October 4, 2021

There is a marvellous French advert from 1973, encouraging people to use the services of the state railway company, SNCF. A woman wearing chic jewellery, and not much else, lies on her bed, dozing gently, above the slogan Une Nuit en Voiture-Lit: “one night in a sleeping car”. The British equivalents, for the Highland Sleeper, tend to stress the delights of eating a hearty breakfast overlooking the Scottish landscape — in case you have ever doubted that all national stereotypes are true. But even when you’re departing from Euston station, there is something irresistibly glamorous about a sleeper train.

Hollywood has long understood this. Hitchcock’s classic, North By Northwest, for instance, finds Cary Grant seducing Eva Marie Saint — or is it the other way round? — aboard The Twentieth Century Limited, a luxurious overnight service that ran between New York and Chicago for more than sixty years. And James Bond, of course, has found himself speeding through the dark with a lady companion on more than one occasion.

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The golden age of sleepers is behind us, of course — in Europe, anyway. They arose in the open and cosmopolitan atmosphere before the First World War. Then, there was a service that ran all the way from St Petersburg to Paris, a distance of some 1700 miles. It was known as the Nord Express. Because of the difference in track gauge between the Russian and German Empires, you had to change at their border, in an East Prussian town called Eydtkuhnen. But once you were past that obstacle, it was plain sailing across the North European Plain, via Berlin and Cologne, to the City of Light.

Like so many good things that thrived before 1914, the inspiringly international sleeper fell victim to the twin cataclysms of war and totalitarianism. The Nord Express, for instance, never fully resumed after the Great War, because the Bolshevik revolution had closed off Russia. Between the wars its eastern terminus was Warsaw, by then the capital of a newly independent Poland.

But at the same time the Nord Express was in its pomp, Tsarist Russia was completing the infrastructure for what remains the longest sleeper service in the world, the Trans-Siberian Express, which travels more than 5000 miles from Moscow to Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East.

And then there was the Sud Express, a service which connected Lisbon, Madrid, Paris and London until the late 1930s. Before the arrival of Covid-19, the Sud Express still existed as an overnight service — albeit in curtailed form, between Lisbon and the extreme west of the Franco-Spanish border. But at that time, it seemed as though the era of the night train was drawing to a close. In March 2017, The Guardian published “A requiem for the overnight sleeper”. Back then Deutsche Bahn, the German national operator, was said to be discontinuing all overnight services, while in France — home of the famous Blue Train, which ran from Paris to the Riviera for more than a century — the SNCF was suspending sleepers from the French capital. No more thrilling nights in sleeping cars with mysterious, scantily clad mademoiselles!

The future of the sleeper was threatened not only by cheap air travel but also by the development of high-speed rail, which was radically reducing journey times. Even the Orient Express, most celebrated of long-distance trains, which celebrates its birthday today, vanished from European timetables in 2009, having gradually reduced its range over the years. Once upon a time it had taken passengers between Paris and Istanbul, but by the end it was plying the Strasbourg to Vienna route — a sorry diminishment from the service’s heyday.

Happily, it now seems like the requiem to the European sleeper may have been premature. A couple of weeks ago, Train Twitter was alight with excitement at the German Green Party’s plans to create a whole new generation of trans-European sleeper services — from Oslo, Stockholm and Tallinn in the North to Barcelona, Naples, Athens and Istanbul in the South. It is unclear whether all these planned routes are entirely realistic. One of the suggestions is for trains to run direct from London to Berlin, Warsaw, Rome and Madrid, using the Channel Tunnel — but some have pointed out that the logistical difficulties of running further services through the tunnel, on top of the existing Eurostar and freight traffic, are considerable.

Whatever the practical difficulties, the ambition is striking, and it follows other promising developments. January 2020 saw the debut of a Brussels-Vienna sleeper run by Nightjet, meaning that you can have lunch in London and be at the Wien Hauptbahnhof by breakfast-time the following day, with a single change in the EU capital. With a bit of luck you might catch a glorious sunrise along the Danube. This spring the same company launched a Brussels-Prague service, via Berlin and Dresden.

There’s also talk of night trains between Hamburg and Stockholm, making use of the magnificent Oresund crossing between Denmark and Sweden, a remarkable piece of civil engineering that combines both tunnel and bridge. Meanwhile, a company called Midnight Trains has proposed overnight services from Paris to all points of the compass, including Edinburgh and Venice.

These signs of resurgence may be linked to the growing recognition by governments that short-haul flying is a serious environmental problem. But the pandemic’s evisceration of the airline industry — proving how vulnerable it is — may also be a catalyst.

Perhaps, though, travellers find the adventure of the sleeper train irresistible after all. Unlike flying, taking a long-distance sleeper allows you to really feel the distance you are traversing. At stations en route you will hear new accents and languages, and see different architectural styles. Depending on the time of year and what time you decide to turn in, you can watch the landscape change around you. Getting a solid night’s sleep and still not being at your destination is a semi-conscious reminder that the world is actually a big place. Whereas flying compresses distance and flattens diversity, the sleeper, with its gradual change and human scale, tends to emphasise variety. It makes the traveller more curious.

And as often as not, when it is finally time to leave, you walk straight out into the heart of a new city, with all its unusual rhythms and sights — rather than into a sterile airport terminal, all of which look the same. Even in an age when Big Steel and Big Glass are trying to make all cities look identical, many places retain a distinct character in their historic centres — which is where you tend to find railway terminuses.

Without doubt, reports of the death of the night train was greatly exaggerated. Indeed, we are potentially looking not at a mere stay of execution, but a fully-fledged revival. What may not survive, of course, is the “city break”, developed at the turn of the millennium thanks to super-cheap flights. But that may be no bad thing. Flying deprives us of much of the adventure — the glamour — of travel. Surely anyone with even the slightest glimmer of romance in their soul will feel a frisson of excitement on the day when the likes of Copenhagen, Barcelona and Stockholm join Paris and Amsterdam on the departures board at St Pancras.