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I'm writing historical fiction set in 1870 (June, some weeks before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war) in which some of the protagonists are traveling by train across Europe, from Calais to Vienna.

The feasibility of this journey is clear, and I even have a railway map.

Okay, that's nine years earlier, so it doesn't show e.g. the Calais to Boulogne link which was only operational in spring 1870, but it seems to show the links relevant to this journey; looks like the shortest route is Calais - Douai - Liège - Cologne - Koblenz - Mainz - Darmstadt, then either Nuremberg or Stuttgart.

Overall distance is not trivial to reckon exactly. Google says the driving distance from Calais to Vienna nowadays is 1303 km, 810 miles. That's plotting the shortest distance on today's road network, which of course is not a perfectly straight line. But the routes on the above rail map look by eyeball estimate significantly less straight. How much less? Don't know. At a guess, maybe rounding up to 900 miles.

How fast are trains at this time? That's also not trivial to get exact numbers for; most of the results for historical train speeds, talk about maximum momentary velocity achievable in a demo, which is very different from average speed in normal operation. But there seems to be something of a consensus that 20-30 mph was a realistic figure. To take into account time spent stopping at stations on the way, say the lower end of that range is a reasonable ballpark figure, 20 mph, so the 900 mile journey would take 45 hours total. If anyone has more exact figures, I would appreciate them!

The thing I am most unclear about is how the timetabling works. A search for actual train timetables for Europe in the late nineteenth century, has found everything except actual train timetables!

The simplest scenario would be if you could get on a train at Calais, spend forty-five hours occupying yourself brushing up your German or talking to fellow passengers, and get off at Vienna, but did it work like that? Probably there are breaks along the way to change trains, but how many and how long? Did the trains run 24x7, or would there be times when one train drops you off in a city at 1 a.m. and the next one does not depart until 7 a.m.?

One thing I have found evidence for is that the day of the week doesn't matter much

When excursion trains first appeared, it was common practice to run them on Sundays. Sunday observance affected the provision of railway services from the start and there was a conflict between the prompting of conscience and the pressing claims for business efficiency. The Sunday timetable, as the system developed in the 1840s and 1850s, came to differ widely from one railway to another but two generalisations can be made. First, the Post Office was empowered to compel railways to carry mail at any time it appointed; and since it had both to deliver and collect letters on Sundays it insisted on the provision of a good many Sunday mail trains. This was uneconomic for the railway companies and so nearly all mail trains also carried passengers. Secondly, on all British railways the Sunday service was very much less liberal than that offered on weekdays unlike continental Europe where there was very little difference. RichardJohnBR

So Sunday travel in Britain is complicated, but on the Continent, according to the above, was not a problem. But I have not been able to find anything yet about the influence of time of day.

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2 Answers 2

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The excellent Timetable World website makes old railway, bus, and airline timetables available on the Internet. Obviously covering every possible route on every possible date would be a monumental task, but the following timetables straddle your request:

Don't be surprised if it takes you a few minutes to get the hang of the Timetable World interface. It does not open a PDF showing one page at a time, as you might expect. Instead, it shows all the pages and then you zoom in on the ones you want to see, as if you were looking at an online map. This is effective because timetables are often spread across multiple pages and have different orientations (even on the same page!). You can use the bookmark icon (the one with a star) in the top left-hand corner to open the table of contents.

You will also need to put a little bit of effort into understanding Bradshaw's Continental Railway Guide; 19th century travellers talked about it in the same way that people today complain about the mysteries of the Facebook algorithm or online banking.

Let's use your example of Calais to Vienna. Because Bradshaw's was published primarily for British travellers, the easiest way is to see the possibilities is to go to the 1866 Through Routes bookmark and look at the London-Vienna route (page i*, which is not the same as page i or page 1, so use the bookmark). So you can see that at this date you could settle down in your carriage in London at 7.25 a.m. and relax, knowing that you could stay in the same seat on the same ticket until you arrived in the Austrian capital at 9.30 a.m. the following morning. I don't know whether this train stopped or even passed through Calais (many train ferries used Boulogne on the French side of the Channel). You would need to cross-reference the arrival time in Paris against the times listed for the Calais-Paris route to see whether you could join the through train in Calais or would need to make a connection at another point. It might be faster to just get the fastest train from Calais to Paris and then look at the Paris-Vienna timetable.

For 1880, you could find Vienna in the List of Most Direct Routes (p.8 or use the bookmark), which helpfully lists a London-Vienna route via Calais, with more details on p.80 (which is under the Belgian Railway Timetables bookmark because the route goes via Brussels).

If you are interested in this era you are presumably aware that the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 resulted in border changes and therefore the 1866 guide is probably closer to 1870 than 1880. But of course four years is enough time that there would be routine changes anyway. If it's critically important that you have exact times for a particular date in 1870, a 19th century book specialist might be able to get you a copy of the Bradshaw's for that exact month, but be prepared to pay hundreds of dollars/euros/pounds if it's available at all. Unfortunately the main alternative, Cook's Continental Time Table, was not published until 1873.

