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The romance of sleeper trains Overnight services should make a comeback

LĂ©a Seydoux on a sleeper train in the previous James Bond film, Spectre. Credit: IMDB

LĂ©a Seydoux on a sleeper train in the previous James Bond film, Spectre. Credit: IMDB


October 4, 2021   5 mins

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.

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.


Niall Gooch is a public sector worker and occasional writer who lives in Kent.

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Alexander Morrison
Alexander Morrison
2 years ago

I remember taking the rump ‘Orient Express’ back in 1998, when it still ran from Budapest’s Keleti station to Paris – not the most luxurious of trains, but still exciting. I was sorry to hear of its demise and happy that it has now effectively been revived – the Brussels-Vienna link is a brilliant idea and one that deserves to succeed.
I think some credit should be given to the Austrian state railways for saving and then reviving sleeper services across Europe – Nightjet is run by them, and is responsible for most of the new services which have appeared so far. They were the ones who took over a lot of the routes and carriages abandoned by Deutsche Bahn ten years ago, and they were already announcing further expansion back in 2016. They have turned Vienna into a hub from which you can reach Budapest, Trieste and lots of other points east by sleeper from Western Europe.
Also, while the Bolshevik revolution did indeed cut Russia off from most connections to Western Europe, there is a night train between Berlin and Moscow, which I have taken in both directions (they now lift the train onto new bogeys at Brest-Litovsk rather than Eydtkuhnen). And the former USSR itself is still a paradise for lovers of the sleeper train – not just the Transsiberian, which is rather over-rated (six days looking at pine forests), but the luxurious Moscow-Petersburg overnight trains, Riga – Moscow, trains to destinations such as Orenburg or Ufa in the Ural (a comfortable 24hr journey) or, best of all, into Central Asia, to Almaty or Tashkent, where you fall asleep after passing the Volga and wake up in the steppe, surrounded by camels. Every carriage has its own samovar, ensuring a constant supply of tea – very civilised indeed!

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

Whatever the reason, I would support train travel. It is enjoyable and relaxing, unlike airports. My last time on a sleeper was on Amtrak from New Orleans to New York and I loved the experience. I wonder how long distance Amtrak is doing now.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago

Mr Biden is very keen on Amtrak, wants to modernise and expand. But who knows?
I had a wonderful experience on the Silver Star (Richmond Va to Tampa) many years ago, reading Winnie the Pooh to my 3 year old daughter in her bunk with the cabin door open. When I turned round, there was a crowd behind me listening!

Dave Corby
Dave Corby
2 years ago

I have an Amtrak sleeper booked for my wife’s birthday this month.
New York to Charleston (and back!).
We are looking forward to the journey as well as the chance to visit such a famous city and the hope of some warmer weather.

Su Mac
Su Mac
2 years ago
Reply to  Dave Corby

You set me off on a reverie about Charleston there! Not by train from the UK of course, but I would probably be there right now if not for Covid stuff, celebrating our wedding anniversary as we did for most of the last 15 years. Have a wonderful visit!

Alan Gore
Alan Gore
1 year ago

When my wife was alive we did Flagstaff to Pittsburgh, which is two overnights, had a great time, and met new people. Bears and buffalo visible from the observation car! It’s a form of travel that most people don’t realize still exists.

JĂŒrg Gassmann
JĂŒrg Gassmann
2 years ago

Pricing needs to be addressed. It is ridiculous that long-distance train travel is so much more expensive than flying.
I have enjoyed overnight rail many times, whether it was the camaraderie of travelling Europe in couchette as a student on a Eurail Pass, or later in sleeper, where a good overnight sleep and arriving in the city centre – and often not a capital city, but one not that easily reachable by air – beat hectic airports, flights too short to relax, and interminable hassles transferring from airports to city centres, regularly missing at least half a night’s sleep at one end or the other.

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
2 years ago

Why is it ridiculous that the trains cost more than flying? They use more of scarce material and staff resources, including land.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
1 year ago

Don’t forget, aviation fuel is tax free. If they paid anything like their fair share on it hardly anybody would fly anywhere.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

It’s not at all unclear whether the Greens plans are unrealistic.
It’s very clear.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

I bet its not that green either

rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago

Back in the 1990s GEC Alstom in Birmingham built “Channel Tunnel Nightstock”, which were luxury night-time sleeper trains between UK and European cities. The investors pulled the plug because it couldn’t compete with the low cost airlines, and I think the taxpayer footed the bill. They were sold to Canada for next to nothing.

