Back on schedule: Europe's InterRail timetable is re-born

By Nigel Cassidy
Business correspondent, BBC News

media captionThe timetable lists an estimated 50,000 trains across Europe

It helped shape the lives and travels of countless intrepid young voyagers.

Breakfast in Belgium, maybe lunch in Luxembourg, and supper in St Moritz.

But suddenly last summer, the Interrailer's bible, the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable, ceased publication.

Thomas Cook wanted to concentrate on selling air holidays, not promoting train bookings.

But after 140 years, it seems you cannot keep a good timetable down.

As spring arrives and thoughts turn to travel, the familiar red European Rail Timetable is back - to be once again crammed into student backpacks and held in readiness on travel organisers' desks.

'On board'

It is all thanks to John Potter, one of the team who previously compiled the guide for Thomas Cook.

He was so upset about losing the job he loved, he remortgaged his house and spent most of his redundancy cheque buying the rights to republish the timetables - inviting the original team to join him.

Mr Potter admits his new venture is a bit of a gamble - partly influenced by the fact that he loves his job and did not relish trying to find another one that he would enjoy as much.

"Although Thomas Cook's guidebooks were loss-making, the timetables themselves seemed to be making enough of a return for me to make a go of it," he told the BBC.

"I just said to the other chaps, 'Do you want to carry on?' Most said 'Yes', so they have come on board either full or part-time."


Pre-orders and early sales of the new edition under Mr Potter's ownership have been promising - bolstering his team's belief that there is a hard core of people who want printed timetables to scan at their leisure.

As he points out, you can go online, enter "Madrid" and "Moscow" and get train information in seconds. But some people simply find it more satisfying to work things out for themselves, with all the different options at their fingertips.

image captionAs many as 50,000 European train times are listed in the new timetable

Anyone who has had to change their journey plans en route will also know that without a timetable to hand, hunting for viable connections on a tiny smartphone screen on a moving train can be a nightmare.

Then there is the prohibitive cost of data roaming overseas. So you are left with the only alternative - joining the queue at a station booking office in the hope that the clerk understands and has the answers to your long list of questions.

Rumour has it there are quite a few armchair travellers who like nothing better than using the guide to plan exotic rail journeys they may never undertake.

Large scale

One man who really missed the timetable when it was away was Mark Smith.

He is a former senior manager in the rail industry who now runs - an award-winning website focusing on the many possibilities offered by train-based travel. He says that without such a ready reference, partial information gleaned from individual operators' websites can too easily lead you to wrong conclusions.

"The internet is great but the trouble is that you have to make repeated enquiries - each for specific dates," he says.

"It's like looking at a large-scale map through the wrong end of a telescope. You really need to have it all laid out in front of you in printed form."

Mr Smith cites the example of the Paris-Moscow express.

"It runs three times a week in winter, but five times a week in summer. Pretty easy to find in the book, but if you enquired online and picked the wrong day, you might not find it at all."


Running to 576 pages, the timetable lists an estimated 50,000 trains across Europe to choose from.

The compilers manually enter the times of each service, gleaned from long-standing contacts at each of the railway companies.

It seems the larger the operator, the harder it can be to get the information. It took a team of five working flat out for three months to get the first new edition ready.

John Potter grins as his computer beeps, indicating another timetable order has come in.

Within minutes, the ordered guide is in a stiff envelope and ready for posting out.

"None of us are wordsmiths, we just like numbers. I think we can make a go if it - and hopefully carry on for another 140 years."

Your Comments

image copyrightTim Kaye
image captionTim Kaye with his 1986 and 1990 copies of the timetable

InterRailing was great fun but hard work as I remember it.

We were in the north of Germany (Bremen) and the weather turned bad so decided to head for Italy. The flexibility of the rail pass and having the timetable meant we could easily change our plans - we ended up spending something like 15 hours on a night train to Naples.

Four years later we decided that instead of flying off for our week in the sun, we'd go by train. Hence the 1990 timetable. We weren't young enough for railcards any more so the ticket cost real money. We took it easy going down stopping off on the way. I don't remember much of the trip except it seemed to take forever coming back. The post-it notes still mark the pages including the train times from Madrid to Malaga,

Neither trip would have been possible without the timetable as you needed to plan carefully to avoid ending up sleeping overnight on a station platform - which we did once do to save money when catching an early train. Tim Kaye from Santon Downham

I InterRailed last summer, from London to Romania and back, passing through Holland, Germany, Hungary and then around Romania. The trip lasted a month and the InterRail ticket was far cheaper than buying individual tickets in each country. The journeys were sometimes long (Budapest to Bucharest is 17 hours), but far more relaxing and less crowded than flying. InterRail have a good app for train times, which is free to use and doesn't require wifi or mobile connection, but I can see the appeal of the actual train timetable book. InterRailing is great fun. I'm 48 and travelled alone. Dave Mitchell from Warwickshire

I went InterRailing in 1999 using the Thomas Cook timetable. I planned my entire route on my bedroom floor two weeks in advance. I changed my mind half way around my loop and re-planned it all in an ex Soviet era hotel youth hostel in Prague. A great, but exhausting trip that made me realise that my everyday life needed changing. Graham in Bristol

With a fellow student from Manchester University, we used InterRail in its very first year. It cost about £27. We travelled via Austria and Yugoslavia to Nauphlion in Greece where we met friends. The Thomas Cook European Timetable was our invaluable companion. Since then I have used it many times, and the International version, and confess to sometimes buying it just for the pleasure of dreaming of the rail trips I could enjoy. Well done to John Potter and his team! Graham Bolton from Tottington, Lancashire

I'm so glad to see the European Timetable continues. I used it many times in the 1970s and 1980s. It came in handy when things didn't go to plan and an alternative route or service had to be used. I still sometimes refer to my old copies of the European and the Overseas timetables - kept as treasures for many years! Paul Catchpole from Mevagissey, St. Austell, Cornwall

My wife and I InterRailed in the early 80s. We had a fantastic time around France and around south-east Europe. On our biggest trip we were involved in a minor train crash in Greece, got ripped-off by a Yugoslav couchette attendant, struggled (at times violently) to get out of Romania before our visas ran out, got frisked by the Hungarian border guards, and I was pickpocketed on a French overnight train. But it was the best holiday of my life!

Last September we went on our first international holiday by train since those days, and I planned everything by the internet. It was only a short break, so not difficult to arrange, but I wished that I had "Thomas" (as my wife and I always called it) with us. Robert Mee from West Hallam, Derbyshire

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