A journey on a sleeper train lingers in the memory, but what was once a coherent pan-European network is now being eroded

 

The classic Flanders and Swann song ‘The Slow Train’ mourned the loss of great swathes of the UK rail network in the 1960s through its incantation of evocative station names lost to the Beeching cuts. Perhaps we are now due a chanson version of those rather larger European places that have lost their sleeper service. Berlin to Paris; Paris to Madrid; Amsterdam to Warsaw; Barcelona to Milan; Berlin to Vienna; Brussels to just about everywhere.

What was a coherent network, which nightly and confidently spanned the continent, is becoming an increasingly ragged, bleary-eyed, and vulnerable shadow of its former self. Starved of cross-subsidy and financial support whilst billions are pumped into high speed rail and aviation dodges its environmental on-costs. Losing out as national rail companies start to free themselves of geographical constraints and obligations, whilst at the same time seeking to ward off new entrants that fill the gap. Starved of the capital needed to meet passengers’ expectations and to operate within an increasingly technically complex, but operationally simplified, environment. All leaving what was an interlocking European overnight network enfeebled and of wildly varying quality.

Sleeper journeys linger in the memory. The upper tier of a three-tier third class metre gauge sleeper in India, where you slid yourself between the bed and the ceiling into a space with the headroom of what felt like a coffin – except coffins don’t have fans in a dusty cage that I also somehow had to make space for. The only way to keep the claustrophobia at bay, and keep myself from Edgar Allan Poe-inspired dreams, was to position myself so I could see the floor of the compartment. Or the St Petersburg to Murmansk sleeper, which I used en route to an island in the White Sea, which as with all ex-Soviet sleepers are ruled by formidable ‘provodnitsas’ (female attendants), have a samovar in every carriage and where travellers get their slippers and nightwear on as soon as they are in the compartment. Or the sleeper that used to run from Calais Ville to the South of France – seemingly full of rail men from the south east of England on their ‘priv’ tickets. In my couchette compartment there was a French man who slept embracing his racing bicycle, though whether out of devotion, comfort or parsimony, was unclear.

Overnight train journeys linger in the same way that little does from a flight, other than possibly relief that this time it wasn’t too aggravating. Of all these sleeper journeys I’ve made over the years the worst one was the last one I took earlier this year on the ‘ Thello’ service from Paris to Milan. It was the worst, partly because the air con did nothing much more than hint at the possibility of cooling the swelter of the couchette, which, despite the sun repelling grime on the windows, was at a temperature and humidity at which you are advised you shouldn’t leave dogs in cars. A problem which staff in a variety of ‘uniforms’ strove inconclusively to address. But it wasn’t these deprivations that made it the worst sleeper journey I’ve done: it was the worst because it felt like this was another sleeper that was being run badly in order to kill off demand. Even though it was very busy, any of the users (including me) would surely think twice about taking it again, or recommending anyone else to use it.

To kill off sleeper trains like this is a mistake because with their nightly cargoes of sleeping and dreaming souls the sleeper train not only gets people from A to B in a conveniently unconscious state – whilst saving on the cost of a hotel room – it also makes a wider statement about how railways see themselves, and how they will be seen by the wider world. Sleeper trains are a remnant of when the railways were long distance and international travel – but also a statement of future intent. That in a world where cheap flights cannot last forever (because ultimately either they, or the planet, has to go) that the railways have the vaulting ambition to be part of the solution. A universal offer of trains that not only go fast in the day, but also go bump in the night. Available for those who cannot, or do not wish to fly. Enabling rail to cover all the bases. An extra string to the traveller’s bow. Another tool with which to chip away at the carbon edifice we know has to be scaled back.

There’s more to it too. Sleepers show that rail is a mode of travel that has hinterland, that makes and holds memories, that is more than the sum of its moving parts. More than a means by which accountants can move people in the smallest amount of personal space they can, as fast as they can, for as great a yield as they can, in an environment where for all intents and purposes you could be on rails or in the sky. Sleepers show that rail can still find place for its most culturally resonant and artistically celebrated format – time and time again on the page and on the screen.

More than that too – the sleeper train is also the railways’ ambassador – after all a symbol of tension or rapprochement between nations is when sleeper trains are withdrawn and reinstated. Between, say, India and Pakistan or within the former Soviet Union. With the European dream reduced to a brutal fiscal cage fight what a time for Brussels to look the other way whilst the ambassadors of the railways are carelessly discarded.

None of this cuts any ice in the gin and tonics of the executives of the big European rail powers it seems. The national giants of the European rail scene seem more interested in buying out the railways of other countries than they are in providing an overnight train between those same countries. Much more focused too on unleashing the very coach competition that will undo the secondary long distance rail routes. Perhaps so they can focus on turning long distance rail into a one trick pony (though admittedly a hell of a trick) of high speed rail instead of a wider vision of rail as central to the wider task of decarbonising and socialising long distance travel wherever it can.

But if the big rail powers and Brussels don’t get it some of their customers do and a fight back is underway. On June 21 at Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof activists from the ‘Back on Track’ campaign, which is fighting to save the international sleeper train network, set out folding beds with cards stamped with the names of places now denied a sleeper link. Parallel actions took place in Basel, Bern, Copenhagen, Dortmund, Geneva, Hamburg, Madrid, Odense, Paris and Vienna over that same weekend. The biggest protest yet by those infuriated by the loss of the most civilised way to travel between some of Europe’s largest cities.

Alongside this political fightback there are other signs and signifiers that the night train has not died peacefully in its sleep. At one end of the spectrum step forward Russia’s state-owned railway’s new high-end overnight services from Moscow to Paris and the South of France, that partly recreates the recently withdrawn Berlin to Paris overnight. At the other end of the spectrum there are entrepreneurs like the London Sleeper Company, which is pitching a plan for a new overnight services that could use the channel tunnel to provide London with sleeper services to Barcelona, Milan, Berlin and Zürich. Closer to home there is the UK’s investment in the Cornish and Scottish night trains. Services that survive for all the reasons set out above – their utility for travellers, alongside their cultural and political resonance as symbols that an increasingly fractious UK still wishes to be united by nightly sleeper train.

However, for all this there’s no doubt that across the board the European night train network is in a bad place. Yet sometimes what looks like a result of inevitable progress turns out not to be so. Sometimes the financial numbers change – like the cost of air travel is likely to – upwards. Attitudes change too – the night train could fuse its environmental credentials, its cost and time advantages, and the way it makes travel into an event, to gain new generations and types of travellers, as well as regaining old ones. And the tracks between Europe’s great cities will still be there for when this particular dark night of the railway’s soul comes to an end.

 

About the author: Jonathan Bray is director of the PTEG Support Unit. Before joining PTEG in 2003, his background was a mix of transport policy and transport campaigning.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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