How the return of sleeper trains will keep Europe connected

Sleeping car in the Nightjet train NJ 401 for Zürich at Hamburg-Altona in Germany. Photograph: Leif

Sleeping car in the Nightjet train NJ 401 for Zürich at Hamburg-Altona in Germany. Photograph: Leif Jørgensen/Wikimedia. - Credit: Archant

ANDREW ADONIS looks forward to a renaissance in overnight trains as a way to keep Europe connected

I have never once managed to sleep for more than an hour on a sleeper train, but every time I see one I dream of Murder on the Orient Express. Now, thanks to aviation aversion more than romanticism, the sleeper network is being restored to its former glory and you will soon be able to travel sleepless across the whole of Europe.

In Britain, a sleeper network which served most major cities, fanning out from London, was stripped back a few decades ago just to overnight services from London to Scotland and south west to Penzance.

My first, and also my most recent, sleepless excursions were on the Night Riviera. Both were political: in 1987 to campaign for a university friend in the Truro by-election, then last year overnight to Plymouth in my unsuccessful quest to become an MEP, where to my eternal shame I lost to Ann Widdecombe.

Many of the passengers on these trains have been MPs and candidates, as I discovered on the Night Caledonian as transport secretary a decade ago, where a group of Scots Labour MPs returning to their Glasgow constituencies kept me in the bar for most of the night. We drank their version of water, along with a duke and two earls who were heading further north to the grouse moors.


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Thanks to intense lobbying by these MPs and peers, the Caledonian now has modern carriages, including showers. It is well used: even on the upgraded West Coast Mainline it takes half the day to get to Scotland by rail and the plane is a hassle via Heathrow.

One old school Labour MP for a Teeside seat, but who lived in Kentish Town in north London, told me that he would often go up to his constituency by sleeper on the Friday night and return on the Saturday, avoiding the need to stay overnight in Teesside at all. That sleeper no longer runs.

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On the continent, the sleeper network was also stripped back. Germany and France practically stopped their overnight trains as their high-speed rail networks expanded. This was to the chagrin of the mayor of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, a small fishing town in the deep south west near the Spanish border, where I used to go on holiday. I went to the station to meet my sister off the sleeper one Friday at 7am to see the mayor also alight, impeccably dressed from Paris, where she doubled as president Chirac's defence minister. 'Now for the job I really enjoy,' she told us.

That sleeper may be returning in the expansion of overnight trains announced last month by president Macron.

Mark Smith, who runs the brilliant Man In Seat 61 blog and website (seat61.com) on European train travel, tells me that the best of the new night trains are the 'Nightjets' run by the Austrian operator ÖBB. Their Brussels to Vienna sleeper, via Munich and Innsbruck, is the grandest, and there are plans for a direct portion all the way from Amsterdam. With a direct Eurostar now also running to the Dutch city, you can get all the way from London to Vienna, including an afternoon in Amsterdam, with just one change.

And you will be able to do it in great style, because Newrest, ÖBB's contractors who staff the sleepers and provide catering, are a subsidiary of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, which ran the Orient Express.

Alas, the old Orient Express – on which Hercule Poirot took such a memorable journey – itself shows no signs of resurrection. It has not operated since 1977, although some of its restored carriages run on excursions.

My best real-life sleeper story is the occasion when Sir Geoffrey Howe, then Margaret Thatcher's chancellor, was returning to London on a (now long discontinued) sleeper from Manchester, and had his suit stolen while in the loo. Sir Geoffrey fortunately had his dinner suit with him too, and alighted for breakfast at Euston dressed in black tie.

This led to a memorable article in the Sun, which began with the words: 'When Geoffrey Howe lost his trousers he revealed his human face.'

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