Train on time? Why of course?

How railways paved the way for timezones

Today we’re travelling back in time to an era where Paris, Milan, Madrid, Hamburg and Copenhagen weren’t yet part of the same time zone. An era where local time was so local that even within a country like France towns and cities set their own pace and adjusted clocks often in relation to sunrise and sunset. Which is to say that asking a stranger ‘do you have the time?’ really was a perfectly natural thing to do; it was different basically everywhere.

Right up until the start of the nineteenth century, this is simply how things were: sunlight was the metronome that defined the time wherever you went. But as communication between different regions and countries became easier, it was necessary to regulate the time system. Throughout that transformative century, the railways helped unlock societies and better connect towns and cities across the Continent. And what better reason to introduce a time system that was uniform across regions, nations and continents than to make sure people didn’t miss their trains?

Rail networks acted as cross-border connectors in a world soon to be globalised. And as this happened, so too our ways of telling the time became more uniform. But inevitably, this wasn’t without controversy: on a national level, the time in a certain city was usually imposed on all regions throughout the country. This was the case in France, which chose Paris time, and Italy, which opted for Turin.

Little by little – and it took decades in some places – all countries began to ensure their clocks were in harmony to meet train-timetabling demands. It foretold the advent of a world structured around time zones.

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