In The Fruit Palace, Charles Nicholl's excellent book on the joys and perils of travel in Colombia, he observed of the nation's railways: "There are no timetables, only rumours."
That crisp description seemed appropriate for anyone hoping to travel on the London-Brighton line a fortnight ago: the engineers were out in force and the line from the Sussex coast via Gatwick was in disarray. Confused new arrivals at the airport's rail station were urged to "change at Elephant and Castle for the London Underground". Those unfamiliar with the entrails of south London may have inferred that the British talk in an arcane code – or, with the inadvertent introduction of a comma, fantasy chess moves: "Change at Elephant, and Castle."
The sense of having strayed from platform 4 at Gatwick into the realms of magical realism was reinforced on board the train – thanks to some metaphysical observations over the public-address system. "This is not a station stop," insisted the driver while we were stopped at a station. "We are here because of bad signalling." Yet what, I mused, had brought us as far as Herne Hill if not good signalling? Before I could follow that line of thought, he continued: "We are waiting for the train on the other platform to depart before we can get a 'proceed' aspect."
If you want to proceed by rail on normal days in Britain, you might imagine there are no timetables, only online schedules. The old National Rail paper timetable disappeared some years ago, apparently leaving us with no directory to guide you from Cornwall to Caithness. Not quite: the Middleton Press took over, and twice a year publishes Rail Times for Great Britain.
Unfortunately for those of us with a preference for paper, the printed word (and departure time) can sometimes be overtaken by events. Difficulties at Dawlish caused by the collapse of the sea wall that carried the line along the south Devon coast are easily accounted for online. It takes the National Rail website a few seconds to compute the best way through the train-bus-train muddle. But anyone relying on the paper timetable alone would get the wrong answer.
Oundle of joy
Perhaps paper's permanence was one element in Thomas Cook's decision last year to despatch the European Rail Timetable on a one-way journey to publishing oblivion. The past was another country, for which a compendious Continental companion was essential. In the 21st century, connectedness surely rendered the "red book," as it was known, obsolete?
Not yet, thought an enterprising publisher, John Potter. He bought the rights from Thomas Cook – and started work on a revamped version at his home in Oundle, Northamptonshire.
The resurrected European Rail Timetable started improving journeys this month. Suppose you want to travel from Falls of Cruachan to Falconara Marittima. Even the mighty Deutsche Bahn (German Railways) website falls over when you ask it to compute the journey from the West Highlands to the Adriatic Coast. Yet the "red book" guides you all the way there, and offers the inspirational aside that you can change at Falconara Marittima for Assisi. Thank heavens.
Amazingly, the March edition sold out within days. As of Thursday afternoon there was one copy remaining at Oundle News at 3 Market Place, but frustratingly you can't get there by train as the line closed in 1972. Apart from that, there are no timetables, only rumours that the print run for the April version has doubled; you can reserve one at europeanrailtimetable.eu.
Once you become an owner of the "red book," it is beholden upon you to report back on rail developments on the Continent. While the internet can reach most parts of Europe, there are still corners where on-the-ground research is essential. Twenty-five years ago this week, while in Albania for England's World Cup qualifier (2-0 to England, since you ask), I furtively photographed timetables on the platform at Tirana station to send back to the Thomas Cook office. Mr Potter and his colleagues need your help to spread welcome news such as the return to Slovenia of "a cross-border service to Villa Opicina in Italy. Determined travellers wishing to reach Trieste can use the tramway, although it is currently subject to bus replacement."
Presumably the locals above the Adriatic are feeling a bit Dawlish – the name of the south Devon station through which no trains have passed since last month's storms must by now be a synonym for feeling disconnected.
Gateway to the soul
Back in south London, anyone changing at Elephant and Castle for the Tube, then heading south on the Northern line, will eventually reach Balham. This station was once ridiculed by Peter Sellers as the Gateway to the South. Today, it is the Gateway to the Soul.
In the 1990s, a sequence of Poems on the Underground enhanced journeys. Ten days ago, philosophy arrived in the ticket hall. At Balham, the information board at the station entrance that normally chronicles delays in the Elephant and Castle area was splendidly repurposed with a handwritten "Thought of the day":
"You are amazing, unique and wonderful. There is nothing more you need to be, do or have in order to be happy .... So smile. Give love and enjoy every moment of this precious life."
How best to make the most of the future? The lyrical London Underground employee responsible may have concluded that it involves leaving Balham. By Monday morning, when I returned to the Tube to seek more inspiration, messages of joy were nowhere to be seen.