The ABC Murders: What was The ABC Railway Guide?

The real history behind the train handbook in the John Malkovich BBC1 drama

John Malkovich as Hercule Poirot in The ABC Murders

The ABC Murders: an unforgettable tale of a mysterious murderer, a genius detective named Hercule Poirot and, um, a train handbook. Yes, at the heart of the BBC’s new Agatha Christie adaptation starring John Malkovich and Rupert Grint lies the ABC Railway Guide, the one intriguing clue the killer leaves by the body of his many victims.


But what exactly is this little book? And is it still made today? Let us push aside the murders and compelling hunt for a serial killer to tell you everything you need to know about this historic train guide.

Things are about to get wild…

What is The ABC Railway Guide?

Basically, was a timetable and guidebook to Britain’s railways, full of information about services to and from all parts of the country (listed in alphabetical order, hence the book’s name), distances, fares, populations and hotels.

From 1853 travellers could find an up-to-date copy of these guidebooks in most hotels, libraries and businesses. You can peek inside the 1958 version here.

The book was a key rival to Bradshaw’s Railway Guide, the handbook Michael Portillo used in documentary series Great British Railway Journeys (not to help track down a serial killer, mind).

Does The ABC Railway Guide exist any more?

Yes. You can find an online version of the guide here. It doesn’t contain any timetable information, but does provide a searchable database of station, level crossing and bridge co-ordinates, which we’re sure Hercule would have found useful.

Also, every year an ABC Rail Guide is printed, advertised as essential for the “modern-day railway enthusiast”.

The book provides “full numeric listings of all UK locomotive stock fleets, information on all the passenger TOCs with maps, as well as information on engineering and infrastructure operators and private train operator fleets, and also a numeric listing of track machines and on-track plant.”

In other words, a great gift for a hardcore trainspotter or Belgium detective, an extremely puzzling one for anyone else.


This article was originally published in December 2018

Sign up for the free newsletter