Dream Vacations: The New Age of Sleeper Trains (#GotBitcoin?)
Good news for train romantics: The once-endangered sleeper is back on track. Here’s where—and why—you should ride the midnight express. Dream Vacations: The New Age of Sleeper Trains (#GotBitcoin?)
AH, SLEEPER TRAINS. Meditate for a moment on those relics from the golden age of travel. Imagine yourself scuttling over the Alps at twilight, listening to the rattling of bone china, the clinking of whiskey bottles. Now picture yourself wedged into the middle of a packed airline cabin, hearing the blare of the engine and the snoring of your seatmate. Is it any wonder that night trains are back in vogue?
Cushy sleeping berths on new railcars and mightily refurbished ones are rolling into stations everywhere, from the Scottish Highlands to the Peruvian Andes. They’re catering to a growing faction of travelers looking to escape the harried airline experience or simply to indulge their nostalgia—real or imagined—for overnight rail travel, largely fueled by books and films.
Andrew Martin, the author of “Night Trains: The Rise and Fall of the Sleeper” (Profile Books), traces the history of berth-tourism from its inception in the mid-1800s, when British passengers were advised to bring revolvers and teapots, to its derailment at the end of the 20th century. “Before World War I, European sleepers were for the superrich.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the fares came down, allowing literary types and the middle class to afford them,” said Mr. Martin, “In 1957, sleeper trains started becoming eclipsed by fast trains for business executives… By the mid-1990s, [the rise of budget airlines] had a near fatal effect on the sleeper.”
For the last few decades, what remained were mostly austere state-run railways. Instead of Poirot in silk pajamas and elegant meals in elegant dining cars, you’d more likely find cramped sleeping compartments shared with backpackers, 5 a.m. whistle-stops and an inescapable smell of diesel engine mixed with chemical toilets. In the waning days of the sleeper trains, overnight train journeys often felt more dystopian Snowpiercer than glamorous Orient Express.
Granted, even those still held a certain appeal. I embarked on my first night train in the U.S.S.R. in 1989 on a high-school trip.
While traveling from Leningrad to Krasnodar, I watched mustached military officers swig vodka in the canteen car, endured the train’s surly babushka, who chased me up the aisles for reasons I couldn’t fathom and spent hours gazing at the Caucasus blur past me while pretending to read Das Kapital from the wooden four-berth couchette I shared with my classmates. Luxurious it wasn’t, but the experience made an indelible impression, more so than any red-eye flight.
Now that government-funded sleeper trains have all but run out of steam, a new ilk of privately managed railways (or public-private hybrids) are picking up the slack. On the luxury end, Japan saw two new sleeper trains debut in 2017 with private outdoor balconies, skylit claw foot tubs and kaiseki meals. Around the same time, Belmond, formerly Orient-Express Hotels, added new sleeper trains in Peru and Ireland to its fleet. There are luxury sleepers from Russia to Paris, along the Silk Road in Iran and Kazakhstan, across Africa, throughout India, across Switzerland’s glaciers, and in New Zealand, Norway and Romania.
These luxury locomotives—which typically offer multiday itineraries, with guided excursions en route—come with Wi-Fi, double beds, en suite showers, moonroof observation lounges, top-quality cuisine and even dedicated spa cars. “The luxury holiday train industry is booming,” said Mr. Martin. “I think it has something to do with consorting with strangers at night. When I was writing my book, a number of people told me unpublishable erotic stories about night train encounters. What’s more, you can save on a hotel bill.”
Not all new sleeper trains are ostentatiously luxurious. In Europe alone, several new affordable options have materialized too, running more utilitarian services (no guided excursions, just overnight schedules). In 2017, the United Kingdom’s Great Western Railway (GWR) relaunched the Night Riviera, traveling between London and Cornwall, one of England’s sunniest corners. Also in 2017, Italy’s Trenitalia-owned Thello debuted new sleeper cars with en suite showers on their Paris to Venice route.
