When I’m in a sleeper train I can hardly sleep, such is my state of expectation. Everything from the beautiful ticket to the unsociable departure time and the identity of other passengers can stir up excitement.
Once in the cozy room provided with white clothes, the door closed, you can hear the noise of furtive passengers in the hall, preparations and greetings, a drink cart. Sometimes I am torn between sitting down to eat in the dining car or eating in my compartment.
Another important option comes at bedtime: draw the blind or not. Do I want night skies and bright seasons, or the ink-black privacy of my mobile phone? The lexicon of the night trains is a lulling lyric from Kraftwerk: with wagon light, sleeper, Trans Euro Night, Orient Express, sleeper. Then there is the therum-thererum, of iron wheels passing over fish plates, precisely the rhythm of a rocking cradle.
So last week’s announcement that the excellently-named French company Midnight Trains will relaunch sleeper services from 12 cities starting in 2024 is the best travel news I’ve heard in years. Europe’s once dreamy night train network, which lasted from the 19th century to the 1980s, has been shrinking in recent decades, thanks to high operating costs, privatization, and the increase in five-pound flight. That we can relive the fine art of overnight train travel could be one of the best legacies of the pandemic. A slower, greener and safer way to travel just doesn’t exist. Everything (almost) about sleeper trains is beautiful.
I don’t think I can remember more than three flights of the scores I have obtained. But I remember every sleeper train ride. My first experience was during a couple of Interrails in the 1980s, when I used night services to save on hotels and cover long distances. I was a travel virgin, and climbing capital cities and rail terminals was a big problem for me. I didn’t have the money for upgrades, so I rode in seated carriages or shared with strangers, as well as my traveling companion – a friend on my first big trip of a month, a girlfriend the next.
Every trip brought me little epiphanies. Sleepers often slow down at night for line maintenance: On a long break on a Madrid-Rome train, I rolled down my window to look at the French Riviera from an elevated point of view. The sultry night came, a million white lights flickering over the bay of Cannes, Nice or Monaco.
On a last minute winter break, a sleeper from Tangier to Marrakech allowed two friends and I to ditch the hotel package we had booked and swap a city with a hashish-fuzzy French feeling for a more Arabic one. The trip took us through Casablanca, which is not a tourist destination despite the movie. I glanced at dawn to see industrial estates and suburban sprawl. I was not disappointed. I wasn’t going to stay there.
On an Interrail I took when I turned 50, there weren’t many sleeping services available and almost none on the route I wanted to take. But I got only one compartment from Berlin to Vienna. It was a train operated by the Czech Republic, and I was served Hungarian goulash in my compartment. I slept little as I had made a trip in the opposite direction 30 years earlier and as we were approaching Prague I looked outside to see the city. I didn’t recognize anything, but the memories rolled all night.
The end of a trip in bed is nothing like a normal arrival. The pong of the sewers in Paris, the musical notes of the tannoy in Amsterdam, the meeting lines of the travelers in the central station of Berlin… the most banal things seem transcendental. The traveler on the night train lives against the current, in another clock. The stations become places of pilgrimage. Saying goodbye to the train is heartbreaking.
What a great European invention! Except it isn’t. As early as 1837, first-class passengers on some trains between London and the North West of England were invited to rest on makeshift beds made with straps slung between the seats. Queen adelaide he had a private sleeping car adapted from this model.
In 1865, George Pullman launched his luxurious Pioneer sleeping carriage, with upper and lower berths, in the US On this side of the Atlantic, the first true sleeper was operated by the British Northern Railway on the coast line. east between King’s Cross and Glasgow in 1873.
Just before closing, the Caledonia Sleeper launched new bedrooms in its London to Scotland services. To be honest, they seem a bit corporate to me, but interior decorating was never the draw on those trips. When I had Euston sleepers, the highlights were the single malt whiskeys, the talks with the Munro packers, the haggis dinners (probably in the microwave, but haggis always tastes great), and most of all, the wonder of waking up with the reddish and purple of the Highlands. .
Sadly, London to Fort William for two currently costs £ 865 round trip, so you’d have to be a Queen Adelaide (or Scottish MP, maybe) to use the Cally. That’s the main qualifier for “almost” in my perfect sleeper image. Hopefully Midnight Trains can keep its prices competitive in the interest of the common people and the planet.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism