Simon Calder: End of the line for the Thomas Cook book
The man who pays his way
Saturday 23 October 2010
"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".
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