And in June 2019, Scotland’s Caledonian Sleeper will debut highly anticipated new cars with routes from London to Glasgow and Edinburgh and Highlander routes to Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William with en suite showers, double beds and plenty of whiskeys in the bar car. All three of these train services depart late at night and arrive at their final destination early the next morning.
There’s no scenery to draw you in, but all three train operators promise comfortable accommodations, state-of-the-art efficiencies and that hit of nostalgia. “We wanted to offer guests an experience that felt like staying in a hotel,” said Ryan Flaherty, Caledonian Sleeper’s managing director. “The new cars will transport guests back to another era of travel, and we’ve worked hard to deliver that.”
To find out how these newest incarnations compare to the babushka-bedeviled Soviet rail journey of my youth, I bought passage on two routes. The first—Thello’s Dijon to Venice journey—was a December birthday trip I’d planned for myself, with my husband and my 79-year old father in tow. The 12-hour route is drivable by car in about nine hours, but for many sleeper-train junkies, this is the Hope Diamond of sleeper journeys.
For me, it was filled with the romantic promise of boarding in Dijon after stuffing myself with bœuf bourguignon, slumbering across the snowy alps before gliding over Venice’s Lagoon in time to hear San Marco’s Sunday morning carillon bells. Trenitalia has some of Europe’s best high-speed trains, namely the high-speed FrecciaRossa 1000, but Thello turned out to be a disappointment.
I’d booked us in two private premium cabins. The cramped couchettes cost a steep $386 one-way for me and my husband Ralph and $326 for my father (a one-hour flight for the same dates, would have cost $200 apiece, round-trip). Each featured six narrow beds, no more comfortable than lay-flat business-class seats and not enough clearance for my 6-foot-2 inch frame to sit up straight or lie down flat.
There were clean and comfortable natural sheets, bedding and pillows, and an amenity kit of breadsticks, orange juice, water and a demi-bottle of Prosecco, but it didn’t make up for the train’s shortcomings.
While the train does cross the scenic Domodossola Pass, we boarded in Dijon at 10 p.m., so as on most sleeper trains, it was too dark to see the snowy Alps or anything else. At times, the train’s gentle rocking rhythm morphed into an earthquake simulator, nearly tossing me from the lower berth.
In the morning, after we woke up to an ice-cold compartment (and an ice-cold shower), a friendly porter delivered us fresh marmalade, croissants and hot coffees. All three were excellent and welcome, but by the time we lurched into Venice at 9:30 a.m., we were eager to disembark.
A few weeks later, I booked passage on the nine-hour Night Riviera from London to Penzance in Cornwall (departing just before midnight, arriving at 7:55 a.m.) and paid $157 for myself and a friend to share a twin cabin.
Sleeper trains from London’s Paddington Station to West Country have been in operation since 1877, but in 2017 the Great Western Railway (GWR) refurbished and relaunched the Night Riviera cars. The snout-nosed livery—not to mention the checkerboard floors and brass handles—was delightfully nostalgic, recalling 1940s carriages or Hogwarts Express.
The cabin was aesthetically Spartan but generously equipped, with beds long enough to stretch out in, topped with two pillows each, silky cotton bedding, and headboards fitted with reading lights, two plugs and two USB ports. Luggage stowed easily under the bed. My only complaint: The touted “free wifi” was spotty.
Boarding too late for dinner yet not quite ready to turn in, we retired to the bar car, with its leather swivel chairs and other brand-new furnishings.
Open 24 hours, the bar stocks shortbread cookies, Tyrell cheddar chips and sandwiches as well as the tipple. As we raced across the West Country, my friend and I shared a demi-bottle of Syrah and observed our fellow barflies—a middle-aged British woman reading a romance novel and a Thai couple chatting quietly. We eventually repaired to our bunk bed to do what’s done best on sleeper trains—snooze, which we did quite well.
