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The A to Zzzzz of sleeper trains

Two books that explore adventures in overnight travel take readers on a journey into timelessness

15 November, 2018 — By Conrad Landin

Forth Bridge poster, from Anglo-Scottish Sleepers. Image: Science and Society Picture Library

IF you’re a regular on sleeper trains, you’ve seen it all. There was the trip to Aberdeen when the power cut out in the small hours – and the steward walked down the train dishing out glowsticks. And the time I was booted from my berth at the Estonian frontier, to be cross-examined by a Russian border guard with the Benny Hill theme as his ring tone.

The workaday romance of the journey between Scotland and Euston is captured in Gerry Rafferty’s song City to City: “And a light made of silver, through my window it creeps/And the train keeps on rollin’, and it just rocks me to sleep.”

But the most recent journey called to mind an episode from Andrew Martin’s Night Trains, in which the Highgate-based novelist attempts to re-trace the sleeping car services of European legend – the likes of the Orient Express and the Blue Train. Martin is told his train to the French Riviera has been “deleted” thanks to “only a little strike”. But he is advised to board the train despite the fact it won’t be going anywhere: “It is a sleeper; you can sleep on it,” the clerk tells him.

It was Storm Ali that held my train at Glasgow, where I was woken up at 4.30am and advised to take the first morning departure to London. I could have returned to my flat on the southside, but the opportunity to spend the night under Glasgow Central’s beautiful glass roof didn’t seem like one to pass up.

That’s the thing about sleepers. They can be the most convenient way home – saving a day’s travel, and a night’s hotel bill. But however much goes wrong, I still can’t bring myself to resent an overnight journey. And for every fellow passenger’s groan of a missed meeting, there’s always a soulmate in the lounge car who will embrace the adventure, and the unavoidable sense of timelessness.

Night Trains is full of such humorous episodes – but at points it reads as a darker sequel to Michael Barsley’s The Orient Express, written in 1967 when there were far more surviving remnants of the golden age of travel. Like Barsley, he relies extensively on the wide array of overnight journeys in popular culture.

Yet in spite of Martin’s railway expertise, he lacks Barsley’s natural authority. Night Trains is an enjoyable read, but Martin’s chatty tone makes it harder to take him seriously when he dwells on railway politics or Britain’s drift from the continent.

David Meara’s Anglo-Scottish Sleepers is a different beast altogether. It is worth the cover price for its illustrations alone, which capture almost every aspect of the famous route north since its beginnings in the 1870s. Posters, leaflets, timetables, meticulous interior and exterior photographs: this book has them all.

And in spite of his rather ploddy prose, Meara has done us a service in capturing the very human history of these trains. With their seated dining service and well-stocked bar, they continue to operate a service superior to most of their continental equivalents.

The Scottish poet Norman MacNair resented “being carried sideways through the night”. True, the journey can be bone-shaking – especially when you awake in the small hours having had one whisky too many. But more than any other form of transport, sleeper trains satisfy the most worthy reason for travel, as espoused by another of their literary champions, Jenny Diski: to keep still.

Night Trains, the Rise and Fall of the Sleeper. By Andrew Martin, Profile, £8.99
Anglo-Scottish Sleepers. By David Meara, Amberley, £14.99

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