Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Recent Article about Sleeper Trains

My mother took an overnight Sleeper train to Cornwall in the summer of 1957. She was 18, and working as live-in nanny to the children of a Kensington barrister. She travelled with her two little charges and their kindly mother. She remembers little about the journey except that, against railway regulations, they smuggled the family cat into their Sleeper Cabin in its basket. The head of the household stayed behind in London, with his demanding legal work and his equally demanding mistresses.

Following in my mother’s footsteps, I took my first Sleeper Train the other day, from Paddington to St Austell.

It was my first time with a berth booked on an overnight train. I’ve taken night trains before, years back, as a student, and tried to sleep, slumped against carriage windows, neck-cricked, a woollen hat pulled over the eyes to escape the blinding universal strip-light, the upright seat, the unyielding armrests, the manifold discomforts of travelling without style.

This may not be the Royal Train, nor the Orient Express, but customer care on a Sleeper is redolent of a lost age of service. Midnight at Paddington, and a steward greets you by name, leads you to your cabin, explains its limited but functional light and heating controls and points out the toilets (which, mirabile dictu, may be used even when the train is stationary). He checks your wake-up-call time, when he’ll bring tea or coffee and biscuits; and is available, should you need him in the night, in his bolthole at the carriage-end. £30 ensures a cabin to yourself. Top bunk folded up, it’s surprisingly spacious. There’s a sink in the corner, mineral water, a towel, a little wash-bag containing tiny flannel and toiletries.

Welcome, traveller - let’s be on our way! Here’s your ambulant hotel room, a novel mobile home from home, crisp sheets on your bunk, a tartan blanket. Expect the treasures of Britain’s railway outside your bedroom window at first light, that wonderful stretch of Brunel’s coastal track between Exeter and Newton Abbot, Dawlish at dawn, Exmouth across the water, the red rock ocean stacks of Teignmouth, then on to the Tamar bridge and Cornwall. But you need not hide in your bedroom, sir! The comfortable carriage next door serves as an exclusive lounge, for passengers with berths, with its cheery buffet bar, open all night.

Donning my nightclothes, I was content at the prospect of a good night’s sleep, and arrival refreshed for work in Cornwall the next morning. Lights out, blind down - the cabin in complete soporific darkness - soon I was drifting off to sleep in my little bed, the train taking the strain, oblivious to the passing miles.

But, my God, what a miserable night. I’ve rarely been as downcast. It’s almost impossible to sleep for the rocking around, the stopping and starting, the stuffy-sad cabin air. Any rest is plagued and fitful. Each dream sequence is a bad one, and it’s a long, long night. This is no express journey. By definition, the Sleeper Train is obliged to take the whole night to arrive at its terminus, so it dawdles, loiters at stations en route, skulking along stretches of track, making way for freight trains, ashamed to be the snail of the service. Soon, restless and dejected, you are switching on your bedside lamp, and off for a desultory pee. The over-starched sheets feel papery, the heating ineffectual, the blankets rough, the pillows cheap. You’re in transit, dispossessed. The worst of it is this realisation: you’re alone, uncomfortable and, albeit temporarily, you’re homeless.

But travel and insomnia are ancient bed-fellows. I have a friend who’s a retired airline pilot. He’s stayed all over Europe in the best hotels, with a generous per diem of local currency. But being away from home soon palls. He’s grown to hate hotel life, the snoring next door, the raucous party downstairs; too often allocated an echo-chamber adjacent to the lift shaft, sleeping sporadically before the early morning summons to the airport.

Business travel too, only looks glamorous from the outside. On an aircraft, once the curtain is closed which parts premium from economy, we plebs in the hindquarters feel an irascible envy. But the truth is this: most commercial high-flyers aren’t having fun, they’re stressed and lonely, hardened to corporate treats, they miss their families and would rather be at home. All they really need from an airport are limited delays and unlimited internet access.

I was delighted once to get a ticket upgrade at Heathrow, which entitled me to use a business lounge. I’d pressed my nose up against its windows many times. Once inside, I relished every freebie, the gratis publications and sustenance, the comfy chairs, the extended hospitality. But soon my flight was boarding, and I’d wasted half my time trying to work out who to pay for the complimentary croissants.

In a recent magazine questionnaire, a famous Captain of Industry was asked what single thing would most improve the quality of his life. His answer: ‘To spend more time with my wife. I’m always having to go away.’

My mother telephoned when I got back from Cornwall. ‘How was the Sleeper Train?’ she said. ‘Great, thanks,’ I replied. ‘Did you sleep well?’ she asked. ‘Pretty well,’ I said, using the truth economically.

Back at my modest suburban homestead, the washing machine’s playing up and probably needs a costly replacement. There’s a leak in the shower, and those cracks in the ceiling are a worry. Our little flat is cramped and unglamorous, and we can’t afford to move. But I’m happy to be home, with an unchanging view from the bedroom window, tucked up with my other half, in a bed that’s going nowhere except, hopefully, to the Land of Nod.


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