Just after daybreak, a porter delivered a complimentary continental breakfast including tea and coffee, orange juice and a hot bacon roll, which we enjoyed while watching a gloriously lit sunrise. As soon as we disembarked in Penzance, we headed to the dedicated station lounge, an impressive space with midcentury sofas, knowledgeable attendants and snazzy new showers with heated towel racks and warm towels.
The Night Riveria might not be as sexy as the trains of Agatha Christie and Wes Anderson or as posh sounding as Belmond’s, but for the space and civility and price, it seemed hard to beat. By the end of the day in Penzance, I was watching jet trails crisscross the sky and already looking forward to the return train passage to London.
High crimes and romantic misdemeanors ride the rails in almost every old movie about overnight train travel. It’s a wonder the passengers got any sleep.
One popular railcar run is the Skunk Train route that winds for 40 miles through towering redwood forests between Willits and the coastal town of Fort Bragg in Northern California. The line, which dates to 1885, is owned by closely held Mendocino Railway; these days its vintage steam and diesel trains carry tourists instead of cars filled with timber.
Keith Knowlton, an excursion coordinator who splits his time between Connecticut and Maine, has organized trips throughout New England. He says the prices that railroads set vary so widely from region to region that it’s impossible to calculate an average cost. Some charge by the car, some by the mile, while others levy a flat fee. In some cases “some have us donate to a local charity in their name,” he says.
The bottom line is that the fees are generally modest enough that, along with the relatively inexpensive entry fee to buy a railcar, it keeps the hobby affordable. Last month, for example, about 20 riders took an overnight, leaf-peeping excursion on the Vermont Rail System covering a 220-mile round trip along the pastoral Connecticut River.
It cost $410 per car (or $205 per person assuming two riders per car.) But that included railroad fees, overnight hotel accommodations, three meals plus bus transportation to and from restaurants.
The fun is sometimes marred by accidents, but these are rare and rarely serious. Derailments, usually caused by track obstructions or flaws, are the most common mishap, according to a perusal of documents on Narcoa’s website. The cars also occasionally break down, which is why Narcoa requires they be fitted with tow bars so that incapacitated cars can be towed by a working car to the next road crossing and removed. “That way no one gets stranded and the excursion can move on,” says Mr. Knight.
To demonstrate what the fuss is about, Mr. Knight invited this reporter to join him and Mr. Dunton on a 14-mile round-trip trek starting at Coopersville, Mich., along a track now used by a seasonal tourist train that features playacting masked cowboys riding up to rob it. (Spoiler alert: They get shot dead and fall dramatically off their horses.)
No bandits appear on this implacably sunny day as we head out, sent off by Mr. Knight’s wife, Laurie, with a little railcar humor: “Don’t get lost,” she says.
With Mr. Dunton in his car ahead of us, Mr. Knight and I rattle along the first 7-mile leg in his restored Fairmont MT-19 as he explains his railcar’s basics, which are simple: a clutch, lever shift and throttle, and a handbrake. No need for a steering wheel. Railcars are noisy, so headsets, the kind you see long-distance motorcycle riders wearing, are a necessity to damp sound and carry on a conversation. But after a while you settle into the rattle, hum and clicketyclack of the rails. Most people find the ride soothing.
This run isn’t the most beautiful; the track sometimes allows views of nearby Interstate 96. But when we amble through a glade of wildflowers poking up through the tracks and flanked by a patch of tallgrass prairie, it offers a glimpse of the scenic promise of railcar riding.
I ride back with Mr. Dunton who, arranging his blue-and-white striped engineer’s cap, says getting out to some of the wildest places in America is a big part of the draw. But he offers a little perspective to make the point that not every moment is a wilderness experience.
“You see some great places,” he says, “and also lots of backyards.”
Paradise For Rail Buffs
Railroad and trolley museums offer a chance to get up close and personal with amazing machines.
