The Enduring Romance of the Night Train
The beguilements of the sleeper car have never seemed sharper than on the eve of a global lockdown.
If on a winter’s night a traveller is about to board a train, a fortifying drink is of the essence. Thus it was that I stood in line at Burger King, on the concourse at Central Station, in Glasgow, and asked for a hot tea. The only reason that I wasn’t seeking out a dram of whiskey was that I had already done so, dropping into a pub on my way to the station. In short, I was well drammed up—as was the Glaswegian beside me, who leaned on the counter and inquired what I was up to. Taking the Caledonian Sleeper to London, I replied. He fixed me with a canny eye and said, “Are you not afraid o’ the wee virus?”
The answer, foolishly, was no. I was too excited by the thought o’ catching the wee train to be worried about catching anything else. It was late evening, on February 28th; the year would soon leap into the twenty-ninth, and that touch of temporal rarity added to the occasion. The departure of a night train—by definition, a humdrum event for the station staff—exudes, for all but the most jaded travellers, the thrill of an unfamiliar ritual. By day, if late, you run for a train; if early, you tut and sigh at having to tarry so long. At night, on the other hand, you saunter, and deliberately show up in good time. Why? Not because of security, passport control, or the other chores that affront the airline passenger, shortening tempers and sapping every soul, but because you want to settle in and enjoy the show. Patiently, the train awaits you, with a theatrical air of suspense, and the moment of its leaving is akin to the curtain’s rise. T. S. Eliot, for one, knew the moment well:
There’s a whisper down the line at 11:39
When the Night Mail’s ready to depart
That is the opening of “Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat,” from “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” published in 1939. Skimbleshanks, with his “glass-green eyes,” is a calming and supervising presence on the London-to-Glasgow line. His train departs, like mine, at twenty minutes to midnight, and he, too, consumes a cup of tea en route, “with perhaps a drop of Scotch.” As for Eliot’s account of the sleeping compartments, not much has changed:
Oh it’s very pleasant when you have found your little den
With your name written up on the door.
And the berth is very neat with a newly folded sheet
And there’s not a speck of dust on the floor.
There is every sort of light—you can make it dark or bright;
There’s a handle that you turn to make a breeze.
There’s a funny little basin you’re supposed to wash your face in
And a crank to shut the window if you sneeze.
If you want to teach a child the basics of onomatopoeia (and who doesn’t?), the clickety-lickety-clack of Eliot’s meter is a pretty good place to start. When I first read the poem, at the age of eight or nine, I thought that the chime of “basin” and “face in” was the funniest rhyme of all time. Decades later, and in spite of hot competition from Byron’s terminal couplets in “Don Juan,” I stand by my choice. All the more gratifying to discover that, in my very neat berth on the Caledonian Sleeper, I would, indeed, be in a position to wash my face in a basin.
But what position is that? In a word: hunched. Wide-open spaces, remember, are those green or rocky things outside a train, designed to be stared at through the window. Inside, all roaming is restricted. Only very seldom can you swing a cat, even if you can find a cat who agrees to be swung, and how, exactly, James Bond and his spectre-trained adversary made room in a sleeping compartment for mortal combat, in “From Russia with Love,” I have no idea.
As for suitcases, don’t bother. To embark with bulky baggage is asking for trouble, and, should it come to a scrap between you and your Samsonite, you will lose. Hence the contents of my rucksack on the Caledonian Sleeper, whittled to the bare necessities: toothbrush, toothpaste, Turgenev, T-shirt, underwear, and socks. When turning from the window to the door, in my compartment, I had to revolve on the spot, as if roasting on a vertical spit, and, despite my being the sole occupant, both bunks had been let down, locked into place, and joined by a ladder. A printed notice offered advice: “Guests should use the ladders in the traditional manner, by always facing the bed as they climb up and down.” What other manner is there? Had the train recently hosted the cast of Cirque du Soleil, perhaps, who insisted on descending head first, arms outstretched, after crooking one knee over the top rung?
No less baffling was the Room Service Menu. Pies, cheeses, broth, smoked venison on a platter, and a parade of wines and spirits: all these, and more, could be ferried to one’s bedside. Caledoniaphiles were urged to dine on “Haggis, Neeps & Tatties”—neeps meaning turnips, tatties meaning potatoes, and haggis meaning all your deepest terrors wrapped up in a sphere of stomach skin, then boiled. Precisely what you want to snack on, in other words, while passing through a tunnel at half past two in the morning. The entire feast could be washed down with a Ginger Laddie. Don’t ask.
Thirty-five years ago, I had taken the same line, in the opposite direction. A very different experience: no neeps, no Wi-Fi, no bed. The service was then known as the Night Rider, and the ride would not have disgraced a rodeo. A bunch of us, all students, huddled and shifted in seats that felt as laid-back as lampposts. Daring sallies were launched to the onboard bar. We grabbed, on average, fourteen winks, and, at journey’s end, staggered forth into a Scottish dawn so bleak that it froze the bones.
You can still buy plain seats on the Caledonian Sleeper, and they cost a fraction of the single or double rooms. The economics of night trains, in Europe and elsewhere, rest on two basic theorems. First, the closer you adhere to the perpendicular, the less you pay. An upright vigil in the corridor, during which you stare into the darkness and contemplate the infinite, is dirt cheap. Second, once you do lie flat, communal flatness is better value than solitude. The standard compromise is the couchette, a compartment fitted with four or six bunks: fun for a family, and rousingly unpredictable when you get tossed into a stew of strangers. Urban legends abound.
Hands are said to reach up from the bunk beneath you, in response to your telltale snores, and deftly extract your wallet. And I once heard of a roving youth who, ensconced with newfound companions in a friendly couchette, was offered a cup of coffee in southern Bulgaria and woke up, two days later, in a quiet siding outside Thessaloniki, devoid of every possession except his boxer shorts. You just don’t get that level of service on a plane. Read full share