Most of the time, Thomas Cook delivers good value and great holidays – which is why the company this week celebrates the 171st anniversary of its first excursion. The 500 people who paid one shilling (5p) each for that 12-mile maiden voyage by train from Leicester to Loughborough were successfully returned whence they came. Thomas Cook has since become arguably the strongest brand in travel. But, in the 21st century, getting home with the company has become a less certain enterprise.
A fortnight ago, I wrote about planes arriving in unexpected places. Exhibit A was a Thomas Cook Airlines flight from Greece to Gatwick, which landed instead at Manchester because the plane was needed in the North-west. More than 300 passengers spent hours on buses in order to save the carrier some money. The ink was barely dry before Thomas Cook was at it again. The tickets from the Greek island of Zante on flight TCX2117 said "Manchester". But the pilot, directed by the operations team, had other ideas. His 235 passengers arrived at the right time but the wrong place: Newcastle.
One of those confused customers was Peter Royle. "The ground staff were eager to replenish food trays at the rear of the plane before the passengers had disembarked," he reports. "We then had to wait two hours at Newcastle while another company, Swissport, arranged coach transportation. Despite being told that someone from Thomas Cook would greet us at Newcastle, nobody ever arrived." The same old story: another plane had broken, and rather than chartering another jet to fill the gaps in its schedule, the company chose to limit the financial damage by rejigging its flights.
A spokesperson for Thomas Cook said, "Whilst we do everything we can to fly back into the airport of departure, sometimes there are knock-on impacts on our fleet when there have been technical problems or delays beyond our control. We then work hard to balance the delay on those waiting to depart the UK against diverting routes and then arranging transportation back to the original airport. Luckily, this doesn't happen very often and we'd like to thank our passengers again for their patience and understanding."
"On these rare occasions, we do ensure that holidaymakers return to their departure airport – coaches were provided from Newcastle to Manchester". As, of course, the law demands.
Thomas Cook, the man, made his name and built the brand by taking people to places they wanted to be – not always the case with Thomas Cook, the airline, when it takes people to places they don't want to go.
Two weeks from now, Harriet Green takes over as chief executive of the troubled travel firm. Her "to do" list must already be monumentally long, beginning with reassuring staff and customers about Thomas Cook's financial health and long-term prospects. But if the firm is to avoid getting a reputation for random redirection of returning travellers, the resilience of the airline should be high among her priorities.
One part of the Thomas Cook empire remains as reliable as ever. The compilers of the European Rail Timetable create order out of the chaos of dozens of disparate nations' railways schedules. The "red book" may have become blue, to match the rest of the Thomas Cook range of maps and guidebooks, but it still distils the millions of departures each month into 500 pages. Need to get from Tralee, Co Kerry, to Vladivostok on Russia's Pacific Coast? The European Rail Timetable remains the prime source of information.
Many more British tourists reach the Continent by air than by rail; flying is usually faster and cheaper. But thanks to many improvements this summer, at least you can do the decent thing and travel by train when you get there.
The July edition is the bearer of many glad tidings – starting as close as Belgium. For travellers beginning their journey from outside London and South-east England, the broken promise to run direct Eurostar trains to Brussels means the obvious way is to fly, and due to the way that connections from the airport work the only easily accessible cities are the capital, Ghent and Bruges. But with the opening of a new arc from the airport, Table 5 reports that Mechelen (11 minutes) and Antwerp (34 minutes) are swiftly accessible by direct trains. Both are well worth the trip.
Across at Table 668, cash-strapped Spain opens a new four-hour link between two great cities, Valencia and Seville; when I first made the journey, in 1976, it took a day and a half.
Even the Arctic gets in on the act, with the Botniabanan opening up Swedish wilderness with that unusual species, a high-speed single-track railway that tears across the tundra as far north as Umea, on the same latitude as Reykjavik.
The age of the high-speed train has arrived in Uzbekistan: Spanish Talgo rolling stock now shuttles between the ancient Silk Road city of Samarkand and the modern capital, Tashkent. At present, the 220-mile run between the two (about the same as London to Lancaster) takes two-and-a-half hours, but this will shrink by 60 minutes when the trains start running at top speed – cutting the journey time to the same as London to Macclesfield, the Cheshire station whose street address is Silk Road.