More than nostalgia for a quickly vanishing way of travel
Andrew Martin’s Night Trains is a compelling piece of travel writing. Part documentary account of his own travels and – perhaps inevitably given its subject – part social history, this is not mere trainspotter fodder.
All over Europe, sleeper trains are rapidly vanishing. While rail travel is often booming, cheap budget airline fares and (ironically) high-speed rail links have meant that many sleeper trains are no longer viable. Night trains, often covering huge distances across the continent, are being withdrawn by rail companies eager to cut costs.
For those who plan on InterRailing, the loss of such trains means student journeys around Europe are going to cost a whole lot more, with more overnight accommodation almost certainly required. Twenty years ago (don’t I remember!) it was possible to purchase a copy of the Thomas Cook European Railway Timetable and work out long routes, often over national borders, which rarely meant an overnight stay anywhere. Take a train overnight from Paris to Berlin, then another night journey on to Munich, then another night on to Prague and so on…Oh and always head for Deutsche Bahn or Austrian Railways coaches as they’ll be the cleanest!
Even today sleeper trains can be an incredibly useful way of travelling. It’s a great way to leave a city late at night and arrive at your destination early the next morning, with no wasted time transferring to airports or waiting to go through security checks. And for some parts of Scotland, they remain an incredibly useful means of getting to London, especially from more rural parts. Say what you like about Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP government, but it has guaranteed the continued existence of the Caledonian Sleepers, and such is the public demand for them in Britain, not least of tourists enchanted by the romance of the ‘Deerstalker Express’, that in these islands at least their future seems more secure.
But sleeping on a sleeper is, of course, the difficulty. My own first few journeys might better be described as being jolted awake at Preston, Carlisle, Carstairs and Edinburgh, followed by long periods trying to work out where exactly in the country I was as I stared out in the half-light on to the Scottish countryside. But, as I can also testify from personal experience, a visit to the lounge car for a nightcap and a little bit of practice, and it is perfectly possible to awake refreshed the next morning.
As Andrew Martin has discovered, the same is no longer true for much of Europe. He tries to journey from Paris to the Riviera by the famous Blue Train, takes the route of the Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul and travels to the far north of Norway. He laments the passing of the famous Wagon-Lits Company’s sleeping cars, goes overnight from Paris to Lisbon and from Sweden to Germany, via a train ferry to Denmark. Often, Martin’s journey is hampered by the vagaries of railway timetables or lack of information, which is frankly scandalous in the age of the internet. And yet there are moments, too, of extraordinary beauty, and poignant nostalgia or even lament for a passing way of life.
Entertaining and engaging, Martin knows how to spin a great yarn; he’s the author, too, of the Jim Stringer detective novels, including the atmospheric The Necropolis Railway, and an occasional writer for the Guardian. As a novelist, he portrays the many characters he meets on route with a wry wit. He writes candidly: he makes mistakes, must fight his own instincts and stupidly gets his possessions stolen, while we discover his wife is no fan of sleeper trains and prefers to take a budget plane to meet him in Lisbon. But Martin writes with a passion, too, for his subject. Although a barrister by profession, he is of railway stock with a rational, carefully argued commitment to railways as an environmentally sound, socially beneficial means of transport.
Of course, Night Trains will appeal to the rail buffs. But it needs a much wider audience. This is a slice of history which we’re in danger of losing. Indeed, on today’s utilitarian railway, it’s hard to imagine the sheer opulence of a previous age, and perhaps we only catch a glimmer in the faded splendour of so many buildings hiding behind the hideous hoardings for Upper Crust refreshments or banks of buddleia on overgrown sidings.
Sleepers, however, remind us that travel should not just be about speed and convenience. As Robert Louis Stevenson (himself a fan of very quick trains) wrote: ‘I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake’. Night Trains takes us to another era.
But perhaps all is not lost. As Martin reveals, the Russians are coming, instigating new sleeper routes across Europe, and, ironically, it is private operators who might just about keep them going.
Night Trains: The Rise and Fall of the Sleeper. Profile Books. £14.99 or less in bookshops.