Exit, the book that always ran on time

After 170 years of serving travellers and train buffs, the National Rail Timetable is to cease publication
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The Independent Online

The book that for generations has told Britons where to go - and when they can go there - is about to be killed off. Nearly 170 years after an inspired entrepreneur called George Bradshaw printed the world's first train schedule, the National Rail Timetable is to be abolished.

This national institution - the latest issue runs to 2,830 pages with details of 700,000 trains, and all for a mere £12 - has become the latest victim of the digital era and the rapid growth of the internet. Its last printed edition will be published in December, when it will be replaced by an internet- and telephone-based inquiry service.

The book, in many ways, invented the concept of British national time. Before the railways, there was no need for towns and cities to synchronise their clocks. For train buffs, Bradshaw's timetable was an institution, on a par with Crockford's Clerical Directory, Wisden Cricketers' Almanack and Dod's Parliamentary Companion.

It was once pored over by legions of earnest young trainspotters, and was a key volume in every local library in the country. The decision to cease production has dismayed MPs from all parties. By last Friday, 30 MPs had signed a Parliamentary motion demanding that the decision is reversed.

Linda Riordan, the Labour MP for Halifax, said she and other MPs had had complaints from constituents who didn't have computers and relied on the printed guide. Many people also complained about getting inaccurate information from rail company call centres. A national guide, she said, unified a rail system that had become more fragmented after privatisation.

But officials at Network Rail insist they are reflecting public demand, pointing out that its sales have slumped from 134,000 copies 10 years ago to only 20,000 today. Most people now used the small free guides for local services, or logged on to the internet.

"The only people who have been agitated about it have been the train enthusiasts," said a National Rail spokesman. "We're trying to deal with a 21st-century railway, with a fast-growing passenger network."

The current timetable - known as the Great Britain Public Timetable - traces its roots to Bradshaw's original guide, first printed in 1838. The Bradshaw monthly guide survived until 1961, and was replaced by British Rail's timetables.

Chris Donald, the founding editor of Viz magazine and perhaps Britain's best-known trainspotter - who drew the cartoon (left) especially for the IoS - recalls his fascination with his own heavily-thumbed editions.

"It's the end of an era," he said. But Network Rail could be right, he suggested. "There were two digital trainspotters sitting opposite me recently, and they had ridiculously nerdy kit - all those digital phones with pictures of engines on them. I wouldn't imagine that modern trainspotters would read the thing."

Pete Waterman, the pop producer and train enthusiast, was less sentimental. Modern train buffs used mobile text messaging and the internet to get alerts about train times and movements. "This tradition probably should've died 10 years ago," he said.

"It's always a sad day when institutions change, but we have to be realistic. If it's a printed Bradshaw or putting that money into improving the network, I would take improving the network every time."