WHILE I’ve been about a bit, I
am not one of those tanned travellers who have been sniffed at by wolves.
I have not bathed in the snow-cooled waters of the upper Tigris, watched
Mongolian horsemen at their coarse but manly gambols, or observed, in some
dim-lit, Tibetan teahouse, wild, uncouth dances in the original ethnic. I
have, however, seen the dawn crack over the cocktail bar of the old New
Stanley Hotel, Nairobi, visited a wilderness of overblown and over-priced
glassware factories, a mind-numbing number of basilicas, ruins I wouldn’t
have looked twice at back home, and a desolation of shrapnel-sized shards
of probably factory-rejected Etruscan pottery.
To get to
those parts, I have been transported by Army truck safari, cut-price
camel, no frills but many thrills airlines, troopships, cruise liners,
coaches and - my favourite travel method - trains.
been a train lover since infancy when I was taken on Sundays, as a
parental treat, to Edinburgh’s Waverley Station, then, to me, a mysterious
cavern of soot and smoke, to watch hissing, puffing locomotives, some with
names like Bailie Nicol Jarvie and Dandie Dinmont, pulling clanking,
In after-dark visits as a youth, I saw sleeper
carriages waiting to give blanket coverage to night travellers; superior
people, they seemed, both sexes often dressed in tweeds, some carrying
golf clubs and luggage labelled for strange-sounding places and far-away
names. I envied their nocturnal excursions, snug in their little berths,
while the serpentinal train moved across darkened hillsides, factory towns
and somnolent villages in a journey of quickly glimpsed town lights and
pockets of black, velvet darkness.
IN POST-WAR years, sleepers
could accommodate up to six persons of the same sex and it was then that
one experienced the sometimes-bizarre quality of nocturnal travel. Some
fellow sleepers snored like antique heroes in their dying agony, a few had
screaming nightmares while the tumbler-placed dentures of others gibbered
and squeaked like the uprisen, sheeted dead.
couchettes were even more tolerance testing. Travelling across France, a
friend and I were the only Britons in the compartment. On a top bunk, lay
a man with a metal leg. Opposite, reclined a youth who, at intervals,
bathed his brow in eau de Cologne. Below them and above us were a couple
that, like trout snapping at mayfly, ate pre-packed meals, odour-rich in
garlic and other spices.
The atmosphere became so thick it could have almost
been salami-sliced. I opened a window; the Cologne-user shut it. Then, the
artificial leg man uncoupled his limb, lashed it to the side of his bunk
where, throughout the night, it marched with stately grace on a phantom
Nowadays, British train travellers can have a
compact compartment to themselves that gives the impression of a capsule
which will maintain their life support systems while the rail projectile
hurtles through the darkness.
THE word "sleeper" does not,
however, guarantee that passengers will be lulled into insensibility.
Edinburgh travellers, for instance, may get some temporary shut-eye, but
then comes a slackening of speed, light chinks darting through window
blinds, the dread announcement of "Perth" or "Newcastle", followed by the
grinding of trolleys, a rush of footsteps, voices crying, "get in
anywhere, we’ll find the compartment later", and then a series of jerks as
the trains starts again.
Despite inevitable halts and jolts, I willingly
sound a wake-up call for sleeper support. While I am essentially a bunk,
sheet and blanket man, I recognise that market movements dictate different
forms of nocturnal nodding.
Now, First ScotRail is
planning to challenge the no-frills airlines by boosting its
London-Scotland sleeper market with trains that could become backpackers’
expresses, with seats fitted with airline-style videos, reduced fares
on-line and tickets sent by text message to mobile phones.
Harris, First Scotrail’s communications’ manager, told me it will spend £1
million to upgrade its sleeper service, and it will ask passengers how it
should spend the money.
I have a few trains of thought that, apart from
better sound-proofing and catering, include luxury berths that would be an
ecstasy of cushioned comfort, a carriage with a string quartet playing
Mozartian night music and a library packed with works of the great
philosophers that might induce instant oblivion.
MacCaig captured night travel’s atmosphere in his poem, Sleeping
Compartment, which ends: "I go sidelong, I rock sideways ... I draw in my
feet to let Aviemore pass." As one who has been about a bit, I have done
that and will continue to give the same slumber room to Perth, Newcastle
and other points on the night railway compass.