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    Here it says the Orient express took "2 nights + 1 day" from Paris to Vienna. Are you sure you haven't missed one day of travel time? Otherwise the average speed would have had to be almost 100 km/h, not counting the ferry passage!
    – ccprog
    Commented Oct 2, 2022 at 2:58
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    Also, on p. 6 of Bradshaw 1866 it says London - Vienna takes 74 hours via Cologne and 80 hours via Paris (probably the route through Strasbourg). Finally, it is impossible to go from Calais to Strasbourg without changing the carriage, even today. In Paris, trains from the north end at Gare du Nord, trains to the east start from Gare de l'Est. At the time, travellers would either walk (it's only 500 meters) or take a horse carriage to get from one to the other.
    – ccprog
    Commented Oct 2, 2022 at 6:07
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    The Channel Tunnel was not completed until 1994. It would have been impossible to take a train from Britain to the Continent before then without getting onto a boat. The guide in fact says that the trip across the English Channel was by steamer (boat).
    – Davislor
    Commented Oct 2, 2022 at 9:12
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    @Davislor apparently, at various times between 1936 and 1980 it would have been possible via the Night Ferry, in which the train carriages were loaded onto a boat and offloaded again without needing to disembark the train, if you were in a first class sleeping car. I suppose nothing similar would have existed in 1870, though I don't know.
    – N. Virgo
    Commented Oct 2, 2022 at 12:41
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    (There are some similar services still operating today in Europe.)
    – N. Virgo
    Commented Oct 2, 2022 at 12:49
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Why Calais to Cologne? Ostend to Cologne would be easier and mail boats from Dover started 1846. Rail connections between Ostend through Cologne onwards to Vienna would have existed after 1860.

The first "fast train", introduced on the 16th of September 1861, between Vienna (over Brùnn, Prague, Dresden, Leipzig, Hannover) to Cologne took 32 hours 15 minutes and continued on to Paris (13 hours 5 minutes ; alltogeather 45 hours 20 minutes).

The 1866 version of Bradshaw's (page 311, PDF: 418) for Cologne, shows the route to Vienna over Dresden as the only route. The 1875 version (page 424, PDF: 489) also shows Stuttgart and Munich as alternative routes.

Both show the route to London over Ostende (22 hours) as the first and Calais (26 hours) as an alternative.

The route to Paris from Cologne (Köln) is not meantioned in the newspaper notice shown below.

From @ccprog:
The route to Paris would have been either

  • Köln - Aachen - Liège (Rheinische Eisenbahngesellschaft) - Bruxelles Nord - Gent - Mouscron (Chemin de fer de l'État belge) - Lille - Paris Nord (Compagnie de Chemins de fer du Nord) or
  • Köln - Aachen - Liège - Namur - Charleroi - Jeumont (Compagnie du Nord-Belge, a susidiary of the French Chemins de fer du Nord) - Creil - Paris Nord (Compagnie de Chemins de fer du Nord).

Gent is the station where a train to Paris would leave the main line from Bruxelles to Oostende.
A train from Calais could divert to Bruxelles at Lille.


Railway Time vs. LMT

On the 1st of June 1891, Railway time (UTC+1) was intoduced in Austria and Germany for the railways, replacing the used Prague and Berlin times (Prussia only) which were used in train schedules until then (and were different from the Local Mean Time (LMT) used in the individual cities).

The Berlin time was rounded to the nearest ¼ minute for the individual cities when it was introduced on the 18th of January 1848 as prussian railway time.

  • Cities within the Western European Time Zone (UTC+0)
    • Amsterdam (UTC+0:19:32.13)
    • Brussels (UTC+0:17:30)
    • Dublin (UTC-0:25:21)
    • Lisbon (UTC-0:36:45)
    • London (UTC-0:1:15)
    • Madrid (UTC-0:14:44)
    • Paris (UTC+0:09:21)
  • Cities within the Central European Time Zone (UTC+1)
    • Berlin (UTC+0:53:36)
    • Bern (UTC+0:29:45.5)
    • Budapest (UTC+1:16:20)
    • Copenhagen (UTC+0:50:20)
    • Frankfurt/Main (UTC+0:34:44)
    • Geneva (UTC+0:24:34.39)
    • Hamburg (UTC+0:39:53.81)
    • Karlsruhe (UTC+0:33:38.4)
    • Königsberg (UTC+1:21:58.60)
    • Ludwigshafen (UTC+0:33:47)
    • Munich (UTC+0:46:12)
    • Oslo (UTC+0:43:00)
    • Prague (UTC+0:57:41.5)
    • Rome (UTC+0:49:56)
    • Stockholm (UTC+1:12:12)
    • Stuttgart (UTC+0:36:40.8)
    • Vienna (UTC+1:05:20.2)
    • Zürich (UTC+0:34:08)

Sources:

Since 1846 mail boats had been sailing between Oostende (Ostend) in Belgium and Dover in England, connecting to the railways on both sides.

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    The route to Paris would have been either Köln - Aachen - Liège (Rheinische Eisenbahngesellschaft) - Bruxelles Nord - Gent - Mouscron (Chemin de fer de l'État belge) - Lille - Paris Nord (Compagnie de Chemins de fer du Nord) or Köln - Aachen - Liège - Namur - Charleroi - Jeumont (Compagnie du Nord-Belge, a susidiary of the French Chemins de fer du Nord) - Creil - Paris Nord (Compagnie de Chemins de fer du Nord). Gent is the station where a train to Paris would leave the main line from Bruxelles to Oostende. A train from Calais could divert to Bruxelles at Lille.
    – ccprog
    Commented Oct 2, 2022 at 16:39

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