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Rattle and roll to the Alps

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Night trains are great for kids, says Robert Pimm.  Adults may find them a little less glamorous

Financial Times, August 20 2005

It’s awkward, leaving your children unattended in a night train compartment after lights-out. But sometimes you have no choice. I’m gone only a few moments. When I return, a man is there, taking off his coat. The light is blazing.


Lech, Austria – Photo Robert Pimm

“Sorry,” I say, “we’ve booked this whole compartment.”

“No.” The man and his suitcases seem to fill the space between the bunks. “I am here too. Look. Here is my ticket.”

“You’re in the next carriage,” I say. “This is wagon 253.”

The man picks up his bags and leaves without a word. I close and bolt the door. At once the compartment feels safe and cosy.

A tousled head peers out from under the blankets.

“I’m glad he’s gone. Now we can enjoy the sleeping train.”

At a time when the tide of budget airlines seems irresistible, it’s easy to forget that thousands of travellers still begin and end their holidays with an overnight train ride across Europe. For children, there’s nothing more thrilling than a night in a creaking, rocking train compartment full of unexpected cubbyholes and strange smells. For grown-ups, the experience offers both pleasures and pitfalls.
Night trains should be doomed. They’re more expensive than driving and slower than flying. They’re labour-intensive, with one attendant per sleeping car and a load of sheets to launder every night. Above all, they’re rough and ready: in these days of luxury living, who wants to toss and turn on a narrow shelf for 10 hours, sharing a toilet with dozens of other travellers?

Curiously enough, lots of people. So much so that each year, we have to book months in advance to secure places on a night train from Berlin to the Austrian Alps.

When we board the Urlaubsexpress (“Holiday Express”) at 22.01, the children are already tired. Finding six berths in our compartment, we feel a mixture of guilt at tying up twice as many beds as we are using and anxiety that the sleeping car attendant may billet a couple of extra people on us, as someone has told us she has every right to do. But the only disturbance comes from our confused visitor, bursting into our lives when the train stops at midnight at a provincial German railway station.

As anyone who’s ever taken the overnight service from Moscow to St Petersburg will know, security is an issue on night trains. On the Holiday Express, the wagon attendant is a rather distracted young woman who shows us how to put the beds down and lock the door (“practise opening it in the dark, at least once”) before taking our tickets for safe-keeping.

Night train compartments seem designed primarily to please children. Modern sleeping cars have unexpected stairways leading in improbable directions and strange asymmetrical layouts to explore. Older designs are even better, with hinged wooden flaps hiding hand-basins or potties, and strange ceramic chutes of uncertain purpose. But the children aren’t just here for the gadgets. They enjoy the romance of going to bed in one place and waking up in another. Maybe even another country.

Some adults aren’t so sure. It’s true the sheets are crisp and white, and identifying the tops, bottoms and sides of what are in fact old-fashioned sheet sleeping-bags is an enjoyable challenge at the start of the evening. But the blankets are deeply unclean, a fact highlighted by their being blue on one side and white(-ish) on the other.

I put the children to bed and curl up in the darkness. Every loose object in the train is vibrating or banging: a symphony of rattles. Then there’s the rumble of the wheels, the roar as we pass another train, the chatter of the people in the passageway, and the laughter of our neighbours – several dozen of them, it seems – partying the night away in the next-door compartment. The train stops constantly, with jolts as wagons are shunted to and fro. At 4am, light pours through the curtains as a disembodied voice announces our arrival at, then departure from, yet another station. I toss and turn and try to recall why we always travel to the Alps this way.

The extra day at the beginning and end of your holiday is one reason. Skiing the deserted slopes on a Saturday after everyone else has set off home is pure pleasure. Then there are those precious moments when you wake in the night, feel the train carrying you through the darkness in an atavistic womb-like state, and fall back into sleep.

Mostly, though, it’s the adventure: when did you last get a thrill from an early-morning flight on a budget airline and hiring a car at the airport? If that means an occasional rough night, it’s worth it.

At 7am the attendant moves down the corridor rapping on doors with a hard metal object: it’s time to wake up. In the daylight she seems more distracted than ever, with the blank eyes of someone who’s seen everything. Perhaps she has. Our complimentary breakfast is a shrink-wrapped croissant and a muesli bar so ghastly that even the children won’t eat it. People emerge from their compartments blinking, pasty and crumpled. No one looks glamorous. But they probably feel livelier than I do.

I peer at the children, who are staring out at the snowy landscape, and ask them how they slept.

“Great,” they both reply, “I didn’t wake up once.”


P.S. if you enjoyed this piece, do explore other writing on this site at the sitemap and guide. Or try a taste of my famous Hotel Stories.

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