Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

From an office in Peterborough springs forth a world of information
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The Independent Travel

How is this for personal service? Staff in a very special corner of one of the world's biggest travel companies have just made this announcement: "Israel Railways have again pushed back the start date of their new timetable. It is now due to start on 10 October, a whole month later than before. Due to space constraints we have had to remove the old tables we were showing at the back of the book, so if you need any information from these, please contact us and we will send it to you."

How is this for personal service? Staff in a very special corner of one of the world's biggest travel companies have just made this announcement: "Israel Railways have again pushed back the start date of their new timetable. It is now due to start on 10 October, a whole month later than before. Due to space constraints we have had to remove the old tables we were showing at the back of the book, so if you need any information from these, please contact us and we will send it to you."

Peter Bass, editor of the Thomas Cook Overseas Timetable, and his assistant Reuben Turner are omniscient. Their office in Peterborough represents the planet's greatest concentration of expertise about terrestrial transport - from the flagship Rossiya train across Siberia between Moscow and Vladivostok, to the 425-mile journey from Kampala to Kaabong in Uganda: "Occasional service by truck".

Yet the timetable kings are still prepared to help out travellers individually. In return, they receive rail news from readers around the globe. Thomas Cook's correspondent in Burkina Faso reports that the international rail service to Ivory Coast has resumed, though the trip: "Is not for the faint-hearted, as the train runs under military escort". On the Western Line in Cambodia: "They still run cars in front of the engine to blow up mines before the train reaches them". And upon arrival in Pakistan, buy the local timetable: "It is one of the few books you will find advertising 'Tibet Snow - the beauty cream of the east' on one page and 'Shaikh Salim Ali Ltd - military hardware, arms and ammunition' on the next".

THE LATEST edition of the Overseas Timetable (£10.50) says that Hiram Bingham, the "discoverer" of Machu Picchu in Peru, has a tourist train between Cuzco and the Inca city named after him. But the third-class train on the same track has a warning attached: "Peruvians only. Foreigners NOT carried".

In the editorial that precedes 400 pages of microscopic detail about global transport, the headlines evangelise about the unstoppable march of the railways. Uzbekistan is building new lines, and the Ferrocarril Oriental in Bolivia has expanded the frequency of its services to four per week.

You can, though, detect an occasional air of exasperation. Besides the errant Israel Railways, Mexico National Railways is taken to task: "Poor timekeeping is endemic... with day services turning into overnight trains en route". In Angola: "Two classes of accommodation are provided (Second and Third) but most rolling stock is in such poor condition that classification is almost irrelevant". And in India: "Electrification has done a lot to reduce the numbers travelling on the roof".

Other forms of terrestrial transport are included. On local buses in Hanoi, for example: "Passengers are disciplined and don't travel on the outside of the buses as they do in some other cities". Perhaps the compilers have in mind Delhi, where the local "woebegone and worn-out" buses have an average load factor of 160 per cent. Sometimes even the stoic Mr Bass admits defeat. On buses in Dhaka, he says: "If you don't understand Bengali, you're probably better off not trying to get on a bus at all".

French railways, as you know, are fast, sleek and extensive - in other words, more or less the reverse of those in Britain. But the heavily subsidised rail service needs some advice from the gentlemen in Peterborough about what constitutes a sensible timetable. The French are fond of their little pocket schedules. In the south-western city of Foix I picked one up for trains between the Breton port of Quimper and the Pyrenean hill station of Font-Romeu - about the same as a trip from Newquay in Cornwall to Settle in Yorkshire.

Closer inspection, however, reveals that there is no such service. Heading south from Quimper you can string together a series of trains involving changes at Toulouse and Latour de Carol, on the Spanish frontier, and arrive nearly 14 hours later. Going home, the timetabling is even less agreeable: it shows no way of travelling back to Brittany at all.

From non-existent trains to vanishing planes. The British Airways journey from London to Birmingham takes one hour and 35 minutes, and costs £230 plus tax. Who says? National Express, which is promoting its new NXL shuttle between the two cities. The comparable trip by bus takes a mere 40 minutes longer. These assertions remind me of Ryanair. The Irish no-frills airline has been known to make spurious comparisons with BA, and National Express does the same: there is no BA flight between London and Birmingham, and the example used by the bus company is for flights via Glasgow. Also, the National Express version of "London", to which its timing applies, is Golders Green in the north-west of the capital - handy for Brent Cross, but 11 stops on the Tube away from the official centre of the city at Charing Cross.

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