail Timetable and Thomas Cook gets the record. We look at this detail and other arcane facts about railway timetables in the upcoming issue of hidden europe magazine — which will be published on 15 March 2013.

Copyright © Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries. All rights reserved.
hidden europe
About The Authors

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries

Nicky and Susanne manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers and the authors of the book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide. The 17th edition of that book was published in 2022 and reprinted in July 2023. You'll find a list of outlets that sell the book on this website.

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