I first travelled on a sleeper train in the summer of 1999. It didn’t go brilliantly.
Earlier that day my friend Alex and I had simultaneously realised, somewhere under rucksacks at the wrong end of Paris in the middle of a heatwave, that we had both made a terrible mistake in deciding to go interrailing with our most miserable and least go-getting friend. Things had briefly been looking up when, on boarding the night train to Barcelona, it had turned out we were sharing a cabin with two English girls of our own age and background who, by a staggering coincidence, would soon be starting the same university course as Alex; they had fairly swiftly looked down again when we had predictably failed to impress them.
I barely slept that night, thanks to the banging, and the movement, and the noise made by the party of Belgian boy scouts in the surrounding cabins, one of whom was weirdly insistent on talking to me about Father Ted. By the time dawn came, and the change in rail gauge required us to switch trains somewhere near the Spanish border, and I was watching the Belgian boy scouts vanish over the horizon in the direction of Andorra, never to be seen again, I’d begun to suspect that maybe this night train thing wasn’t for me. Less than a week later, we’d given up on interrailing altogether, and decided to return, grumpily, to London. We didn’t speak again for several months.
This year, I’ve more than once had to take the Caledonian Sleeper between London and the Highlands of Scotland. I couldn’t honestly tell you whether I have mellowed, or whether it’s just that I’m not travelling with someone as miserable as I am any more, but: it has been a revelation. Sleeper trains – or at least, these sleeper trains – are an utter delight.
The trains in question, new rolling stock introduced in 2019, are, to be fair, more comfortable and less clanky than the ageing models they replaced (and which I’d travelled on during another ill-fated trip c2005; the big discovery that time was that I was too scared of falling out to sleep on the top bunk). This relative smoothness is helpful, during the previously rather noisy period in the early hours, when the train splits into or combines from Aberdeen/Inverness/Fort William components at Edinburgh Waverley. Each two-bunk cabin comes with its own sink; pricier ones also get a shower/wet room thing whose weirdly positioned shelf turns out to conceal, a little unnervingly, a toilet. (Mere plebs have to wander down the corridor.)
More than all these luxuries, though, there is simply something magical about going to bed in one place and waking up in another. You will almost certainly spend more comfortable or less cramped nights in beds that aren’t encased in hundreds of tonnes of moving metal; but those don’t allow you to wake up to find you are unexpectedly among mountains, or about to cross the Forth Bridge. Nor, unless you’re very lucky, do they provide genuinely excellent room service haggis.
There are, though, just a couple of problems with Britain’s sleepers as currently constituted. One is that they are, bluntly, not cheap. Upright seats, with lockable storage, are available for £55 a go, which is pretty good value, but not conducive to a very restful night. Cabins of the sort I described start at around four times that, which isn’t that competitive even when compared to travel and board combined. These trains are pitched less as a key link in the transport system than as an experience, for the tourist market.
The other issue is – there just aren’t that many sleeper services anymore. Half a century ago, British Rail offered night trains on almost every conceivable route, plus quite a few that don’t seem that conceivable at all: London to both south and north Wales; the south west to north west; to Leeds and Barrow and almost every corner of Scotland. (There’s a map, dating from c1975, here.)
These days, though, there are really only a handful. Aside from its three-headed Highland route, the Caledonian Sleeper runs a lowland one, which sets off later and trundles slower to link London with Glasgow and Edinburgh. (That one splits at Carstairs.) Then there’s the Night Riviera, from London to Cornwall. And that’s it: trains are faster and planes cheaper than they once were, more people have cars, and this island just isn’t big enough to support that many sleeper services. More than that, the rail network isn’t a public service anymore. It is, from some perspectives, sad.
Europe-wide, though, sleeper trains might just be making a comeback. Like Britain, the continent has fewer night trains than it once did, and for many of the same reasons. But it still has plenty, helpfully mapped by architect and cartographer Jug Cerovic here.
And both environmental and cost pressures to take fewer short-haul flights could lead to a revival. In Germany’s 2021 elections, the Green Party campaigned in part on proposals for a continent-wide network of night trains, linking Europe’s major cities and holiday destinations, to discourage air travel. They even got the crayons out to make their own potential map:
Making that a reality would involve some infrastructure improvements, and tinkering with the tax regime to ensure trains are more attractive than planes. It could also do with a single, customer-friendly booking platform: at the moment, working out how to get about by train often involves a lot of time frowning at different company websites, decoded in part by helpful sites like The Man In Seat 61.
Nonetheless, not for the first time, looking at that map I found myself dreaming of a world in which going on holiday means going to bed on a train in one city, and waking up in another. And hey – you can even do Paris to Barcelona without changing trains at the border, now.
Jonn Elledge is a journalist and editor who specialises in transport and local government. Former assistant editor of the New Statesman.
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