Birth of a guidebook

In a post-brandy haze at about 2am on a hot 1983 summer night in Vancouver BC, George, a fellow lover of European train travel and the delights it gave access to, and I were musing whimsically about the indulgent possibilities offered by the giddy freedom of a month’s Eurail Pass. ‘Yes, I can see it – after a few sweltering days in Madrid, the refreshing mountain air of Switzerland would look great and the next Express could whisk you there. But what about accommodation costs for a month?’ ‘Then one would live on the train’, said George. ‘Sure, but every now and again you’d need things like a shower and, perhaps, a pharmacy etc’ ‘So… we need a guide-book to the facilities in the major stations of Europe’. And so started the path towards a guidebook…

Several months later I visited George in Ottawa where on his his long oak table were laid out five rows of five (the investigation would last five weeks) white index cards at the foot of which were green index cards. This highly organised arrangement probably stemmed from George’s early involvement with computers.

‘I intend to spend five weeks train-traveling, but only on weekdays – thus the five rows of five (weekday) cards. The green cards at the foot of each week (weekends) represent somewhere I can stay with a friend – and I don’t want anything to do with train travel on the weekend! So each white card represents one of the twenty-five cities one can visit to investigate facilities’.
At the top of each white card bearing the name of a particular station were the times of two or three overnight trains arriving from one of the other twenty four stations and, on the bottom, two or three trains going to the other twenty four. Then it was a case of shuffling the cards incorporating the weekends, of course. Eventually, they all fit and a hard-copy produced the itinerary of crisscrossing routes.

Then it was a case of informing the officials of each railway station of George’s time of arrival so he could be met and shown around that station’s facilities – the use of his ‘Dr’ (Psychology) title seemed to get particularly respectful treatment in certain countries. Often a lunch was included in that tour after which an afternoon was free to look around town. After dinner it was back on the next train to write up notes to be followed by the good night’s sleep which improved after so many trips. So, more criss-crossing Europe, always unaware of all the landscapes the train was passing.

When all the travel was over, George was asked how differently he might have organised it, were he to do it again. It would have been better to have arranged, he said, for trains that left earlier in the evening to avoid those hours after the stores closed
and the cities emptied out.

Eventually the Guidebook to European Railway Stations was published: