‘The train crept like a snail from station to station’

And so we come back – at last! – to the matter of train timetables. It is a subject, as notCarruthers well knows, of which I am inordinately fond.

So, it seems, was Erskine Childers, judging by the detailed thinking behind the journeys of October 23rd (and the 24th, of which more at another time). The scene is this: Carruthers is leaving Davies in Norderney, intent on travelling back to London to see what he can dig up on the nefarious Dollman. As it happens, he never makes it to London, because during the journey he decides to double back and do some clandestine investigating of his own. But that is a story for another day.

Davies gives Carruthers pretty clear instructions in a note, which also contains some rather charming misspellings (‘Von Brooning’) which are not commented upon. Here’s the outline of the trip that Davies makes:

(1) Your journey. Norddeich 8.58, Emden 10.32, Leer 11.16 (Böhme changes for Bremen), Rheine 1.8 (change), Amsterdam 7.17 p.m. Leave again via Hook 8.52, London 9 am.

(2) The coast-station–their rondezvous–querry is it Norden? (You pass it 9.13)–there is a tidal creek up to it. High-water there on 25th, say 10.30 to 11 p.m. It cannot be Norddeich, which I find has a dredged-out low-water channel for the steamer, so tide ‘serves’ would not apply.

So how far does the Davies timetable match the timetable provided by that reliable supplier of transport information to the Edwardian gentleman, Bradshaw’s Guide to Continental Railways? Well, I was only able to find an 1888 edition of Bradshaw’s, so although the departure and arrival times are a little different, the actual time taken to travel is pretty much spot on.

First, a map of Carruthers’s journey:

Norden to Amsterdam by train - quicker than it once was
Norden to Amsterdam by train – quicker than it once was

According to Google (and according to the relevant modern timetables, too – yes, I looked), it takes between five and six hours to reach Amsterdam from Norden. It took a good deal longer in 1898.

So, Davies had Carruthers leaving Norddeich, the harbour stop at Norden, at 8.58am in the morning. According to our calculations, if we’re right about 1898, October 23 would have been a Sunday, which gave me rather panicked pause until Bradshaw reassuringly informed me that Continental railway services did not alter their timetables on a Sunday.

Here is the first problem – Norddeich does not feature in Bradshaw in any form, for the simple reason that this branch line did not open until 1895. So the first thing to say is that the route I’m looking at here is only an approximation. If anyone has a Bradshaw for 1898, do let us know – but for now we’ll have to start from nearby Norden, where there is a train here heading south in the right direction, but it’s the train from Esens.

So, at Norden, there’s a train in 1888 leaving at 9.29am. Here’s the relevant page in Bradshaw:

Page 118 in Bradshaw - Emden-Jever and back
Page 118 in Bradshaw – Emden-Jever and back

As Davies says, this train heads south towards Emden, arriving (according to Davies) at 10.32am. Our Bradshaw train reaches Emden a little later, at 11.15am.

Here Davies changes trains, and train systems. He has been travelling to date on the Ostfriesische Küstenbahn (East Frisian Coastal Railway), which only opened fifteen years before Davies took his journey. Much of the route is now closed – of which more tomorrow – but you can still take the train along the same line as Carruthers, from Norddeich/Norden to Emden.

At Emden, Carruthers changes onto the Emsland line, which runs all the way to Soest. Carruthers tells Davies to get on 10.32 at Emden to Rheine – the nearest train to this in the 1888 Bradshaw is 11.29 from Emden. It reaches Rheine two hours later – and Carruthers changes here, having rid himself of Böhme at Leer. Here’s the relevant Bradshaw page again.

The 1888 Bradshaw timetable for Emden-Rheine
The 1888 Bradshaw timetable for Emden-Rheine

At Rheine, says Davies, Carruthers should get onto the 1.08pm to Amsterdam. We’ve already missed that, and Bradshaw tells us that the next Amsterdam train leaves Rheine at 1.51pm, getting us to the Dutch city by 7.22pm. We probably would catch Carruthers up because, as he says, his train was particularly slow.

The train crept like a snail from station to station. I might, so a fellow-passenger told me, have waited three hours at Rheine for an express which would have brought me to Amsterdam at about the same time; or, if I had chosen to break the journey farther back, two hours at either Emden or Leer would still have enabled me to catch the said express at Rheine. These alternatives had escaped Davies, and, I surmised, had been suppressed by Böhme, who doubtless did not want me behind him, free either to double back or to follow him to Bremen.

Carruthers finds himself sipping coffee outside his rather swanky Amsterdam hotel at 8.30pm – and we’d easily be doing the same with our Bradshaw route. So, in summary – the Childers timeline feels spot on.

But this does raise the question – why add in so many details about train timetables? However much I enjoy these things, I recognise they are an acquired taste (if you’ve reached this point in this article, you have acquired it as well). But it seems pretty clunky detail in an adventure novel.

Or does it? As we’ve said, multiple times, Childers is pretty adept at signalling danger and paranoia, at demonstrating just how mighty Germany is becoming, not just at sea, but everywhere. And to the Edwardian mind, train timetables are a key aspect of military strategy. It’s a theory that AJP Taylor outlined – that in the days before mechanised road vehicles, troop mobilisations could only be done in significant numbers by train. Which meant masses of organisation to ensure that hundreds of thousands of troops could be sent out to the front quickly and efficiently – and because there was so much planning involved, when you thought you were going to war, you had to move fast and you had to move immediately before the other side mobilised or started blowing up your railways. Here’s Taylor himself outlining the theory more elegantly and knowledgeably than I can.

Who knew? Railway timetables as causes for massive global war. Bit more interesting than you thought, eh?

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