Travel/history Night Trains
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