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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 121 - Trains of thought on railway comfort

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.

I have 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, creaking carriages.

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.

Continental mixed-sex 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 landscape.

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.

Carol 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.

Norman 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.

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