The Lost Excitement, Pathos, and Beauty of the Railroad Timetable

An elegy for the paper symbol of the mechanical age, an Object Lesson.
flickr/michaeljy

American passenger rail service is booming; Amtrak has set ten ridership records in the past eleven years. But the timetable, long synonymous with rail travel in this country and elsewhere, has not fared so well.

It’s no surprise: the rise of mobile computers has challenged all the paper products of the industrial age, from newspapers to magazines to maps, and the railroad schedule is no exception. Since nearly two-thirds of Amtrak tickets are now purchased online, the corporation has been able to decrease the number of schedules it offers in stations. The British travel company Thomas Cook ceased printing its Overseas Timetable book in 2010. Even for railroads whose customers stick by their customs, the push to digitize ticketing and convert schedules to smartphone apps is seen as inevitable. The printed grid of prime-number times (5:23? 6:17?) seems fated to go the way of the buffalo.  

It’s a change worth noticing. Timetables have not generally made the same impression on observers as the grand vaulted stations or the trains themselves, and today, these souvenirs of the glory days of train travel lie in obscure collections of railroadania. Yet the timetable remains a curious object, at once a symbol of wanderlust and boredom, tedium and thrill. For the French writer Marcel Proust, each timetable was a catalog of prospective pleasures, a dozen cities and towns lurking half-known in its pages. But many regular travelers may feel more in common with the secretary of the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, who said of her long daily journey into Paris, “I’ve spent the best years of my life on the train!” In theory, the railroad promised freedom and mobility. In practice, it created a whole new class of people called commuters, for whom the train trip quickly became a daily dose of drudgery.

It was the lowly timetable that bore testament to the train’s transformative influence on modern life. In the corporeal metaphors that the industrial rail network often inspired, stations were the beating hearts, rail lines the arteries, trains and passengers the vital blood. The schedule might be called the DNA—the hidden, essential set of instructions, part command center and part record book. It’s the same time in New York as in Boston right now, and for that you can thank the timetable.

It was once the proud face of the industry. In pamphlets, on posters, in advertisements in papers, railroad companies touted times like competitive runners. Boston to New York in eight hours! Week-long journeys shrank to days, days to hours, the trip across Paris—an easy hour by horse-and-carriage or streetcar—to minutes. Heinrich Heine, writing of the opening of the routes from Paris to Rouen and Orleans, waxed poetic about the future of shrinking distances: “I can smell the German linden trees; the North Sea’s breakers are rolling against my door.”

No sooner did a line open than the first train times began to appear, nuggets of numerical data embedded in newspaper advertisements, wall-pasted posters, or free hand-outs at the station. They charted a world of expanding possibilities.

But you could not fairly call these early advertisements tables. There were few enough trains and stops that such a mathematical system of organization was not yet necessary. An 1837 poster for the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh Fast Line announced merely that the train “starts every morning.” (Riders of certain American passenger rail lines will be familiar with the casual approach to timing.) But with hundreds of separate companies running routes in England alone, it was not long before traveling by rail required timetable literacy.

flickr/oxfordshirechurches

The man widely credited with inventing the railway timetable was an English magazine publisher named George Bradshaw. He had previously released a guide to canal travel and saw the opportunity to put his expertise in the service of an expanding industry. In 1839, he published Bradshaw’s Railway Time Tables and Assistant to Railway Travelling. By 1842, this was a monthly installment. In the following decades, it became a cultural touchstone. Known merely as a “Bradshaw,” the volume featured in Dickens’ novels, Sherlock Holmes stories, and was the trusted companion of Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days.

Across the Atlantic, the railway guide business boomed shortly afterwards. Simple tables were collected in books like Dinsmore’s American Railway Guide of 1856. Buoyed by lucrative advertising sales for everything from hotel rooms to pianos, these books swelled to something resembling the modern guidebook. And then some. By the 1930s, the dominant American rail composite, a monthly publication known as the Official Guide, was 1,800 pages long. 

Practically speaking, though, the existence of the Bradshaw’s Railway Time Tables—and the inter-company travel it invited—raised a serious problem. One could not reliably plan a transfer when every company used its own clocks. Even setting company time was a chore of comic proportions: every morning, the Grand Junction Company sent a watch on a train from London’s Euston Station to Holyhead, in Wales, where it was passed onto the ferry to Dublin. Having set the clocks for the Company in Ireland, said watch was returned to the capital by the same route. 

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Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.   

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