History of the book

Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide

Europe by Rail is a book with a history which extends back to the 19th century - a title inspired by one man.

Thomas Cook was an extraordinary man, a printer and publisher by trade, who was much taken with the temperance pieties which gained favour in England in the mid-19th century. Thomas Cook rescued travel from the realm of social élites and created opportunities which in time would bring travel to the millions. Cook organised excursion trains in England, making his debut in the travel business in 1841 when he chartered a special train to ferry 400 dedicated teetotallers to a temperance rally in the East Midlands town of Loughborough.

The book Europe by Rail builds on a publishing tradition which goes right back to the pioneering work of Thomas Cook. He was, effectively, a publisher turned travel impresario - but he never lost his zeal for the printed word. 

Cook led tours to the continent, and from 1873 started to write travel guides which allowed independent travellers to explore the continent alone. From the outset, his guides were modelled around recommended rail routes. Thomas Cook briefed travellers on the best routes from London to the Channel Ports, advised on whether the Rhine Valley route to the Alps had the edge over options through Paris and Burgundy, and showed a benign concern for the well-being of his readers.

The structure of Europe by Rail reflects Thomas Cook's enthusiasm for journeys as well as destinations. The texture and tenor of the book has varied through the years, but over the last few years we've firmly shifted the emphasis back to the routes themselves - so reflecting Thomas Cook's own priorities in his earliest travel guides. With the new 17th edition (published in April 2022), the emphasis on journeys is very evident throughout the text. Destinations of course get their due, but we also devote plenty of space to explaining why a particular journey is well worth making. And then describing the journey itself.

Curating Europe by Rail

We judge it a great privilege to be involved with a book with such a fine pedigree. We've worked on Europe by Rail for many years. And it's been interesting to see how the readership has changed. Around 2010, we realised that the time was ripe for some major changes. We reshaped the book for a new generation of rail travellers, many of them nowadays as likely to be carrying pension books as student ID cards. So there was a substantial change in emphasis in 2011, and then a major redesign in 2016. In designing the wholly revamped book, we paid a little homage to Thomas Cook by reintroducting elements that featured in his earliest guides. So there's a whiff of travel nostalgia.

Over the last dozen years, we have considerably extended the scope of the book, casting our horizons east into the former Soviet Union and south into the Balkans and then most recently to Britain and Ireland.

In the 2011 edition, for example, Belgrade featured for the first time. By 2016, the book’s Balkan coverage was extended, also with new routes east into Ukraine (with no less than three routes finishing in Lviv) and into other virgin territories. The 2016 book, for example, included Cádiz (in south-west Spain) and Siracusa (in eastern Sicily) for the first time. In the 15th edition, published in November 2017, we added a new route to Sofia, a second route to Russia and had enhanced coverage of the Baltic region. Then, in a real break with tradition, in 2019 we have added in new routes to England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

For the new 17th edition published in April 2022, the continuing pandemic and worries over the political situation in Ukraine and Belarus guided some quite radical changes to our route. New journeys to eastern Europe which had been so carefully developed in the 2010s have of necessity been trimmed back. But that gave us the space to enhance our coverage of the Alps, central Europe and the southern shores of the Baltic. 

What’s in a Name?

The title of the book has changed over the years. Back in the 19th century, Thomas Cook divided Europe into several volumes, allowing him to pack more routes into each book. We have in our Berlin office a copy of an 1874 volume entitled Cook’s Tourist Handbook to Switzerland via Paris.

The present sequence of edition numbers dates from the mid-1990s when the book was called On the Rails Around Europe. For a couple of editions the book reverted to multiple volumes covering different parts of Europe but by 1998 Europe was reunited into a single volume. By 2003 the title had morphed into Europe by Rail.

For the first time in 2011, Europe by Rail came with the subtitle The Definitive Guide. And thus the book conspicuously connects with the past. Thomas Cook’s first tourist handbooks, written and published in the mid 1870s, were most surely the definitive handbooks for rail travellers of that period.

Since the 13th edition in 2012, the international travel company Thomas Cook has withdrawn from the published travel guidebook and timetable market. Recent editions have relied on new publishers. Recent editions of the book have been published by hidden europe publications.

It is, we think, a title with an illustrious past and a bright future. 

Susanne Kries and Nicky Gardner

Berlin, 11 February 2022