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The Book of Hours

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: image © Stephanie Swartz / dreamstime.com


Some argue that printed timetables are obsolete in an Internet Age. But no online database has ever managed to capture the overall pattern of a train service with the fluency of the tabular format used in printed timetables. We probe the magic appeal of Bradshaw's guides and Thomas Cook's timetables and reflect on which of the two might claim the upper hand.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries reflect on why printed railway timetables still deserve a place on our bookshelves and in our luggage.

Marcel Proust loved train timetables, using them to plot imaginary journeys linking Paris and the provinces. Max Beerbohm’s fictional hero Zuleika Dobson kept a timetable to hand. The novel Zuleika Dobson (1911) ends with Melisande and Zuleika examining the timetable from Oxford. “See if it is possible to go direct from here to Cambridge,” Zuleika asks.

For most of the last century, it was indeed still possible to go from Oxford to Cambridge by direct train. Our 1961 Bradshaw shows the afternoon train from Oxford trundling over to Cambridge in just 2hrs 36mins. It would surely have been the perfect donnish interlude ’twixt luncheon and tea. What professorial plots were schemed in those afternoon hours as the train rattled east through Marsh Gibbon and Verney Junction?

Fifty years ago Britain’s infamous Dr Beeching prescribed some tough medicine for the country’s railways. Although his Reshaping of Britain’s Railways (published in March 1963) did not single out Oxford to Cambridge for closure, that route did nonetheless eventually succumb to the proverbial Beeching axe. It slipped from the timetables, as did hundreds of other lines across Britain.

A Litany of Time

Railway timetables are more than a prosaic litany of hours and minutes. They conceal nuggets of social history, and the best of them deserve a place on our bookshelves long after their nominal validity has expired. This month marks a happy anniversary for those who appreciate a fine train timetable. It was way back in March 1873 that Thomas Cook published his first timetable. One hundred and forty years later, Cook’s celebrated European timetable is still going strong.

Prior to Cook, there had been others who had ventured into the timetable business.

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