Fall/Winter 2003


Turning back the clock on timetables

Paul Collins

Page from the Baltimore & Ohio (“B&O”) railroad timetable, issued 27 October 1957.

I grew up in Pennsylvania around the remains of the old Reading Railroad. In my town it was nothing but empty railbeds choked with weeds and beer bottles, with rusted bolts scattered into the gravel—train turds, we’d call them. But here, in front of me, is an April 1926 timetable showing an amazing profusion of local routes—Wyomissing, Fritztown, Landisville, on and on.

The tracks were torn up long ago, and the schedules thrown out in May 1926. As soon as there were railways, there were people throwing out old timetables. The first timetable in English was published in 1825 by the first commercial line in Britain, the Stockton and Darlington Railway Company. Naturally, it came with the first hopeless exhortation to transit workers: “The Company take this Opportunity of enjoining on all their Work-people that Attention to Sobriety and Decorum which they have hitherto had the Pleasure of observing.”[1] Well, we wish them the best of luck.

San Francisco’s transit system stopped issuing schedules altogether when I was living there in 1997. The fat folded schedules had traditionally sat untouched in their Take One displays near the front of the car. Anyone consulting them was sure to be a tourist; no city resident was naive enough to actually plan their day around the times. Yet the mere existence of the schedules meant something. They were an acknowledgement that some kind of order lurked within the workings of the city—or had, once, maybe long ago, and perhaps even then only in theory.

But it was a reassuring gesture, and even the updates had a certain pleasure to them. The ever-changing arrays of timetables that transit systems create are variations on a numeric fugue: you can watch them develop like a piece of music moving through a chord progression. It only becomes annoying when the chord changes become frequent and arbitrary—like free-form jazz, say. “Changing timetables too often scares off travelers (they like routine),” mathematician Michiel Odijk writes to me. “Also, compiling new timetables from scratch is a hell of a job.”[2]

Odijk would know; he wrote his doctoral dissertation “Railway Timetable Generation” at the University of Delft, and cut his teeth creating schedules for Dutch Railways. He notes that timetable creation is a subset of math—specifically, of operations research or combinatorial optimization. But the timetables are not really meant to be precise. “Trams in cities often have a timetable,” he tells me, “while everybody knows that they should only be taken seriously for the frequency that they imply.” They are comforting in their familiar logic, and yet each minor revision creates a hint of novelty. This might explain why, as I write this, there are 156 timetable auctions in progress on eBay.

• • •

One by one, my purchases arrive in padded Jiffy envelopes, reinforced with plastic wrappers and stiff cardboard backing inside: ancient schedules for B&O Railroad, Pennsylvania, and Reading. I am just one railroad away from a Monopoly. So imagine my dismay when I discover the cruel lie Parker Brothers foisted upon my childhood: Short Line was never an actual railroad. It was a bus line. A few Short Line buses still ferry riders to and from malls and casinos, so the “Short” now presumably stands for Short of Cash. I can’t find any paper schedules for them, only an online document. It is clean, crisp, anonymous. Their schedule will never yellow or tear: it will get deleted.

Even the flimsy and unadorned 1926 Reading schedule is likely to live longer than an online file. The glossy and illustrated Pennsylvania Railroad schedule for September 1936 is even more durable. CLEAR TRACK AHEAD, it promises, with A new 17 hour, 10 min. train, New York to Chicago... for $18.20! Another ad inside shows a bespectacled granny knitting and smiling on the train:

Insurance statistics prove that you are actually far
less likely to suffer harm on a modern railroad
train than even in your own home.

The drawings, the smooth paper, the assurance of the ad copy... really, I’m surprised the insurance companies didn’t just close down their nursing homes and pack the old folks onto endlessly looping trains. The schedule radiates safety: the paper is still slick and white, the line drawings of smiling and courteous conductors undimmed by the emphysema and coronaries that bore down their human counterparts years ago.

• • •

There are timetable collectors all over the world. There is the Dusseldorf-based Internationale Interressengemenischraft der Fahrplansammler, while America has the National Association of Timetable Collectors (NAOTC), which has held steadily at about 500 members (virtually all male) for decades now. Brits can thumb through hardcover reissues of the Victorian monthly Bradshaw Railway Timetable—that’s correct, they are reprints of outdated schedules—and if the fancy grabs them they can also join a Transport Ticket Society, which saves the stubs from journeys. Brits have collected ticket stubs for centuries, incidentally; even before railways were invented, some may have collected used turnpike tickets.[3]

In another hemisphere altogether, you can join the Australian Association of Timetable Collectors. The AATC has two newsletters, including one called, inevitably, Table Talk. It makes for strangely touching reading; you realize how devoted people are to their timetables, and how used they are to getting strange looks for this hobby. One 1998 issue featured this letter from Derek Cheng, an immigrant from Hong Kong described as one of their youngest members:

Three years ago I didn’t even know what a timetable looked like. Now I am just mad about this creature. I have timetables for 1,966 bus routes around Australia. Originally from Hong Kong, I had no knowledge about timetables. The transport operators there do not publish them.

