The idea for Cook's Continental Time Tables was that of an employee, John Bredall, who later became Company Secretary. Bradshaw's Continental Guide had started in 1847 and already showed rail times on the Continent, but it attempted to be comprehensive and had become a very large volume of over 1000 pages. Mr Bredall's proposal was for a slimmer volume, described in the early issues as "a Cheap, Concise and Simple Guide to All the Principal Lines of Railway, Steamers and Diligences on the Continent of Europe", and he was given the job of bringing the idea to fruition. The principle of carefully selecting those stations and trains which are of most use to the readers has remained to the present day.
The first edition appeared in March 1873 and, although carrying a price of one shilling, was "merely issued for the purpose of being freely distributed to Railway Officials and others interested in such publications, for their corrections and revision, and for the purpose of soliciting Advertisements". Regular publication commenced with the June 1873 edition and continued four times per year, becoming monthly from January 1883. After various title changes the timetable became the European Rail Timetable in January 2005. For further details of the history of the timetable see the Timeline and Title Changes pages.
During the 1970s the timetable began to show an increasing amount of information on services outside Europe, and eventually the decision was made to expand this content and make it into a separate publication. The Overseas Timetable duly commenced in January 1981, following a pilot issue the previous year which was distributed free, rather like the original March 1873 timetable. The Overseas Timetable appeared six times per year, but was discontinued at the end of 2010 following a financial review. In order to continue coverage of rail services in countries outside Europe, the 'Beyond Europe' section of the European Rail Timetable commenced the following year, with six sections each appearing twice yearly. Today, the monthly digital editions and the quarterly printed editions contain all of the Beyond Europe sections.
A reprint of the original March 1873 edition was published by Thomas Cook in 2013 and copies were available from the new publisher of the timetable, European Rail Timetable Ltd, but is currently out of stock.
Thomas Cook possessed a unique collection of archive material in Peterborough covering every aspect of the company's history, including an archive set of timetables. With the demise of Thomas Cook, the archive transferred to the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland, which is based at Wigston, recognising Thomas Cook's early association with Leicester. A portion of the archive has been catalogued and is available to search online.