How sleeper trains became the great comeback kids

Petroc Trelawny
·9-min read
Travel 2,700 miles across Australia on the Indian Pacific
Travel 2,700 miles across Australia on the Indian Pacific

At just after 9.15pm each weeknight, I hear a familiar sound from outside the window of my north London flat. The gentle whine of the locomotive pulling the Caledonian Sleeper as it passes through Camden Town a few minutes after its departure from Euston station. Sometimes I open the blind and look down to the cutting below, watching the dark green metal snake, 13-carriages long, as it begins its journey north.

During the first lockdown, I would ponder who was travelling, who was permitted to make the overnight journey to Dunkeld and Birnam, Dalwhinnie or Aviemore. Now I view the train’s nightly passing as something reassuring, a symbol of continuity in confusing times. Not even Covid-19 can stop the London to Inverness night express.

The last time I took a sleeper was on Jan 1 2020, part of a journey from Vienna to eastern Slovakia. An unprepossessing suburban shuttle carried me across the Austrian frontier to Bratislava’s Soviet-era railway terminus, its main hall dominated by an elaborate mural showing workers being freed from their chains. The smell of gently sweating hot dogs from a würstelstand hung heavily in the air; a small group of passengers sat on the plastic benches around the digital departure board, surrounded by their suitcases, overpacked plastic bags and sleeping children.

Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant in North by Northwest - Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images Contributor
Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant in North by Northwest - Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images Contributor

Eventually came news of the departure of the night express to Presov. We all trooped out on to the freezing platform. Jets of steam shot from the pipes warming the handful of carriages, two filled with seats, one with couchettes and, at the rear, my sleeper coach.

The friendly attendant showed me to my berth, stopping to point out his stash of miniature bottles of whiskey, vodka and schnapps, available for a few euros each should I require a nightcap. My cosy, Formica-panelled compartment had a table, with washbasin underneath, wardrobe, hat stand, and a narrow bed covered with rough cotton duvet.

We departed Bratislava just before 11pm. I tried to read my book, but soon drifted off, stirring once or twice as we jolted over a rough set of points, and finally falling into a deep sleep. I was woken, on arrival at Kosice just after 7am, by passengers shouting at each other as they gathered their belongings. Most disembarked here, but I had 25 miles to go. The steward brought me a long-life croissant and a plastic cup filled with lukewarm instant coffee. I washed and dressed, saving bars of Slovak State Railways soap as a souvenir.

We arrived in Presov just before 8am. I spotted my host waving from the end of the platform – a countess who had managed to repossess her old family house, seized under communism. Swathed in layers of fur to protect her from the morning chill, she hugged me tightly and promised that a hearty breakfast was waiting for us at home.

Bedding down for the night - Trude Westby/Trude Westby
Bedding down for the night - Trude Westby/Trude Westby

I have always relished travelling by sleeper, delighting in the idea of tucking myself up in bed in one location, and waking up hundreds of miles away at another. The train relentlessly ploughs through the night, its passengers tossing and turning, eventually finding sleep and dreams in their tiny moving bedrooms. Even if the destination is unpromising or the rolling-stock chipped and dowdy, the glamour epitomised by Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint’s nocturnal railway meeting in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest is never completely out of reach.

When I boarded the service to Victoria Falls at Bulawayo, the Zimbabwe Railways attendant was dressed in a grimy white tuxedo. He proudly pointed to the switches that operated my cabin’s lights, and the fold-down steel basin, before handing me a bundle of sheets and blankets. Later, as we rolled through the African bush, I discovered that there was no electricity or running water in the carriage, which had been built in Birmingham in the early 1950s. I woke to the smell of woodsmoke from the morning fires lit by the residents of trackside villages, the sun highlighting a rich patina of historical stains on my bedding.

My cabin in a new coach on Russian Railway’s 50-hour Moscow-Nice service boasted a double bed and a powerful shower. Perfect scrambled eggs and a wide selection of vodkas were available in the dining car. Some of the stops were long enough safely to leave the train; we had beers in Bohumin, the Crewe of the Czech Republic, and a double espresso from the kiosk in front of Verona’s Porta Nuova station.

Once, I tried to recreate the old Orient Express, taking a mix of sleepers and day trains from London to Istanbul. Connections in Paris, Munich and Budapest were fairly straightforward; it was only on arrival at Bucharest’s grand Gara de Nord that I discovered that the line on to Turkey was blocked, and was expected to remain so for several weeks. I booked a plane ticket instead, but was left with a nagging sense of failure; landing at Istanbul airport was not the same as gently rolling into Sirkeci station, its platforms adjacent to the Bosporus.

