Travel: For a train experience you won't forget, try Albania

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The Independent Online
Not many British publications can claim a history of 125 years, least of all a monthly timetable. The March 1998 edition of the Thomas Cook European Timetable, published this week, is celebrating the achievement with a special anniversary edition. This collector's issue breaks new ground, with a colour section narrating the history of the timetable. It also takes a glimpse at future rail developments.

The Odessa-Chernivtsi or Morges-Biere timetables may not be everyone's preferred bedtime reading, but delving into the minutiae of European rail schedules reveals the fascinating diversity of services on offer:

Fastest trains The standard continues to be set by the 300km/h Trains a Grande Vitesse (TGV) in France, but Europe's network of high-speed lines is expanding into Germany and Belgium. The latest to open, Lille-Brussels, illustrates what can be achieved by imagination and investment: five years ago Paris-Brussels took two-and-a-half hours in one of a handful of trains; today, Thalys trains ply almost hourly between these cities, taking just 85 minutes.

Slowest trains There are still plenty of charming branch lines, particularly in eastern Europe, where many a happy hour can be spent getting nowhere in particular at little more than running pace (what about Balatonfenyves- Csiszta in Hungary: 15 km in 50 minutes?), but sadly most of these are outside the scope of the Cook's timetable.

At least one international journey can be just as tedious, however - witness the 10-hour trip (when running to time, unlikely!) between Sofia and Thessaloniki. Poorly maintained track and long border stops conspire to give an average speed of 22mph for the 354-km journey.

Most comfortable trains The five-strong European timetable editorial team vote Germany's sleek white ICE Europe's best-appointed train. The latest French TGV designs come a close second, and Eurostar, at nearly a quarter of a mile long, certainly makes a lasting impression. These are only a few of the high-speed designs now to be found.

Worst trains London commuters may have their own ideas on this one, but for a unique experience try the isolated Albanian system. It is now much improved, but past problems with the theft of seats, and even bits of track, have given this system more than its fair share of problems.

Longest run The celebrated seven-day trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway is detailed in the Thomas Cook Overseas Timetable. Less well known is a train which, in the European Timetable, merits a table to itself, subtitled "the most outlandish train in Europe".

Running on Saturdays from Berlin, the various portions of this unnamed train reach beyond Europe to such diverse places as Saratov, Aqmola (Kazakhstan), Rostov and Novosibirsk, the latter of which is reached in the early hours of Thursday morning after a journey of some 5,654 kilometres.

Shortest run The shuttle services between Orleans and Les Aubrais in France, and between Coimbra and Coimbra B (junction) in Portugal both officially traverse 2 km of line. No doubt the dedicated team at Thomas Cook will now be deluged with mail quoting metres or chains.

The 'Thomas Cook European Timetable' (edited by Brendan Fox) costs pounds 8.40 at branches and foreign exchange counters of Thomas Cook, or by post from Thomas Cook Publishing, PO Box 227, Peterborough PE3 6PU.

Brendan Fox

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