Thursday, July 04, 2013

Farewell to the big red book

Sad news reaches us from the cloistered world of railway timetable publishing: the next edition of the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable will be the last.

After a 140-year publication history and 1526 volumes, the so-called "Red Book" – 500-plus closely-packed pages of train and ferry schedules, listing every journey you could ever want to take (and quite a few you wouldn't) is being consigned to the great big remainder bin in the sky.

Sad indeed. In our courting days, the not-yet-Mrs D and her young swain would rely on the Red Book as we went on expeditions around the lesser-known corners of France.

In the course of several holidays, we trundled through the lush fields of Normandy and the scorching uplands of Quercy. We arrived in Canfranc, a one-horse Pyrenean border town, in a howling blizzard, where we stayed at a hotel whose proprietors didn't show up to collect the bill.

We saw soaring mountains, roaring rivers, bustling cities, sleepy villages.

We left behind us a trail of lost wallets, dodgy Eurocheques and empty bottles of cheap red wine.

We returned with half a baguette, some very smelly cheese and five francs in loose change.

All without a car, and all thanks to the Red Book to help plan the route.

And even when we weren't actually travelling, it was always useful for those ever-pressing questions that seemed to get asked on long winter's evenings when we only had four TV channels and no internet: "How long does it take to get to Zagreb?"; "What's the best route from Bergen to Bucharest?"

So what? you may say. These days you can find out train times online.

True, but you don't get the big picture, the sense of a purposeful, humming network stretching out across the Continent.

Because the Red Book was as much a work of imagination as of fact: 500 pages of numbers, footnotes and pictograms through which you could travel with your mind, even when you couldn't afford the tickets.

Others may take on the continued publication of the European Timetable as Thomas Cook concentrates on package tours.

But volume 1526 of the Red Book should become a collector's edition.

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