Inside the Caledonian Sleeper

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Caledonian Sleeper_01

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Sleeper trains can save you time and money, but of the ones I’ve had the opportunity to try, the most that can be said about their comfort level is that they’re tolerable. I’ve been on one of the top bunks of a 6-couchette compartment and I can tell you it’s no fun not being able to sit upright and sleeping with the ceiling barely a foot above my nose.

The Caledonian Sleeper, the overnight train service between London and Scotland, is by far the most luxurious sleeper I’ve ever been on. My sister and I took it both ways — from London to Inverness, and from Fort William back to London. (The photo above was taken at Fort William.)

On the Caledonian Sleeper, you actually feel kind of pampered. There’s a steward who comes to your compartment and orients you if it’s your first time on the sleeper. He also asks you what time you would be like to woken up, what drink you would like to have in the morning, and whether or not you want breakfast.

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She took the midnight train going anywhere

SGMT
SGMT train station

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There’s nothing romantic about midnight trains.

Oh, there’s romance in the notion of stepping from a wooden platform onto a steel carriage, from solid ground to motion, to adventure, to the dark.

There’s nothing romantic about not knowing where, exactly, in the designated platform of a rather long train, two people with a ticket that says “CNL 1319, 2 Liegeplätze, Wg. 186, Pl. 55 56, 2 Oben, Abteil, Nichtraucher, inkl. Zuschlag” should stand to wait for their car; nothing romantic about expecting the cars to be ordered numerically all throughout, then finding out they’re not, then having to decide — fast! — whether to go forward or back; nothing romantic about deciding, at the last minute, to board a random car and searching from car to car for the right car and the right compartment; nothing romantic about dragging your luggage along narrow corridors and having to wait for rowdy groups of people to settle themselves into their compartments so that you can pass by to get to yours.

There is, I suppose, something romantic about the thought of going to sleep in Paris and waking up in Venice, as if transported by dreams in a drizzle of pixie dust.

In unromantic reality, you wake up when the authorities need to see your ticket and your passport, and again when they are returned to you. Or if the air conditioning is wonky, you wake up every 30 minutes or so: when it becomes too hot, and again when it becomes too cold. That is if you can sleep at all, in your cramped berth, your 1 couchette in a crowded car of 6.

And yes, it might be romantic: the idea of 6 strangers seemingly thrown together by fate, their life’s journeys interconnected for a time altogether too brief.

What’s not so romantic? Not being able to sit up in bed, having to creep into it, and staring at the roof of the train just a few inches from your nose, because a 6-couchette compartment in a 12-compartment 26-meter car does not a penthouse suite make.

So honestly?

There is nothing romantic about midnight trains.

Just the idea of them.

And yet…

I still love them.

I love that the experience is raw and real, not a smooth ride contrived for my paying convenience.

I love that they remind me of why I travel: to experience the unfamiliar, even when it’s uncomfortable.

And I love that they remind me of my favorite stories, the ones with happy endings. They give me hope that, someday, after the curveballs and the uncertainty and the discomfort and the pain, in the end I will be exactly where I am supposed to be.

(In Venice, sipping a latte.)
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Caledonian Sleeper_15

 

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5 Reasons Why You Should Consider Traveling by Train on Your Next Trip Abroad

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trainticket

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For those who take them day in and day out, trains are probably as romantic as, oh, lawnmowers. And when they’re not running as well as they should, they’re often a source of consternation (and/or mini-heart attacks) for regular commuters. In fact, I’d probably be hard-pressed to explain to people who have to take trains why I like to take trains.
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So why trains?

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We don’t have trains where I live (Cebu) so that’s probably part of their appeal. It’s why I chose the name Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains for this site. The juxtaposition of those two ideas — a girl from a small barrio in a third world country and a sleek sleeper train enabling one to, say, go to sleep in Paris and wake up in Venice — says so much about the barrier-breaking possibilities of travel.

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Trains are <3

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But the appeal of trains is so much more than that:

1. Trains let you see the countryside.

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There’s the Flåm Railway scenic train, which offers views of Norway’s fjords, mountains and waterfalls. There’s the Glacier Express, with its views of the Swiss Alps. There’s the Black Forest line — “pine forests, rock faces and dark overhead branches.” And then there’s the Deerstalker, with its romantic views of the Scottish highlands. But, really, even, say, the regular Frecciargento from Rome to Venice offers beautiful countryside views.

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The windows could use a washing though.

The Frecciargento’s windows could use a washing though.

