Simon Calder: Green signal for the 'red book'

The man who pays his way

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
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
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

    Junior Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker