Amazing revelations of the seemingly useless ‘door stoppers’

Train timetables - old and new - carry lots of revelations, if read imginatively.

Among all the big and small demises of 2017, there was one hardly noticed by anyone, except perhaps for the shrinking breed of train timetable collectors and compilers, as well as by a few technologically backward travellers who still prefer printed copy to the online version.  I am talking about the super-comprehensive and reassuringly trilingual Swiss Official Timetable, also known as the Offizielles Kursbuch (in German), Indicateur Officiel (in French) and Orario Officiale (in Italian), or simply the Kursbuch – a bulky, over 2000 pages each, three-volume set covering railroads, cableways and boats (Volume 1 - pictured), buses in Western Switzerland (Vol. 2) and buses in Eastern Switzerland (Vol. 3). 

This unique publication, the Mother of All Timetables, so to speak, was until last year readily available at all Swiss station ticket offices for around £12. The real problem was how to carry and where to keep those “three door-stoppers”, in the words of my friend Fritz Jenni, the former operations manager for Swiss PostBus, the largest of the country’s 78 coach companies, who was kind enough to post me the very last edition of the Kursbuch in a parcel that, by the size and weight of it, could have easily contained a small locomotion unit. 

Yes, after 112 yearly editions (the first in 1905), Kursbuch, this weighty Swiss institution, has come to an end, or rather moved entirely online – to the sheer dismay of the USA’s National Association of Timetable Collectors and a handful of enthusiasts like Fritz Jenni and yours truly. 

My friendship with Fritz, a sprightly and dynamic 80-year-old who I met several years ago when he was assisting me in my research into Swiss Postbuses, has so far resulted (among other things) in several precious additions to my ever-expanding collection of timetables. But before sharing a couple of those little (and no-so-little) treasures with you, let me ask again: what on earth is the use and value of the faded and no-longer-valid timetables? How do I benefit from knowing that, according to the 1947-48 Winter Edition of the Kursbuch, the 6.51 train from Basel SBB was due to arrive at Geneve-Cornavin at 10.04? 

Or let’s take a fresher example, from last year, of an InterCity train 872 from Milano Centrale due to leave Lugano, having first cleared the Italian border station of Chiasso, at 11.10 to arrive in Luzern at 13.21. What’s the point?

It all depends on how you read the timetable. As I look at the seemingly dispassionate numbers, I can clearly see the red-bereted Italian frontier guards boarding the train in Chiasso to check the passengers’ passports, as they did on my train from Basel to Como in 2002. They then ransacked the possessions of my neighbour – a thoroughly decent if somewhat hapless Dutch youth, who complained that he always got searched  just because of being a Dutch youth and so, stereotype dictated, could be carrying cannabis or other drugs.

 I then see the train stopping at Lugano, from where one could take a boat to Campione D’Italia – a peculiar Italian enclave inside Switzerland. It was at that station that I once hurriedly (had to urgently open a bottle of wine, you see) bought a Swiss Army knife at a platform kiosk, and when back on the moving train realised that I had been charged (mistakenly, no doubt) twice for it. And then Lucerne – a majestic old city on the eponymous lake with my favourite hotel Schweizerhof on its shore. With the timetable in hand (or in the case of the massive Kursbuch, in both hands), I am in for endless vicarious – and entirely free – travels and adventures. 

My older timetables, however, sometimes contain destinations that I wouldn’t have wanted to revisit, even if I had been alive then. Take the gem of my collection: Tachenfahrplan fur die Ostliche Ukraine (Pocket Timetable for Eastern Ukraine), published in August 1942 – yes, during the Nazi occupation – in German of course. The most striking feature of this extremely rare brochure is how ‘normal’ it looks at first glance: a neat folding map at the front, impeccable tables of times and distances, etc. It takes another good look to notice that the map shows uninterrupted by any borders a through route from Berlin Zoo to my native city of Kharkiv, referred to as Charkow Hauptbahnhof (Hbf). You can trace the 4.00 3356 train (‘Zug Nr 3356’) from Charkow to Slawjansk in Donbass, to where the trains from today’s Kharkiv (the city’s Ukrainian name) do not go, due to the ongoing proxy war with Russia. 

At 4.40, that  Zug used to stop for two minutes at Komarowka – a suburban village where I used to be taken for holidays as a kid. For some reason, looking at its name rendered in German made me realise the horrible reality of the Nazi occupation of my native land better than ever before.

My more recent and much less sinister ‘gem’ is the ‘2014 Service Timetable for Engine Drivers’ for Ukraine’s Yuzhnaya (Southern) Railway. Inserted in the book is a note in Russian, probably written by an engine driver: “Kharkiv – 23.33; Northern Post – 23.43”, and also the printed timetable of all train departures from Kharkiv passenger terminal. 

A fascinating insight can be found on pp. 67-69, chronicling the route of  train 56 from Sumi (via Kharkiv) to Simferopol in the Crimea. The timetable was published in 2014, but clearly prior to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in March that year, after which all direct train connections to the Crimea from Ukraine were terminated.  Another case of painful political reality made crystal-clear by a seemingly useless four-year-old timetable.

I’d like to finish on a positive note though. Fritz Jenni has just informed me that the printed edition of the Swiss Kursbuch has been salvaged from demise, if only partially, and one of its three volumes, covering trains, boats and cable-cars, has been printed and is in the post to me. Hopefully, it will continue well beyond 2018. I can’t wait to get hold of it.  

PS. A big thank-you to everyone who shared their memorable train journeys with me. And please do not forget to cast your vote in our "World's Worst Banger" competition

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