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And so could the windows of the Hogwarts Express, er, I mean, the train from Fort William to Mallaig that passes by the Glenfinnan Viaduct made popular in the Harry Potter films

And so could the windows of the Hogwarts Express, er, I mean, the train from Fort William to Mallaig that passes by the Glenfinnan Viaduct made popular in the Harry Potter films

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Somewhere between Edinburgh and Inverness

This very Scotland-y scene was seen somewhere between Edinburgh and Inverness

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And this is also Scotland — 0n the train from Inverness to Kyle of Localsh


2. Trains are OC-traveler-friendly.

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I think the first time I fully appreciated the planning possibilities of trains was when my family and I went on our first trip to Singapore. With a list of places we wanted to visit on one hand, and a map marked with MRT stations on the other, I went to town painstakingly tracing our routes: board here, change trains here, stop here. I’m that girl who thinks planning a trip is half the fun so I, of course, loved it. Spontaneity is all very well, but in my opinion knowing what to do and how best to do it saves you time and lets you focus on the more important things during the actual vacation.

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And don’t those train stations just look Nice? (Heh.)


3. Trains versus airplanes? No contest.

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Look, I like flying well enough — I’m an airline kid, and airports and planes are like a second home. And you won’t find me taking half a dozen train rides when one flight will do. That said, here’s why I tend to prefer trains:

  • You can show up at the train station mere minutes before your ETD (just enough time for you to check which platform your train is departing from, e.g. 9 3/4).
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  • You (and your luggage) don’t have to go through x-ray machines, check-in counters, immigration officers, etc. No rules about water bottles and laptops and coins on pockets.
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  • Train stations tend to be more centrally located than airports. Venezia Sta. Lucia, for example, is right on the Grand Canal; Nice Ville is a leisurely walk to the Promenade des Anglais; Roma Termini is just a few blocks from the Colosseum. Not so their airports.
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  • “You’re traveling by train? But they’re more expensive than flying!” Not if you get tickets as soon as bookings open! (#ItPaysToPlan)
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  • If you factor in check-in times, wait times, and traveling time to and from the station/airport, a train ride can actually be quicker (with less hassle) than a plane ride.
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High-speed TGV from Marseille to Paris

Upper deck of a high-speed TGV from Marseille to Paris


4. Sleeper trains save you time and money.

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You could board a train in the evening, sleep a full 8 hours, and wake up at your next destination. It’s really like teleporting while you’re sleeping (except not). Alright, the bed isn’t exactly queen size, and sleeper trains can be expensive even if you book early. On the other hand, it’s one less night at a hotel, and the time you’ve saved more than makes up for the little extra cost.

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My slept-in berth on the Paris-Venice night train

My slept-in berth on the Paris-Venice night train

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Couchettes (reclining seats) on the old Paris-Nice sleeper -- they're really not that bad!

Couchettes (reclining seats) on the old Paris-Nice sleeper — they’re really not that bad!

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Caledonian Sleeper_04

My best sleeper ride to date: the Caledonian Sleeper that runs between London and the Scottish Highlands. Comfortable, spacious, and comes with a steward who asks you what time you would like to be woken up in the morning. #fancy

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Sunrise over the tracks

Sunrise over the tracks


5. Trains are reliable.

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Okay, I know a lot of people will go “What?!” at this point. Some places (e.g., Singapore) have better train systems than others (e.g., Manila) and those who live in the latter would absolutely be justified in thinking I’m being sarcastic. But I’m not. I sincerely believe trains are reliable — or at least more reliable than cabs and buses and jeepneys. Strikes, snow on tracks, and Manila MRT woes notwithstanding, at least you can rely on trains to have fixed routes and fixed fares. You don’t have to worry about traffic jams and you don’t have to worry about the driver being the spawn of Satan.

(In Bangkok, once, instead of a straightforward drive to the airport, a cab driver took me and a friend on a circuitous route on the Thonburi side, passing by dark, deserted areas before finally crossing the Chao Phraya and depositing us at Suvarnabhumi Airport. I don’t know if the driver just wanted to squeeze as many bahts as he could out of that journey, or if he had more nefarious intentions and changed his mind only when I called another friend living in Bangkok and started describing every street, bridge and landmark I could spot. That was probably the most scared I had ever been in my life. I actually started sending out texts to everyone in my family, thanking them for everything and telling them I loved them, because for a time there I was convinced I would never see them again.)

Trust issues with cabs aside, there’s just a comfort in knowing you will be at a particular place at a particular time. In an uncertain world, in an uncertain life, that’s a huge deal.
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The quaint departures boards at Paris Gare du Nord

The quaint departures board at Paris Gare du Nord

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GK Chesterton’s Gabriel Syme said it best, I think, in The Man Who Was Thursday:

The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street or to Bagdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria. No, take your books of mere poetry and prose; let me read a time table, with tears of pride. Take your Byron, who commemorates the defeats of man; give me Bradshaw, who commemorates his victories.

A bit over the top, I suppose, and yet…just right on point too.

 

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Originally “For the Love of Trains: 5 reasons why you too should consider traveling by train on your next trip abroad”
LSS | Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains | All rights reserved

 


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