Gleaming in gray metal with orange stripes, the Aerotrain looks like a 1950s Chevrolet merged with a locomotive. General Motors introduced it in 1956 to attract travelers back to the rails with a futuristic, streamlined design, complete with rear tail fins. For a short time a scaled-down Aerotrain ran through the Tomorrowland section of Disneyland.
Today, the odd-looking train can be seen at the National Museum of Transportation in St. Louis, one of many open-air railway and trolley museums that have reopened to the public for the summer, often with limited hours and social distancing policies.
In Kennebunkport, Maine, the Seashore Trolley Museum offers rides on an “interpretive railway,” built on the roadbed of a 1.5-mile electric trolley line that served millions of passengers in the early 20th century. In Perris, Calif., the Southern California Railway Museum, about 70 miles southeast of Los Angeles, features railcars, trolley cars and the rolling stock of a 3-foot gauge railway created by Ward Kimball, a Walt Disney animator, and his wife.
The Kimballs rescued one of the picturesque locomotives, built in 1881 and once named the Sidney Dillon, from a Nevada railroad that was selling it for scrap. The museum and its equipment have appeared in movies like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “Water for Elephants.”
Railway museums offer a chance to see the evolution of passenger railways in the U.S. Dan Cupper, a railway historian who has also worked as a conductor and engineer, says that the wooden cars of the 19th century can appear cluttered and overdesigned to modern eyes.
That had changed by the 1930s, as industrial designers brought a streamlined Art Deco look to railcars and locomotives, with fluted stainless-steel exteriors and soft curves. Midcentury trains like the 20th Century Limited, which carried passengers from New York City to Chicago in 16 hours, became icons of glamour.
For serious rail fans, favorite trains have the drawing power of a Picasso. At the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, N.C., a main attraction is the Class J 611 locomotive, whose dark metal exterior is decorated with a bright red line and yellow trim. Mr. Cupper describes the locomotive, on loan from the Virginia Museum of Transportation, as “sleek” and “elegant.”
Built in 1950, it could pull 15 cars at 110 mph and was one of the last steam engines manufactured before locomotives shifted to diesel fuel. The museum owns the last surviving example of the model, out of 14 originally built.
Rail historian Maury Klein and his wife, Kimberly Perry Klein, are partial to two massive locomotives on display at Kenefick Park, part of Lauritzen Gardens, a botanical center in Omaha, Neb. Union Pacific’s No. 6900, which the company calls the largest diesel-electric ever built, and No. 4023, a “Big Boy” steam-powered locomotive, are displayed on a seeming collision course.
“When they say Big Boy and a big diesel, you have no idea what that is until you’re standing next to it,” says Mr. Klein. These enormous locomotives—No. 4023 weighs in at 1.2 million pounds—were built for hauling heavy cargo over long distances. Big Boy was ideal for mountainous track between Utah and Wyoming.
Trolley museums, by contrast, often focus on the small electric trains used for interurban passenger rail. This system served as a crucial transition between horse-and-buggy days and today’s auto-oriented world, says Aaron Isaacs, an editor at Heritage Rail Alliance, a trade association for railway museums and tourist railroads.
They could travel at up to 90 mph, and between 1895 and 1915 thousands of miles of trolley tracks were built in the U.S., turning cities into a regular business and cultural destination for rural Americans.
At the Seashore Trolley Museum, Mr. Isaacs particularly likes Lehigh Valley No. 1030, a high-speed interurban car built in 1931 that ran between Allentown and Norristown, Pa. A “parlor car,” it features well-upholstered lounge chairs, a far cry from most railway seats today.
As for GM’s Aerotrain, it turned out to be a misfire. The plan was to offer lightweight train service, with style, at speeds of 100 mph. But the aluminum passenger cars were too small and light, resulting in a rough ride.
The trains ended service in the 1960s but remain an object of curiosity to fans like Mr. Cupper, who traces his railroad obsession back to his childhood in a small Pennsylvania town in the 1950s. With only one channel available on TV, Mr. Cupper’s family loved going down to the station, on the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Main Line, and watching the trains go by.