Thomas Cook – troubles and famous timetables

Thomas Cook, one of Europe’s biggest tour operators, is in financial difficulty. Cooks invented the package holiday and have been in business for more than 150 years. Cooks are blaming political unrest and natural disasters in key holiday destinations as the reason why their profits have plunged this year. There’s also the fact that many people now book their holidays independently via the internet (you can find a Daily Telegraph piece about the financial troubles of Thomas Cook here).

I’ve never booked a holiday with Thomas Cook. I have frequently used one of their lesser known products, the Thomas Cook timetables. There used to be two of ‘em: Cook’s European Timetable, which had a red cover, and Cook’s Overseas Timetable, which had a blue cover. Both timetables were quite hefty tomes, running to hundreds of pages packed with information. The European timetable was published monthly. The Overseas timetable was published every two months

Back in the day, frequent travellers used to refer to Cook’s timetables as ‘the Bibles’. As well as train movements, the timetables also used to cover ships/ferries, buses and even camel trains! What was remarkable, in the days before information technology, was that Cook’s timetables were incredibly accurate. Thomas Cook achieved this by relying on the very people who used the timetables for information. Travellers who went to weird and wonderful places could report back to Cook’s timetable (with a letter in the post; no e-mail back then) on any inaccuracy in what Cook published. Thomas Cook would check it out and if you were correct about the inaccuracy you were rewarded with a free copy of the latest timetable. Cook’s timetable was a kind of Wiki long before anyone had heard of the internet. Such was the accuracy of the timetables that they were also the Bible for travel agents.

Below is an excerpt from Cook’s European timetable, showing timings for the old Ost-West Express from the early 1980s. The Ost-West Express was my favourite train, because at the time it crossed Europe’s ideological divide (the Iron Curtain) and went to the heart of the ‘evil empire’, Moscow. The train ran in two sections, from London and Paris, that would join at the Poland/USSR border for the journey on to Moscow. The track gauge in the USSR/Russia is wider than in Europe, so at the border the entire train would be hoisted on hydraulic jacks. to allow them to change the carriage wheels to accomodate the wider gauge. I travelled on the Ost-West Express many times (the train no longer runs). From London it used to take more than two days to get to Moscow. From Paris it was just under two days.

Once in Moscow, Cook’s Overseas timetable would take over. You could go all the way to Vladivostok on the Pacific (8 days rail journey from Moscow and the longest train ride in the world), or you could go to Beijing, or North Korea, or on to Japan, etc. In the age of cheap air travel I wonder if anyone still takes these wonderful trains?

Thomas Cook still publish the European Timetable every month. They don’t publish the Overseas Timetable anymore. I’ve made a separate post about the Overseas Timetable here.

You can read about one of my journeys on the Ost-West Express here.

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