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Swiss trains and the timetables wizard of Northampton

Our columnist joins the Swiss Railways Society and meets the UK's most prominent compiler of railway timetables.

I have a confession to make. Despite my promises (after 35 years in the totalitarian USSR) never to join any membership-driven organization (except for the IET, no doubt), I have just become a member of one – The Swiss Railways Society (SRS). What drew me to it was the logo in the Society's promotional leaflet: “Join 1100 other members and discover the paradise that is the Swiss Transport System”. “Paradise”, no less! To me as a champion of Swiss technology and life-style, however, it didn't sound excessive.

Where else in the world you can pre-order sushi and fondue on some of the trains; travel in 'family carriages', equipped with mini-playgrounds; use a request stop button at some small stations; have train schedules and route maps printed (!) on the surface of the tables in your carriage, as I myself saw recently on board a BOR (Bernese Oberland Railways) train from Grindenwald to Interlaken? Where else can you hear the announcement: “The train at platform four is ten minutes late due to an incident in another country”, as I did at the Swiss station of Spiez?

If all of the above strike you as emotional ramblings of a 'helvetifile', here's a bit of official statistics: The Swiss Federal railways (SBB) network has the world's highest frequency of daily train services -  148 trains per kilometre of track per day, compared with 136 in the Netherlands, 103 in Japan, 91 in the UK, 11 for the USA and 6 for Canada. Each day an average of 123 passenger trains per kilometre run at 10-min headways from 5 am to 1 am the following morning.  As for the overall punctuality, it has reached the staggering 96 percent (by a 5-min standard) mark. No “leaves slippage” or “wrong kind of graffiti” (a real-life recent “excuse” for a Thameslink service cancellation) here...

Swiss train timetables, of which I am a passionate fan and collector, play a huge role in this modern paradise on wheels. First put together 4 years in advance, they undergo repeated checks and tests before acquiring the power of law and seldom get altered after that. They are also unique in the amount of information they contain – not just train times and platform numbers, but how many minutes you should allow to change trains, or to walk from your train to a connecting bus, boat or cablecar – all integrated into the super-efficient Swiss Public Transport Network.

To catch my flight back to the UK last July, I took the 5.21 am SBB train from Interlaken West to Basel. The integrated timetable featured a 3-minutes walk between the train and the airport bus outside Basel train station. It took me precisely 2 min and 45 seconds to reach the waiting bus number 50 which started for the airport three minutes later.

Now, let me tell you a little secret. During my latest sojourn in Switzerland, I was not using the glossy and colourful Swiss-printed timetables a lot. Instead, I relied on just one: the latest edition of the compact paperback of the 600-page “European Rail Timetable” (ERT), compiled in the Northamptonshire village of Oundle – an unlikely junction of Europe's rail tracks – in the house of John Potter, ERT's editor-in-chief. He started this publication in March 2014, after the demise of the 140-year-old Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable, also known as the “railways bible”.

John, who had been on the latter's editorial team since 1998, and a handful of his former Thomas Cook colleagues, launched the new ERT, which now comes out every month - in print and online – and gets distributed all over the world, with a separate edition in Japan.

I was privileged to have had my short journey to Oundle planned by John Potter – the Harry Potter (no relation) of train timetables. And I am not the only person to compare him to the a wizard. Nicky Gardner, co-editor of “Hidden Europe” magazine, called the revival of ERT by John and his colleagues “one of the great marvels of modern travel”, whereas Mark Smith, the author of “The Man in Seat Sixty-One” expressed it somewhat more prosaically: “Europe's rail network is getting increasingly fragmented as new private or quasi-private operators appear, and the need for such a publication is greater than ever.” 

As for John himself, he tends to be modest. “I am no man of letters, but I like numbers,” he told me outside his garage-cum-storage-room. Looking at the rows of cardboard boxes with freshly printed timetables, I could almost see little Eurostars, Thalyses and TGVs whooshing past the garage along invisible mini-tracks.

“Timetables require precision, but imagination is also important. I am an armchair traveller myself,” John confessed to my sheer delight.

There's of course a huge technical side to his work. And not just the software that he himself developed. Each month, his team has to process heaps of information for which they depend entirely on railway enthusiasts from all over Europe.

“Swiss consultation (draft-VV) timetables arrive first, followed by Czech and Slovak ones, whereas Russians normally send them as raw data.”

John refused to answer my question about which countries were least likely to meet their deadlines. Like every good editor, he has to protect his sources. From what I know, so far not a single traveller has been let down by ERT.

With all his modesty, one thing John seems to be genuinely proud of is being one of the extraordinary characters featured in the book “Dull Men of Great Britain” (Penguin Random House, 2015), alongside a roundabout enthusiast, a lawnmowers' collector, a postbox photographer, a Filofax blogger and such like – many of them engineers by profession. “Dull” in this case is of course a euphemism for “eccentric”, and eccentricity, from my point of view, is one of the most admirable human qualities, for it combines passion and expertise – two main components of brilliance. Allegedly, there even exists a “Dull Mens' Club” in the UK. And despite my USSR-bred aversion to organisations and societies, I wouldn't mind joining this club myself.

Perhaps John Potter could give me a reference?

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