On the Night Train

There is something special about travelling through the night by train. The feeling of movement in the darkness. The twinkle of lights in unknowable towns and villages. The melancholy reflection of a subdued carriage in the window. The promise that comes with stepping onto the train from a platform in one country and stepping down, the following morning, into another.

For a while it seemed like night trains had had their day, especially in our corner of Europe. Deutsche Bahn had removed all their sleeper services. The services that used to link Berlin and Hamburg with Munich, with Villach in Austria, Trieste in Italy and Rijeka in Croatia disappeared from the schedules. They were all journeys we’d done. On night trains in a seat or a sleeper compartment, or on the old car trains that delivered not only travellers but also their vehicles, their cars and their motorbikes. We had caught a train through the night from Warsaw, when Katrin was too pregnant to fly. We’d had dinner in Paris and breakfast in Berlin. We looked forward to those journeys as much as the places we were going to. And then it looked like it was all over. Night trains no more.

But just before the pandemic hit, it seemed as if things had turned. In Switzerland, the Netherlands, Czech Republic and, most of all, in Austria, it looked as if there was a real desire to bring new services to the timetables. Deutsche Bahn might still offer trains that travel through the night, such as Aachen to Berlin, with only seats and no couchettes or sleepers (done and not recommended), but these were real night trains. Bed linen and breakfast rolls. A glass of wine at dusk. The romance of rail travel.

Although the pandemic shut things down for a while, the new services have survived and are being added to all the time. We’ll be leaving our apartment in a few weeks to catch a train from Berlin that will deliver us to Graz and the mountains of Austria. We’ve been investigating trips to Switzerland and Sweden. The only problem right now, it seems, is being alert enough to book your ticket. The services are popular, which can only be a good thing. As long as capacity is increased to meet the demand.

We could use this space to argue for why night trains can be and should be a central pillar in reducing the carbon footprint of our travel. That if they are comfortable enough and competitive enough in price, they are a far more desirable way to get from A to B than an morning flight at an ungodly hour with airport queues at both ends. But we want to share instead the memories that – for us at least – get to the magic of the night train:

A dining car just outside of Berlin, the night train starting out on a meandering journey to the Adriatic. The carriage was old. There were upholstered seats, bare in patches and fraying at the edges, and curtains tied back in the windows. Plastic lamps on each table offered low lighting. The food was solid if unspectacular. The beer was good. The whole thing was perfect, like a scene from an old film, with bearded motorbike riders squeezed in around the table in their leathers as extras.

Morning light on the Caledonian Sleeper, the winter sunshine sparkling from the black lochs and pools on the moor, above which a stag stood as if brought there by the Scottish Tourist Board. The hikers and mountaineers prepared their equipment in the corridor, their rucksacks jangling with the sound of carabiners and other gear hanging from the available hooks. The sky was blue and there was snow on the tops. They couldn’t believe their luck.

Years ago, before the border was softened by Schengen, crossing from Slovakia to Hungary. A seat in a six-person compartment, shared with a group of Czech women on their way from Prague to Budapest. The border guards and customs officials on both sides had woken everyone up, so it was time for an impromptu picnic in the middle of the night. There was no shared language, but plenty of shared food. Smoked sausage and bread rolls. Crisps and a cucumber peeled with a bread knife. Red wine and water. Vodka straight from the bottle.

Lifting up the shade on the way home from Paris. It had been a long trip, through Germany and France. It was the moment when you realise you just want to get home. The train made its steady progress through Brandenburg at early light. A sliver of mist hung over the rutted and ploughed fields. Smoke rose from the chimneys of a village beyond, low slung houses huddled around the church as if for protection. The only other movement, a sedge of cranes taking long, careful steps across the night-hardened soil. 

A coffee shop in Trieste station. The only place open, as men in high-vis jackets hosed down the platforms and the concourse. All our fellow travellers had disappeared into the morning, but we weren’t ready for the city just yet. We stood outside and sipped our coffee as the sun rose above the grand buildings across the street. Somewhere near here, Nora Barnacle had spent the night, waiting for James Joyce. We could smell the Adriatic, mingled with exhaust smoke. We’d arrived.

There is space for more stories. There is always space for more. We just have to consult the timetables and book the tickets. Make our way to the station as the light softens and the night approaches. See where the night train will take us next. 

Photographs: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton

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