The joy of the sleeper train

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE MARCH 2016 EDITION OF LONELY PLANET TRAVELLER MAGAZINE

When was the last time you woke up and didn’t know precisely where in the world you were? It’s a strange sensation, generally experienced by people who are hungover, kidnapped, senile or sleeping around (or on very rare occasions a combination of the above).

But in no circumstances is it more exquisite than when you wake up as a passenger on a sleeper train: when you reach from your berth to open the thin curtains – like a present on Christmas morning – and through bleary eyes witness dawn breaking over the Swiss Alps; or morning sunshine glittering on the South China Sea; or rush hour traffic in a city whose name you don’t yet know.

Being transported across continents in your own tiny capsule makes the sleeper train the world’s greatest mode of transport. I’m a big fan: I’ve fallen asleep to a choir of snorers on a Vietnamese sleeper. I’ve snuggled up in warm sheets on the Trans-Siberian while the temperature outside the window slipped below -40°C. I’ve even had a Serbian border guard boot me out my berth and take me off the train for questioning (all while wearing my jimjams).

Sadly in Europe, at least, the sleeper train is becoming an endangered species. France just axed almost all of its sleeper services, following similar moves in Germany and Italy in recent years. Abundant budget airline routes, faster daytime trains and high running costs are – like the passengers on Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express – one-by-one sticking the knife into the sleeper train.

But there is still no more stylish way to travel. James Bond could not have seduced women on the Megabus. Hercule Poirot could not have sleuthed for murderers pacing the central aisle on a Ryanair flight. And there’s a reason they don’t set Chanel No.5 ads on the 9.36 Great Western service to Didcot Parkway.

And not only is it more stylish, the sleeper train can even work out more economical than the plane. For example: it costs about £60 to catch a flight from London to Inverness, which entails nearly two hours fidgeting in the air, two hours faffing about in airports and an hour or so hunting for a hotel that will probably charge you another £60+ for a bed.

By contrast the Caledonian Sleeper service from London Euston starts from £80 but provides thrills which are priceless. Eating lamb casserole in the dining carriage among the Chiltern Hills. Enjoying a nightcap at Rugby. Falling asleep to the clatter of the rails at Crewe (waking briefly for a nighttime wee at the edge of the Lake District). Dreaming among the windswept moors of the Borders. And waking up to be handed a full Scottish breakfast by an attendant – well rested, well fed, an hour from your destination and still not precisely sure whereabouts you are.*

Lonely Planet - The Ghan - Australia

The Ghan sleeper train, Australia

*Probably the Cairngorms.