European Rail News & Notes
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Preserving Timetables for Future Generations

Opinion

Old timetables are often discarded, but those which are archived in libraries preserve elements of social history and transport history of importance to future generations. Our image shows an extract from a 1991 copy of the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable.

Old timetables are often discarded, but those which are archived in libraries preserve elements of social history and transport history of importance to future generations. Our image shows an extract from a 1991 copy of the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable.

The decimation of Europe’s international train services during March 2020 has been truly extraordinary. And it’s prompted us to reflect on how the sparse offering which remains compares with what an earlier generation of travellers could expect.

Note that timetables are in such a state of flux just now that some of the expected service levels for this week which we mention here may well have changed by the time you read this.

Very sparse services on major rail routes

We have just taken a look at five sample routes, which rely in all on three operators, viz. Eurostar, Thalys and Deutsche Bahn. For travels in the period Tuesday 31 March to Friday 3 April, according to the current information supplied by operators, we can expect the following levels of service for those five sample routes:

  • 1 Eurostar train per day from London to Paris and back
  • 1 Eurostar train per day from London to Brussels and back
  • 1 Thalys train per day from Brussels to Paris and back
  • 3 DB ICE trains per day from Brussels to Cologne and back (no Thalys service)
  • 4 DB ICE trains per day from Amsterdam to Cologne and back

The skeleton Eurostar offering is exactly half of what the company offered when Eurostar proudly launched its début service in November 1994. In those days, there were two trains each day from London to each of the two continental capitals. Now there’s just one.

It’s a sign of how grim the current situation is that there’s only one remaining direct train each day from Paris to Brussels. Even in the early 1970s, long before the advent of modern high-speed trains, there were three non-stop trains each day from Paris to Brussels. These were all Trans-Europe Express (TEE) electric trains with air-conditioned first-class carriages and at-seat catering by Wagons-Lits. With a travel time of 2hrs 27mins, these TEE trains took an hour longer than the modern Thalys trains which dash between the two capitals.

Comparisons with Wartime

To find so sparse a service between Brussels and Cologne as that which now prevails, one really has to go back to times of war. The cautionary notes in the June 1917 German timetable are interesting, reminding would-be passengers that the trains from Cologne to Brussels are first and foremost military service trains, and that tickets would only be sold to travellers with the necessary authorisation. The railway company advised that no responsibility could be take for injury or damage. Those who embarked on this perilous adventure could expect the journey to take about six hours. The few remaining trains on the route in the coming days take under two hours.

One has to really delve into history to find a time when there were so few passenger trains between Amsterdam and Cologne. The services use the route via Arnhem and Oberhausen. This week will see just four German ICEs each day on that line – one more than in 1873. Although in fairness, in 1873 there were additional trains from the Netherlands to Cologne on an alternative cross-border route via Kleve where the entire train was shipped on a ferry over the River Rhine. In those early days, the train journey from Amsterdam to Cologne took ten hours or more. Today it takes just 2hrs 40mins.

Archives for future generations

Perhaps a future generation of travellers will look back at the timetables for early April 2020, barely able to believe that Europe could have become so fragmented. But will they even be able to find out what the timetables were? The diligence of librarians and archivists, coupled with the durability of print on paper, means that we are able to find and explore the timetables of yesteryear.

In this digital age, we do just wonder whether scholars a century hence will be able to find copies of the railway timetables which were applicable in this difficult period. PDFs appear for just a short period on rail operators’ websites and are then removed. Many of the current schedules are published as website updates which disappear a few days later with a new iteration of the timetable. Online journey planners do not archive historic data.

It is with the future in mind that we encourage the talented team at European Rail Timetable (ERT) Limited to consider creating a print and digital record of the timetables which apply at this most difficult and troubling time. Bradshaw is long gone, but the ERT provides a near-continuous record of how Europe’s rail services have evolved since 1873, when Thomas Cook published his very first compilation of European rail times. Decades hence, an accurate special spring 2020 edition of the monthly European rail timetable recording the paucity of services which really operated in the current crisis could be an archival gem. Better times will come, and we suspect that people will then value an enduring record of just how much Europe’s railways struggled to maintain any international services in these difficult days.

Copyright © Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries. All rights reserved.
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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 16th edition of that book was published in October 2019. You'll find a list of outlets that sell the book on this website.

1 Comment

Jonathan, 6 April 2020

I've actually found the ERT useful for the opposite purpose - since many transport providers have simply erased their normal timetable from their website and replaced it with a special one, the ERT is my record of what the service would be like in normal times!

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