At school, he says, he is mocked for his “stupid and silly” pursuit—but among fellow timetable collectors, he feels at home.[4]

The camaraderie is, I imagine, much the same elsewhere. The American NAOTC even holds a yearly convention, with dealers and collectors from across the country; last year’s was a two-day event at a Cincinnati Holiday Inn. It would be a fun trip. According to my October 1957 B&O schedule, the Cincinattian train features “Soft reclining seats, Fiesta Car, observation lounge, radios, good food.” Plus, it’s affordable: ”Dieseliner Luxury Costs So Little.”

• • •

Schedules are historical evidence: my father always complained that many train lines ran faster fifty years ago than they do today, and it turns out he’s right. I’m also staggered to find that, in 1957, Manhattan hotels had their own train stops—one sliver of the daily Chicago Express schedule shows it stopping at the Taft Hotel at 8:40 a.m., at the Hotel Manhattan at 8:45, the Hotel New Yorker at 8:50. But above all, the schedules have a beauty in their construction. Like trainspotters, train schedule spotters are pursuing a sense of order and harmony. Robert Forsyte, a British collector with about three roomfuls of timetables—“well into the six figures of items”—explains it to me this way: “There is also something about the appeal to order... the triumph of order over chaos, and a testament to human sociability. Even the complexity of assembling a timetable, quite apart from getting its real system to work, is an astonishing intellectual achievement.”[5]

One does not even need actual trains to appreciate the mathematical beauty of the timetable. In 1936, Abel Chevally described hobbyists creating imaginary railway timetables; an old diary by Massachusetts resident Sylvanus Griswold Morley describes the same practice in the 1890s.[6] Forsyte began creating schedules for “imaginary Irish narrow gauge railways” when he was 12, and the practice lives on today: I have seen a Hungarian and an Australian trading notes online about imaginary railway lines created in the transit layout program BAHN. The Australian designer, Jack Edwards, describes his creations as of a piece with his lifelong fascination with trams: “I first started creating tram lines on old street directories as a child (about 6 years old, 1980)...” He describes himself as a “gunzel”—“a Melbourne term for someone who lives and breathes trams. We are to trams what trainspotters are to trains.”[7]

Edwards is certainly not alone. German programmer Jan Bochmann has been refining the BAHN shareware since 1990, and tells me its official circulation is 1500—“but I assume the real number of users is higher.” BAHN users are all over the world, and their creations range from transit fantasies to careful simulacra of the New York transit system, including some Bochmann describes to me as “ones with very tricky algorithms in signaling, scheduling trains or shunting them, understandable for freaks only.”[8]

His website alone has over 600 BAHN layouts in its archive.

• • •

I suppose it’s my 1957 B&O schedule that haunts me the most. It is from the last heroic era of trains, before the deliberate smothering of one of the world’s great public transit systems ushered in the era of the car. The B&O schedule is printed in a handsome blue and white, and it spookily reproduces a black-and-white photo of an observation car. Without Equal Anywhere in the East: The B&O Observation Domes. The rounded glass makes them look like the nose section of a B-52. “After dark,” the ad promises, “powerful floodlights create a novel effect that is unforgettable.”

Please Keep For Reference, the B&O Railroad schedule advises me.

And so I do. I keep my train timetables by my desk, though they may as well be for Sylvanus Griswold Morley’s imaginary trains, running on ethereal BAHN tracks. They are timetables for me to take trains that no longer exist, on lines that no longer run, for fares that no longer apply.

  1. Notes and Queries, 2 April 1870, p. 348.
  2. Email interview with Michiel Odijk, 1 October 2002.
  3. Notes and Queries on ticket collectors, 1 September 1888 (pp. 175–176). Bradshaw’s beautifully engraved schedules number months rather than name them—e.g. “10th month” instead of “October.” George Bradshaw, an upstanding Quaker, disapproved of the pagan-derived names.
  4. See www.aattc.org.au/times298.htm [link defunct—Eds.].
  5. Email interview with Robert Forsyte, 28 February 2003.
  6. Abel Chevalley, La bête de Gévaudan; Psalmanazar; l’affaire Overbury (Paris: Gallimard, 1936). The autobiography of Sylvanus Griswold Morley is available online at www.dcn.davis.ca.us/~rgf/SGM2.html [link defunct—Eds.].
  7. Email interview with Jack Edwards, 12 January 2003.
  8. Email interview with Jan Bochmann, 13 January 2003.

Paul Collins edits the Collins Library for McSweeney’s Books and is the author of Sixpence House (2003) and Banvard’s Folly (2001). He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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