Budapest's main railway station, Keleti exterior - BalkansCat
Budapest's main railway station, Keleti exterior - BalkansCat

Sleeper cars – or bed carriages as they were first called – date back to the late 1830s. They were key to the operations of railways around the world for 150 years. Before the First World War, night expresses operating on the Austro-Hungarian Imperial railway system covered much of Europe, running over a network stretching from Trieste to Krakow, Sarajevo to Czernowitz. Perhaps with an eye to history, when French and German railways starting axing sleepers in the mid-2010s, Austria’s ÖBB kept its trains running.

Now, in a partnership with operators such as SNCF and Deutsche Bahn, ÖBB is extending its services. Its 18 Nightjet trains link Austria with Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, Italy and Switzerland. Last year, it started twice-weekly sleepers from Brussels to Vienna, enabling passengers from London to reach the Austrian capital with just one change. By 2024, the company expects to have taken delivery of 33 new night trains, and will add direct sleepers between Vienna, Berlin and Paris; and Zurich, Amsterdam and Barcelona. “Whenever a new Nightjet route is opened, we see the success immediately,” says Andreas Mattha, chief executive of ÖBB. “There is high demand for many more night train lines in Europe.” This enthusiasm seems to be catching; Swedish Railways plans night trains between Malmo and Brussels, and Stockholm and Hamburg from 2022, and in April, SNCF will relaunch a Paris-Nice service, though with couchettes rather than private berths.

It was the arrival of low-cost airlines that seemed to herald the demise of the sleeper. But our increasing awareness of the environmental impact of flying has helped them back into the game. Our Covid-19-induced desire to be safely apart from other travellers strengthens their case further. And let’s not forget the romance of the night train. When the pandemic has passed, I’ll see you at the station. The commuters will have made their way home much earlier, the dark of night will be visible through the great glass roof of the terminus with bright arc-lights illuminating the platform. I’ll be the one with a battered valise under my arm and a ticket in my hand, hoping to sleep my way towards Penzance or Aberdeen, Milan or Moscow.

Travel from Trondheim to Bodo on Norway’s 450-mile Nordland Line
Travel from Trondheim to Bodo on Norway’s 450-mile Nordland Line
The sleeper trains of my dreams: five fantastic journeys to take in your lifetime

London-Penzance

The Night Riviera to Penzance was nearly axed in 2005, but was saved after protests from a coalition of Cornish businesspeople, politicians and second-home owners from London. The train departs Paddington just before midnight. Make sure you secure one of the bar stools in the lounge-car for a nightcap. Throw your cabin blind open to the morning sun as the service crosses Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge over the Tamar, and ask for your pot of tea and bacon roll to be served at Truro. Look out for St Michael’s Mount, and breathe in the sea air before arrival in Penzance at 8am. Booking early is essential, especially in the summer. gwr.com

Paris-Venice

Independent operator Thello runs this three-class service – with couchettes, and standard or premium sleeper berths; the premium berths come with private shower. Have a long late lunch at the Gare de Lyon’s ornate Le Train Bleu restaurant before departure at 7.15pm. Next morning, make sure your bags are packed and you are in the bar car by Padua, in time for a croissant and a double espresso as you cross the bridge to Venice. Five minutes after arrival, you’ll be on a vaporetto heading down the Grand Canal. thello.com

Perth-Sydney

A king of sleepers – 2,700 miles across Australia on the Indian Pacific. If Sydney is your destination, fly to Perth and the three nights on board will eat up any jet lag. The route passes through mountain ranges, subtropical savannah, desert and goldfields, and includes the longest stretch of straight track in the world, 300 miles across the Nullarbor Plain. Sadly, economy-class sleepers were axed in 2016 and the service now focuses on the higher end of the market. Platinum Class offers double beds and a lounge car with sofas; barramundi and grilled kangaroo are served in the Queen Adelaide restaurant. journeybeyondrail.com.au

Trondheim-Bodo

The first stage of Norway’s 450-mile Nordland Line opened in 1882; a stretch of its central section was built under Nazi occupation by a workforce that included prisoners of war. The route was finally finished in 1962. Travelling north, the Saltfjellet mountain range marks the start of the Arctic Circle. The train leaves the ancient university town of Trondheim at 11.27pm arriving 10 hours later at Bodo, from where ferries sail to the Lofoten Islands. Hope to see the northern lights in winter, while summer’s midnight sun allows for all-night views of fjords and forests stretching out alongside the track. entur.no

Munich-Budapest

Kalman Imre was a Hungarian composer who dominated the world of operetta, in Budapest and then Vienna. His name has been given to the night train that departs Munich just before midnight and, after an early-morning stop in Vienna, arrives in Budapest just after 9am. There are two stops in the Hungarian capital – the first, Kelenfold, is in the suburbs but is on the underground. Better to stay on a little longer and revel in the grandeur of the Keleti terminus, with its Imperial and Royal waiting room, and statues of railway pioneers James Watt and George Stephenson adorning the facade. tickets.oebb.at

Petroc Trelawny presents Breakfast on BBC Radio 3. Travel within the UK and overseas was subject to restrictions at time of publishing; check the relevant guidance before booking and travelling.