Fast Forward: the Romance of the Sleeper Train

Our  large and cumbersome television spoils the effect of our newly decorated bedroom rather.

It is an aged monolith. It stands like a disgruntled rail employee on a station, with the most uncompromising air. If you don’t like me here, Madam, it emanates, you can always go and sleep somewhere else.

It has garnered an affable working relationship with my husband, however. A few moments ago, Phil drew my attention with a gleeful:”Look! The telly’s got a new remote control!”

He is correct. And it does not require batteries. I looked up from the laptop to find my husband had extended his leg out from under the duvet, and succeeded in operating the fast forward button with his big toe.

He was delighted.

I, however, was perplexed.

The film he was fast forwarding was To Russia With Love. Phil adores his Bond films and I could not understand why he was hurrying the frames past.

“Why are you fast forwarding?” I asked.

“To get to the train bit,” he answered.

Phil likes train bits in films. He loves this mahogany-clad valet-peopled world which is disappearing fast; he loves the pace, the drama. He loves the trains.

My husband loves North By Northwest, where Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint flee James Mason in a sleeper carriage. He loves Murder on The Orient Express, in which there are too many clues in the sumptuous VIP couchette.

Together we watched Sean Connery negotiating The Train Bit with suave authority. We watched him roughing up the beautiful blonde Russian plant Tatiana. Around them were the fixtures and fittings of a beautiful old sleeper train. Tatiana fell in love with James. Behind them both, the world flew past, enticing landscapes somewhere between Istanbul and Venice.

Phil sniggered.

“What are you laughing at?” I asked. There seemed no rhyme nor reason to this man’s thought patterns tonight.

“That train is clearly,” he announced with unequivocal authority,”a British Rail train. It has the green livery of a commuter train of the 1960s. It was probably travelling between Waterloo and Woking.”

At which point he rewound the film and freeze-framed it for me. Sure enough, the mark on the side of the train was a classic British Rail roundel.

Phil has done his bit researching the old sleeper train tradition. Last year he travelled from Paris to Munich by sleeper. We were all agog as to how it would be, following in the footsteps of Cary Grant and Sean Connery and Albert Finney.

It was, Phil reported, an atrocious night’s sleep. Mainly because he was so incredibly excited.

There was, to his great disappointment, no dining car: that is reserved for the Summer holidays in these modern times. Beer and sandwiches from the attendant had to suffice.

He pulled out of La Garde De L’Est at 7pm and they arrived at Munich Station at 8am. The sleeper carriage was tiny, the window a slit shared with the next carriage. The train took forever to travel across France, and Phil, being Phil,  felt compelled to note the stations as they passed. Somewhere around midnight he clocked Metz, on the Franco-German border, and then nodded off.

He slept an uneasy doze informed by the speed at which his body was travelling through space.

At about 7am, he woke, trundling at a sedate pace through the towns of Bavaria, pristine and quaint as only the people of that part of the world know how.

There was a shower next door but one: and Phil reports that was huge.

When they got on, they had been the third carriage from the end. Now they were somewhere in the middle. Half the train had unhitched from the rest and headed, under cover of darkness, off to Berlin. And then a contingent of carriages from Amsterdam had joined the carriages snaking their way to Munich.

Of the shunting and re-coupling, the hitching and un-hitching, the comings and goings, Phil remembers not a thing.

Even the retelling is filled with romance; everyone from Josephine, Geraldine and Sugar Kane – of Some Like It Hot- to a team of the original Vampire hunters from Bram Stoker’s Dracula have resorted to a train to get them from A to B across a continent, with bed and breakfast provided.

And now, my husband has done it too.

Which only leaves me. We now have a pact: my third novel will be set aboard a sleeper train hurtling across Europe. It will require extensive research, not only by me, but by another, knowledgable about trains, who can fill in the minutiae.

It sounds both seductive and, as fantasies go, lucrative.

Better get started on the first book, then.

Meanwhile, feast your eyes here.


37 thoughts on “Fast Forward: the Romance of the Sleeper Train

  1. Your post reminded me of a tour bus driver in New Zealand who talked of nothing else but trains. Any time we successfully interrupted some explanation from wheel paint to speed and asked a question about the area, the answer would be oiled with some train detail. I don’t know why on earth the poor man was a bus driver!

    Good luck with those books, Kate!

  2. Trains, good and bad. I remember sleeping going from Johannesburg to Durban once as a youngster. I loved the gentle rocking motion, but my young brother said the train kept saying “I love you Dick” as it clacked along.

    Our experience had none of the trappings of first class travel, alas! A valet/maid would have been in the way.

  3. ““That train is clearly,” he announced with unequivocal authority,”a British Rail train. It has the green livery of a commuter train of the 1960s. It was probably travelling between Waterloo and Woking.”

    Sometimes, there’s a powerful case for not Knowing Too Much. It gets in the way of the film 🙂

    Totally agree re the romance of the sleeper though, Kate. It’s something you *must* do. I haven’t got over reading PaulTheroux’s descriptions of waking up to fantastic landscapes as he journeyed by rail across Mongolia and China.

