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

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


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.

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.

Changing trains was a guessing game. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, author of The Railway Journey, writes, “London time ran four minutes ahead of time in Reading, seven minutes and thirty seconds ahead of Cirencester time, fourteen minutes ahead of Bridgewater time.” In America, train stations in Buffalo and Pittsburgh carried three and six clocks respectively, with each clock face showing the official time for one of the companies that stopped there.

After an error on a timetable caused Scottish railway engineer Sandford Fleming to miss a train in Ireland in 1876, Fleming embarked on a crusade to make time across Britain conform to the clock at the Greenwich Observatory. Just four years later, England adopted universal time; America followed in 1889 with four time zones; Germany in 1893. Slowly, life in cities adapted. The small towns in path of the iron horse soon followed. Railroad time ticked its way into homes and businesses from Berlin to Buffalo.

For this considerable transformative achievement, the timetable acquired an aura of logic and reason. Gabriel Syme, the protagonist of G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, argued that if poets cared for order, “the most poetic thing in the world would be the Underground Railway.”

“No, take your mere books of poetry and prose,” Syme continues, “let me read a time-table, with tears of pride. Take your Byron, who commemorates the defeats of man; give me Bradshaw, who commemorates his victories. Give me Bradshaw, I say!”

Like the eight-hour day, the elements of the timetable came to represent working life. Le Corbusier may have viewed the commute as the tyranny of poor urban design—life measured out not in coffee spoons but in train times—but it also inspired popular camaraderie. A simple train time, an incantation that summoned commuters day after day and year after year, was a kind of identity.

Americans who danced to Billy Murray’s 1915 hit “On the 5:15” (mp3) knew exactly what the title meant. “When you’re leaving out where the fields are green,” Murray sings, “you’ve got to go home on the 5:15.” The plot was as follows: when the song’s protagonist continues to miss the 5:15 train to his suburban home, his angry wife takes him to divorce court. Will he be locked up? No chance: “The jury, the lawyers, the judge supreme – all were commuters on the 5:15!” More than half a century later, Pete Townshend and the Who found the reference held sway with a different audience in a different country, few of whom had likely ever heard of Billy Murray. They too knew about the “5:15.”

If the timetables posted on refrigerators, tacked above log books and tucked in jacket pockets were the taskmasters of metropolitan life, they also traded in fantasy. Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, like countless other American men of his age, assembled his dreams of escape from the blueprint of a newspaper ad for journeys west. Railroad companies encouraged this aspiration: in addition to informing the public of train times, they were trying to sell tickets, and even, pursuant to the Railroad Acts, plots of land.

No one saw the romanticism of the timetable quite like Proust. In the first book of In Search of Lost Time, the lovesick Charles Swann sees an affirmation of his own power in the schedule. Yearning to appear uninvited at his lover’s country getaway, the cuckolded Frenchman “would plunge into the most intoxicating romance in the lover’s library, the railway timetable, from which he learned the ways of joining her there in the afternoon, in the evening, even in the morning. The ways? More than that, the authority, the right to join her.” The author shared his hero’s fascination, and was known to memorize whole swaths of the schedules for trains leaving Paris. Reality often disappoints, Proust advised, so why not just read the timetable and dream?

Thousands found that same allure in Thomas Cook’s series of timetables. In 1873, the London-based travel company began to do for Europe what Bradshaw had done for England. Under various names, Thomas Cook’s guide to European railways became a staple of a traveler’s bag and spawned a devoted fan base. “You shouldn’t travel without a book of poetry,” wrote British novelist Malcolm Pryce, “and this is mine.” Its monthly and bi-monthly editions, which at one point swelled to include every intercity train, bus and ferry in the world, are the definitive historical record of travel.

For a taste, you only need see the notes from an edition of Thomas Cook’s Overseas Timetable, Nov-Dec 1983, chosen more or less at random from the stacks at the New York Public Library. Shortages of fuel curtailed train frequency in Tanzania; fares rose in Israel every three months to keep pace with inflation. There are listings for shipping services from California to New York, via the Panama Canal. Town plans appear for Aswan, Baghdad, Bangkok, Boston, Bombay and Brisbane (that’s just the first page). And unlike some of the popular American rail guides, which couldn’t resist appending hotel advice and sightseeing tips, Cook’s books are all business. But they contain everything from children’s fares on the Iranian railways (free, under 7) to the timing of steamboats on the Mississippi. And you could choose to receive six of them a year.

After the BBC ran a travel series last year in which host Michael Portillo navigated Europe with a century-old Bradshaw guide, the reprinted travel handbook rose quickly up the bestseller list. But it was a short reprieve for the form: the update-friendly Internet is steadily chipping away at the utility of the world’s timetables. Soon they will be deemed a useless expense. The thousands of possible journeys will be hidden behind a digital interface that requests a station of arrival and a station of departure. All that lies between—the names, the times, the mathematical array of travel—will fade away without so much as a stationmaster’s announcement.

An ongoing series about the hidden lives of ordinary things