Travel/history Night Trains

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

An­drew Martin (Pro­file Books, £14.99)

Af­ter ex­cel­lent books on the Lon­don Un­der­ground and Bri­tain’s trains, rail writer and nov­el­ist An­drew Martin now turns his at­ten­tion to the sleeper trains of main­land europe. He looks back at the golden age of lux­ury sleep­ing com­part­ments and gourmet din­ing cars while also try­ing his damnedest to re­trace sev­eral of the clas­sic, his­toric routes as the axe looms over their modern equiv­a­lents.

those turn­ing the pages ex­pect­ing to find the Cale­do­nian Sleeper and the Night riviera to Corn­wall may be dis­ap­pointed as Mr Martin has cov­ered them else­where. In­stead, his overnight jour­neys take him to Nice, Venice, Lis­bon, Is­tan­bul, Berlin and Bødo, Nor­way’s most northerly sta­tion.

europe’s night trains were the brain­child of the Bel­gian Ge­orges Nagel­mack­ers, who, to­wards the end of the 19th cen­tury, founded the Wag­ons-lits fran­chise.

Nagel­mack­ers seems to have been an ex­tra­or­di­nary wheeler-dealer— es­tab­lish­ing the Ori­ent-ex­press ser­vice from Paris to Con­stantino­ple alone in­volved ne­go­ti­at­ing with eight dif­fer­ent gov­ern­ments.

Mr Martin paints a vivid pic­ture of this world on rails of mul­ti­lin­gual con­duc­tors (a min­i­mum of three lan­guages was re­quired) and din­ing car­riages with a team con­sist­ing of the maître d’ho­tel, chef de cui­sine, an un­der-chef, a saucier and a washer-up. A typ­i­cal menu from the 1960s opened with con­sommé madrilène and closed with a cor­beille de fruits, with filets de soles Du­clère just one of the dishes of­fered in be­tween. read­ers fa­mil­iar with the fare served on to­day’s trains may ex­pe­ri­ence a pang of re­gret for what we have lost.

Night Trains is not just a book for the anoraks. Mr Martin holds the hand of the reader who may not know the dif­fer­ence be­tween a sleeper and a couchette and, from Agatha Christie to Al­fred Hitch­cock, the book is crammed with ref­er­ences to the lit­er­a­ture and films set aboard night trains.

He proves a witty com­pan­ion who wears his knowl­edge lightly and meets var­i­ous chal­lenges— pick­pock­ets, french rail strikes, cel­lo­phane-wrapped sand­wiches— with wry asides. His on-go­ing wor­ries about whether he’ll have to share his com­part­ment with a com­plete stranger will strike a chord with all but the most ex­treme ex­tro­vert.

Although much of the book looks back to the hey­day of the night train, Brexit and the Paris bomb­ings of 2015 pro­vide a con­tem­po­rary back­drop to Mr Martin’s jour­neys. So, too, does the very un­cer­tain fu­ture faced by the sleeper trains, their ser­vices long since out­ma­noeu­vred by bud­get air­lines and high-speed trains. Af­ter this ode to an all but lost world, we can but hope that Mr Martin will turn his at­ten­tion next to the rail­ways of In­dia and Amer­ica. Michael Mur­ray-fen­nell

A restau­rant car on board the Venice Sim­plon-ori­ent-ex­press

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