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Night Trains:

The Rise and Fall of the Sleeper

Andrew Martin


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In praise of a fast-disappearing mode of transport.

SLEEPER trains occupy a romantic corner of any traveller’s soul. One of Hercule Poirot’s most gripping adventures takes place on the Simplon Orient Express, which used to run from Paris to Istanbul. A famous scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” features a night train entering a tunnel. James Bond, meanwhile, detects a spy on a sleeper train after noticing him behave suspiciously in the dining car (“Red wine with fish!” Bond mutters).

In some parts of the world, the nostalgia lives on. The Caledonian Sleeper, complete with smartly dressed waiters, neeps and tatties and a selection of whiskies, is the best way to travel between London and Scotland. Elsewhere, however, sleepers are on their last legs. Flights across Europe have become so cheap that fewer and fewer travellers bother with the wagon-lit. Sensing that the end is nigh, Andrew Martin, a British novelist, has written an ode to the sleeper.

“Night Trains” is a potted history of the mode, combined with accounts of journeys Mr Martin has taken on sleeper routes across Europe. The reader joins him on a train to Munich, where he eats a tuna sandwich on board. Travelling from Paris to Venice, he thinks he has been robbed of €100 ($105). The service to Nice is cancelled, yet such is his love for sleeping aboard that he spends the night on the train as it sits on the platform.

These stories make clear that the golden age of the sleeper train is long past. How different things were in the 19th century, when a passenger on the Orient Express could dine on gigot de mouton a la Bretonne, epinards au sucre and champagne aplenty. The only modern-day sleeper train which comes up to Mr Martin’s exacting standards is the Nordland, which trundles towards northern Norway.

Mr Martin has a singular fascination with how much sex everyone had on board. But the real question that the uninitiated most often ask sleeper fanatics is: “Do you sleep?” After a read of Mr Martin’s book, the answer would seem to be a resounding “no”: clanking and shunting wake him up time and again. Still, it is hard not to be won over by his enthusiasm. Catch the sleeper train, before it’s too late.

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