Night trains: the rise and fall of the sleeper, by Andrew Martin – book review

Night trains, by Andrew MartinNight trains. There’s a phrase that means more than the sum of its parts: think romance, adventure, luxury, mystery, noir. Far more interesting, wouldn’t you say, than day trains: less communal and more intimate. The appeal goes far wider than a rail enthusiast, and in the same way Night Trains is not just for the railway buff. Actually, Night Trains is a book of paradoxes. It’s a eulogy to a European sleeper network decimated by daytime high speed trains on one hand and cheap flights on the other. Yet it is published at a time of renewed investment in Britain’s two sleeper services. (It’s easier, writer Andrew Martin points out, for domestic sleeper services to receive subsidies than ones that stride across national borders.)

We’re drawn to night trains precisely because they bridge luxury and adventure, the familiar and the other (and because they provide the ideal twist on the locked room mystery format), and Martin’s book captures brilliantly how they attract us. He sets out how, through the original Orient Express and the Blue Train, they stood for a certain idea of glamour. This is of course a glamour not necessarily experienced by the millions of young Inter-railing Europeans for whom a couchette meant a night without hotel costs – but Martin comes across some of these in his travels.

Andrew Martin is an engaging guide: he’s quite playful with his language and he also does the monoglot Brit abroad pretty well. His insecurities about who should get the top bunk and whether (and when) to make a scene when things go wrong are enjoyable to hear about, but they also underline the charm of a mode of transport that has its own distinct culture and, indeed, rhythm. As a result, Night Trains encourages its readers to think about what it means to travel and to explore. It’s part-travelogue, part-history, part-tribute. Andrew Martin’s journey is inspired by experiences within his own family. Read his story and you may be inspired to try some of the surviving night train services, or try something else completely. As someone who was once one of those young Inter-railing Europeans, I found myself digging out old timetables and my passport from the time, and thinking about new travel adventures to organise.

Martin’s attempts to recreate and follow some of the classic services reinforce this idea that these trains are a little bit flaky, reliant as they are on excellent co-ordination by many different railway companies. As such, the leisure traveller whose plans are a little bit more flexible, or the backpacker who could easily substitute Budapest for Bucharest at a moment’s cancellation, will be more open to their quirks than the business traveller who now has more reliable and possibly more comfortable (Martin gives us a detailed account of a seasick-inducing journey!) alternatives.

Night Trains does touch upon the future for the railway sleeper service. A mixture of national pride (Russian state railways are interested in filling the gaps left by the likes of Deutsche Bahn and SNCF, and indeed the investment in the Caledonian Sleeper is political rather than economic) and a level of demand that pulls together the luxury-seeker and the hotel-avoider will mean that some kind of network will remain.

But ultimately I don’t think this is a book about trains, in the wider sense. It’s about experience, and what it’s like to travel in a communal but intimate space that is related to but very different from the 7.38 to Liverpool Street. I’ll recommend it to anyone who’s been on a journey, or thinks they might.

You can get Night Trains here.

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