No trains running

Feb 28th, 2009 | By | Category: International

The Summer 1994 edition of the Thomas Cook European Railway Timetable is still in the bookshelf. It was an probably an unnecessary extravagance, being used for only one day trip.  The times of the two trains caught are still ringed in blue biro.

Catching the 0936 from Båstad, we reached Helsingborg at 1015, where the carriage was shunted on to the ferry.  The ferry reached Helsingør at 1115 and the train departed at 1138, reaching København at 1215.  We travelled from a town in Sweden to the capital of Denmark without leaving our train seats.  The return journey began at 1835 and by 2100 we were safely back in the Swedish railway station where we had parked our car.

Railway timetables have a reassuring quality about them; they have a sense of a world that is ordered and manageable.  Many hours have been spent perusing that book of timetables in the years since.  Occasionally, there were notes that reminded the reader that the world was not as ordered as it might be.  The page headed “Slovenia and Croatia including Bosnia-Herzegovina” advises,

The information shown is thought to represent the actual services at the time of publication.  However, changes may occur at short notice due to the political situation.  All services in Bosnia-Herzegovina are believed to be suspended at present and there are no services running between Croatia and Yugoslavia.

Yet the need to include such advice suggest that this is not the normal way of things, that in a normal world trains run, and not only run, but conform to some sort of timetable.

Picking up the Thomas Cook Overseas Railway Timetable in a bookshop today, I flicked through to Africa in search of similar reassurance.  A friend in Burundi wanted to meet with me when I am in Rwanda for a visit in June.  Thomas Cook was not so consoling.  It advised that Rwanda had no railway services, but there were bus services between the main towns.  It did, however, note that timetable information for such services was hard to discover.  Burundi was even less cheerful, there were no railway services, the book advised, and few bus services.

All I managed to discover was that a bus journey from Kigali to Bujumbura took six hours, which is probably not bad for a journey of 175 miles through Africa that includes a border crossing.

It is hard now to imagine a world where one cannot move quickly and easily;  should I wish to visit family or friends in England a quick flight their and back is a simple proposition.  European industrialisation and economic development were made possible through the transport networks that grew up from the 19th Century onwards.  North America was opened up by the railroads making possible journeys that previously would not have been contemplated.

The Thomas Cook timetable represents a whole world of possibilities and assumptions. It is hard to imagine a world where you cannot travel where you want, when you want.  The problem faced by so many in Africa struggling to bring development and progress is that they are trying to compete in a 21st Century world in countries that lack even Nineteenth Century facilities.

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