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.Go back