Simon Calder: End of the line for the Thomas Cook book

The man who pays his way

"As long as travellers crave adventure, as well as solid travel information, there will be room for the Overseas Timetable" – so writes Owen Hardy, America's leading rail guru, on page two of the latest edition of that very publication: the Thomas Cook Overseas Timetable. "Adventure and romance drip from its pages, despite the agate type and monotone hue. Care to ride the overnight Train L'Equateur? Cook's tells me I can, from Owendo to Franceville in Gabon."

Mr Hardy's words were written to mark a special occasion the 30th-anniversary edition of the "blue book". In the past three decades, globetrotters – such as those inspired by our Traveller's Guide to Round-the-World Flights (pages 14-17) – have come to rely upon this compendium of terrestrial transportation. But we must get used to life without it: the latest edition will also be the last from the company founded to provide mass mobility by rail (initially only from Leicester to Loughborough, but even Thomas Cook had to start somewhere).

Sad news, most notably, for the staff who keep track of everything that moves on land or sea to create an alphabetical odyssey from Aasiaat in Greenland (table 250, one ship a week if you're lucky) to Zyryan in Kazakhstan (table 5100, accessible overnight from Zashchita at a dawdling average speed of 30km/h). The compilers assess the intelligence and distil it a 400-page paperback – rather than the overload of information available online. Its passing is a loss for travellers seeking to make sense of the world's long and winding railroads, bus routes and ferries.

There is some good news: the European Rail Timetable is thriving, and some timetables from the Overseas book will find a new home in the sister publication.

In travel, as in life, information is power, and the web packs a mighty punch. Many sites sing the praises of the weekly train across Cambodia from Phnom Penh to Battambang. The website for UIC, the international railways federation, even lists the senior executives of Cambodian Railways. I prefer to trust in Peter Bass, editor of the Overseas Timetable, who explains all trains are suspended because "Many metal spikes have been stolen. Trains can only run at 17km/h and are regularly derailed." The compilers note that "Phnom Penh remains one of the very few capitals of the world without buses" – a trait ascribed to a national unwillingness to walk 20 metres to a bus stop or to wait more than one minute for a bus.

Mr Bass and his team rely upon a network of correspondents who make it their business to turn up at stations great and small, armed with notebooks (or, these days, digital cameras). Their reward is not the once-a-year mention in dispatches; it is the desire to help other travellers in a more tangible manner than adding a review to an online travel site. "We have heard that the service between Wadi Halfa and Khartoum, in the Sudan, is no longer running": a wistful example of the expertise now lost.

The natural successor to the Overseas Timetable is the excellent website Seat61.com, run by the very expert and committed Mark Smith. His site even has a photograph of the locked station gates in Cambodia, with a chalked notice reading "Battambang-Phnom Penh suspend".

King Cook is dead; long live King Smith. But the best obituary is the book itself. If your description of the ideal travelling companion includes a stipulation for reliability, wisdom and humour, look no further than the final edition (price £13.99). This delicious mix of expertise and inspiration should be savoured now, then preserved for future generations of travellers who won't know how lucky we were.

Journeys you wish you had taken

While you bide your time at Grodekovo on the Sino-Russian frontier (at five hours, the longest pause I can find in the book), you can marvel at the many definitions of childhood (aged 10 in Egypt or North Korea, but height 140 centimetres or less in China), and picture yourself in Ecuador ("All trains carry passengers on the roof").

It appears that I am not alone in finding a Thomas Cook timetable stranger and more entertaining than fiction. A tribute from Nicky Gardner, the editor of Hidden Europe magazine, recalls her adventures through the shipping small print from 1980: "I learnt the schedules of the little steamer that plied the coast of Istria, and wondered whether anyone had actually ever used the MS Dmitri Shostakovich, which every three weeks set sail from Odessa for Libya." Her favourite: the one that "recorded the movements of vessels crossing the Sea of Japan".

travel@independent.co.uk

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Sport
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Travel
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Recruitment Consultant (Trainee), Finchley Central, London

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    Day In a Page

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn