Book review: ‘Night Trains: Rise and Fall of the Sleeper’ by Andrew Martin

Abandoned plans for a sleeper service from Britain to the continent are just one of the revelations in this account of railway travel’s most romantic aspects.

Andrew Martin’s new book, ‘Night Trains: The Rise and Fall of the Sleeper’ (Profile, £14.99, ISBN 978 1781255599), is a delight. Partly because it deals with one of life’s great pleasures – a night on a sleeper train, and partly because it is written by an extremely talented and prolific writer, whom I would call Britain’s national railway treasure.

Martin is the author of the authentic-sounding Jim Stringer series of train-related retro thrillers (my favourite is ‘Necropolis Railway’) and a number of equally engaging non-fiction books. Irrespective of the genre, he remains one of Britain’s best literary stylists.

His sentences are colourful and succinct to the extent that one is tempted to recite them like poetry. For example, ‘Night Trains’ includes his description of a midnight stop at Vallorbe station on the French-Swiss border on the sleeper train from Paris to Venice: “There was a white station building and a white swirling snow. Muffled men walked up and down, and the train jerked about. They were changing the engine.”

“I practically grew up on a train,” Martin says in an earlier book, ‘Belles & Whistles’. Indeed, his father was a British Rail official in York and a compulsive traveller – a member of the British Railwaymen’s Touring Club, who often took his children to the Continent by train, triggering Martin’s passion.

In ‘Night Trains’ we learn about the fascinating history of the Wagons-Lits company and its founder George Nagelmackers, who first started running the trains where “passengers could sleep through the night” as the sleeper ran through border controls, “as if the Schengen agreement already applied”. The trains, where every little detail was taken into account, included a “little hook on which to hang your watch”.

For over a century, night trains inspired authors from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky to Agatha Christie and Arthur Griffith, the all-but-forgotten early-20th-century writer of ‘sleeper thrillers’: “The Rome Express ... was approaching Paris one morning in March, when it became known to the occupants of the sleeping car that there was something amiss...”

Travelling by sleepers was not just exciting, but often dangerous. The first Orient Express passengers were advised to carry a teapot and a revolver in their luggage.

Sadly, the last 50 years saw the disappearance of many iconic sleepers, whose names are reflected in the titles of the book’s chapters: The Blue Train, The Orient Express, and so on. Each chapter constitutes a warm, humorous mini-travelogue in which Martin tries to retrace the itinerary of now-defunct famous sleepers by using the train’s equivalents. For example, he has to take three different sleepers to recreate the original Orient Express route.

There are lots of revelations in ‘Night Trains’. For example, it was fascinating to discover that fairly recently Britain came close to having its own “sleeper trains of true glamour”. When the Eurostar was launched in November 1994 there were serious plans for the ‘Nightstars’ – sleepers that would travel to Paris directly from Scotland, Wales and the North West. The designated day and night carriages, and a special service depot in Manchester, were built. But the idea was promptly killed off by low-cost airlines, and the rolling stock was eventually sold to Canada. What a pity.

And yet it is nice to know that, despite a huge decline in numbers, some night trains are still running along European tracks. The March 2017 edition of the ‘European Train Timetable’  lists at least 50 of them, with names like Chopin (Warsaw-Vienna), Lusitania (Lisbon-Madrid) and Metropol (Prague- Budapest). I had the thrill of trying the latter recently – the 23:58 from Prague to Budapest. And what an amazing journey it was: smooth, comfortable and properly soporific. The bed linen was super-fresh, the attendant efficient and polite, and the train arrived in Budapest right on schedule at 8:37 the following morning.

My only regret was that I didn’t have a copy of ‘Night Trains’ with me. Perusing it on my gently rocking berth, before switching off the lamp and drifting off to sleep, would have been a truly sublime experience.

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