Electronic systems were subcontracted to the company I still work for, and we got as far as taking it through the tunnel for tests

Stephan Quentin
Stephan Quentin
2 years ago

Sleeper trains have enjoyed a quiet a comeback for some years now. My youngest daughter recently had to go to Sweden for a few weeks. We were delighted to discover that a nighttrain service from Berlin to Stockholm already exists. For a few years now it has been possible to travel on a Nightjet train from Berlin to Zurich. When I recently researched how we could get from Berlin to northern Italy without flying we found that there is a Nightjet connection from Munich to Rome, stopping over in Florence, Bologna etc. We leave Berlin at about 3 pm, arrive in Munich at 7 pm. switch over to the Nightjet and arrive in Florence city Center at 7 am. Perfect! This is a very exciting time for travel in Europe. In a few years we will be able to get almost anywhere without having to bother with noisy and overcrowded airports and polluting flights. I think one of the main drivers behind this debelopment is the increasing aversion against flying as an important contributor to climate change. As a further development, the airline industry may take this competition as an additional spur to speed up the development of climate neutral fuels. They still wonÂŽt be able to beat the romanticism of train travel.

William MacDougall
William MacDougall
2 years ago

There was still a Paris-Moscow sleeper train before Covid, and there likely will be another once travel restrictions ease. Sleeper trains have been going out of fashion elsewhere because of high speed trains and air travel; having tried all three, I expect sleeper trains will continue to be a minority taste, at best, in the future.

Marcus Scott
Marcus Scott
2 years ago

Fantastic idea.
First, we need to do the following:

  1. stop all taxpayer subsidies to rail; and
  2. introduce a Rail Passenger Duty that raises the same amount of money as Air Passenger Duty does each year, around ÂŁ3.7bn

Level up the playing field.

Jeffrey Chongsathien
Jeffrey Chongsathien
2 years ago
Reply to  Marcus Scott

“Level the playing field” for those who aren’t brainwashed by propaganda.

Last edited 2 years ago by Jeffrey Chongsathien
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

Driving back from Austria 25 years ago I put the car on a train in Munich in the evening, went into town for dinner and beer, then boarded the sleeper train and woke up in Cologne. It knocked 350 miles off the distance I had to drive and only cost about ÂŁ100. I’d have spent ÂŁ50 on petrol, given what I was driving, plus a hotel night. So not only was it very civilised, it even saved me money.
An essential resource if you like trains is https://www.seat61.com/. It tells you how to get pretty well anywhere starting in London with the Eurostar, eg London to Istanbul via Bucharest in 4 days:
https://www.seat61.com/Turkey.htm#london-to-istanbul-via-bucharest
Of course you can break this journey in either direction if you get bored of sitting on trains.

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
2 years ago

Thoughts from Canada: As someone from the east coast (NS) who lived in Ontario for some time I often took the train (whenever my schedule allowed). Train service has been greatly reduced over time, but for any train afficionados (?sp) I highly recommend catching it before its demise. One can get on a train in Montreal (eastern terminus of “the corridor” in Ontario/Quebec with Windsor being the western terminus), hop on a train in the evening, and arrive in Halifax early the next afternoon. Spectacular scenery, great food in the dining car, observation car is wonderful, and the beds are very comfortable. One arrives downtown having slept/showered and seen the country roll by outside their window. My wife and I always brought a bottle of wine and a movie, and loved the experience on every occasion.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

I like train travel but I’m done with sleepers. My maximum comfort level is five hours and then sleep in a hotel.

Dii Stitt
Dii Stitt
2 years ago

Thoughts from Australia. The Indian Pacific (East West or vice versa) and The Ghan (North Southern or vice versa) are alive and well here. Although, as others have said, expensive. The main attraction for me is the slowing down nature and the taking in of a country that train travel (and sleepers) bring.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago
Reply to  Dii Stitt

Those trains are massively subsidised and run two or three times a week at most.

Everyone should do it once for a holiday but once is enough and they’re impractical otherwise.

Will R
Will R
2 years ago

Enjoyed the article – thanks

Jeffrey Chongsathien
Jeffrey Chongsathien
2 years ago

As an experience, sure, but from a utilitarian perspective, unlikely. My bugbear is that most people are filthy animals, unless they’re Japanese. Recall the filth at the end of a pre-2020 flight – air travel got cheap, the proletariat and lumpenproletariat started travelling en masse, then the planes became garbage dumps. British trains are disgusting… wouldn’t want to sleep in one.

Snake Oil Cat
Snake Oil Cat
2 years ago

Cheap flights are unsustainable. Not just environmentally, but also in a narrow, business sense. Time on a train can be used productively, unlike time spent queueing in an airport or fuming in a traffic jam.

Peter Collins
Peter Collins
1 year ago

We took an overnight sleeper train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand a few years ago. Runs nightly. Ditto from Hanoi to Hue in Vietnam. Both interesting and positive experiences. And decent sleep, too!

Last edited 1 year ago by Peter Collins