  4. Planes,Trains, Automobiles and of course…”Wooden Ships”! Once again I’ve been wooed…
    Why does this post, and picture take me back so to the railway days of England? Oh, I think I know…probably read too many Arthur Conan Doyle “Sherlock Holmes” books…
    And to think that only 50 years prior to his, and the loyal Dr. Watson’s many travels by rail…Stage Coaches spanned the atoll…As the Victorian Age was railed in…Yeah…Romantically reminiscent?
    I’ll probably just get off at this stop…as it has stopped me from my “Wide World Web Browsing” in my tracks.

    1. Stage coaches: not quite the comfortable experience a train berth might be, Paul! There are lots of accounts and they all seem to report that a journey on four carriage wheels was a deeply uncomfortable experience…

  5. Alas sleeper trains don’t do it for me – I hear every noise, feel every creek, and see the flicker of all the stations as the train speeds past. The night feels as if it will never end.
    It is, however, a wonderful place for a novel. All life can be seen on a sleeper train, depending on which country you are travelling in!

  6. Oh, I have always wanted to travel on the over-night sleeper up to Scotland! Expensive though, I’m told. Train travel is good, when you have a seat and a good book 🙂
    I always think of this when I think of over-night trains

    Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat

    There’s a whisper down the line at 11.39
    When the Night Mail’s ready to depart,
    Saying ‘Skimble where is Skimble has he gone to hunt the thimble?
    We must find him orthe train can’t start.’
    All the guards and all the porters and the stationmaster’s daughters
    They are searching high and low,
    Saying ‘Skimble where is Skimble for unless he’s very nimble
    Then the Night Mail just can’t go.’

  7. Love the video of the departure of the Murder on the Orient Express train, the music is so elegant befitting a jewel of a train. Trumpets and strings…..and then at the end a scream!!

    I will someday travel cross country in the US and Canada by train when I have a few weeks to spare and can take a leisurely trip. We have taken a couple of wonderful train trips in Alaska with the big bubble observation cars and a great dining car. A train ride is just so entertaining, from the scenery passing by to the many stories all around you inside. All you have to do is just listen.

  8. MTM and Phil share this fascination. Good Lord, the horror of a story I have from our honeymoon because he was determined to spend part of it on a sleeper train…..

    Please ask Phil why wobbling bunk beds are romantic. We tried sleeping on a single together, being our honeymoon and all, but I banished MTM to the upper one within 15 minutes.

    He still wants to do the sleeper train through the scenery of the upper Northwest. Maybe Phil would like to go with him to save me…..

  9. Wonderful post, Kate!

    Have you, or, more importantly Phil, seen the David Suchet special where he travels on the real Orient Express? Must see it if you haven’t. It will give Phil plenty of opportunities to use that toe mechanism on the remote.

    My mother always talked of the train she took from Chicago to San Diego, where my dad was stationed at the naval base during WW II. I always thought it so romantic, her traveling, alone, so far to see her husband, then she would get to the part where she questioned why all the trees were planted upside down. We’d all burst into giggles. Ma had never seen palm trees before.

    1. It is wonderful, the quirks of life which lead us to see new places, Penny. I’d like to take that journey: for we have tint little stunted palm trees here, nothing like the healthy indigenous kind!

  10. My husband and I took a sleeper train in India to Udaipur it was comfortable with first class tickets. I admired the views of the desert sand and was excited for the next stage of our journey. However, we had to cut or trip short and on the way back all they had was second class – it was the most miserable experience of my life.

    1. You remind me, Belle, of a post by an Indian film director I follow, Banno…in an earthy post, she described a very grim journey as they made their way up to the mountains to scope a film location.You can read it here I must make a note: first class, or fly!

      1. Definitely make note of it! There is a huge difference in the quality of service and room conditions. I was never so happy to see Delhi the moment we stepped off the train! Don`t even get me started about the bathroom…

        I`m heading over to read the post 🙂 Thanks for the suggestion!

  11. Love your plan for your 3rd novel . . . I am planning a similar novel/self-help book based in a chocolate factory.

    I shall do the research myself. 😀

    The working title . . . Life is Bittersweet!

  12. Ah, Kate, you have totally upended my day! I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time, browsing the internet and reminiscing of my long-ago train trip from Chicago to Lamy, NM:

    I was just 18, not long out of high school, and a mixed bundle of emotions about making such a lengthy trip “on my own.” It was merely “coach” and not a pullman trip, as such an expense was beyond my family’s modest means, but travel on the “El Cap” — — was exciting nonetheless. Today that same run is covered by Amtrak’s Southwest Chief: and I would be delighted to make the trip again, sleeper car or otherwise. 🙂

  13. Kate, I think I prefer the idea of travelling by train rather than the actual travelling on one; although a sleeper train may be slightly different. I travelled down to London by train one day, and suffered terrible numbness and cramp for the (what seemed like) 48 hour journey. I don’t think I was on the express… and as much as I tried, I wasn’t on the sleeper!
    Toes make good remotes, by the way, if they are positioned just right! 🙂

  14. One of my vacation dreams is to take the train across Canada… sleeper cars, dining cars, stops and excursions, the Canadian Rockies…

    I can’t wait for that third novel!

  15. I love sleeper trains and have traveled cross country three times, some more comfortable than others. I would like to go anywhere by train, but my husband is a railroad switchman and is so tuned to the rhythms and every sound that he doesn’t relax! Now to travel on the Orient Express…I’d take a date! Debra

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