There are things you resign yourself to giving up as a parent: 24 hour Berlin techno parties, eating your own pudding, feeling rested ever again and sleeper travel. Of these, it was sleeper trains I was most heartbroken about giving up.

I don't know when my romanticism of trains started. Perhaps age ten, watching Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, sprawled in front of our council flat four-bar fire on a rainy Sunday afternoon when I found I ardently wanted to transport myself there despite the murder shenanigans. It was watching Dr. Zhivago, which gave me the idea I might enjoy crossing Russia by train.

Eventually I did, while researching my second novel, an epic one-month journey from Moscow to Irkutsk through Siberia where I became used to the soporific rhythms of the vintage rail stock, walking to the toilet to wash cucumbers and tomatoes bought from grandmas on rural train platforms eaten with endless Cup-a-Soups made at the samovar at the end of each carriage.

Then, Caledonian Sleeper I took back to London from The Ullapool Book Festival when I realised I couldn’t wait to see the guy I was calling ‘a friend’. And, finally, the sleeper train from Hanoi to the mountains, my then-boyfriend and I holding hands between the space in bunks as we gently jostled by rice paddy fields to Sapa where he finally deployed the engagement ring he’d been carrying about for two weeks.


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Sadly, as I say, there are things you just know you’re going to give up when you have kids. The idea of taking our tiny toddler - a benign bomb waiting to go off - into a small space with potentially no sleep is an act of violence for everyone involved. A 24 hour techno club would have been better.

But then I heard about an initiative I very much wanted to support, the European Sleeper, dubbed ‘the good night train’, a 100% community-owned company, launched by entrepreneurs and train enthusiasts Elmer van Buuren and Chris Engelsman in 2021 to bring back the magic of train travel in Europe. In March this year they extended their itinerary from Brussels to Prague and, with two loves combined, old sleeper trains and the birthplace of my son, my fingers typed a blur on the keyboard as I arranged our tickets.

It turns out I needn’t have hurried because the European Sleeper isn’t going anywhere with more than 70% of its shares sold and plans to extend their routes to include a new route between Amsterdam, Brussels and Barcelona. Besides, they are only one of a wave of new sleeper routes launched in the last year, including the very desirable Berlin to Paris route.

This is partly because of the rise in environmentally focused travellers who would like an alternative to cheap air fares, and the guilt that goes with them, but perhaps also because ministers and members of the European Parliament have started lobbying the EU Commission to invest in a strategy to boost overnight train travel. So, with hope and a fair bit of trepidation, our family set off from Antwerpen-Centraal on our own personal sleeper train renaissance.

The train departed at 8.01pm and would travel through Belgium, Netherlands and Germany before arriving in our old stomping ground, Prague, at 10.45am the next morning. Our private compartment was charmingly worn, thanks to the difficulty of securing newer hired carriages, but comfortable, with three single sleeper bunks, wide windows and, much to our delight, a teeny wall compartment with a Bakelite sink, complete with mini soaps and a place to hang our toothbrushes, like something straight from the 1950s.

The Herald: A train attendant stands in front of a sleeping car of the Nightjet train line Vienna - Venice (-Zurich) of the Austrian Federal Railways (OeBB) before departure, at the main station in Vienna, Austria, on July 25, 2023. Night trains have made a comeback in EuropeA train attendant stands in front of a sleeping car of the Nightjet train line Vienna - Venice (-Zurich) of the Austrian Federal Railways (OeBB) before departure, at the main station in Vienna, Austria, on July 25, 2023. Night trains have made a comeback in Europe (Image: free)

We settled down to a picnic of olives and cheese and a bottle of the European Sleeper branded wheat beer and then, somewhere around the greenery of the Netherlands, we shuffled in a funny, clumsy tiny space choreography into our pyjamas, unfurled our plush duvets and pillows (a nice surprise after the tracing paper thin ones of Southeast Asia and Central Europe) and gave a sleeper train with a toddler a go. It was certainly a rocky ride but you’d never know it from my three year old who slept, quite literally, like a baby.

My husband and I did less well but, of course, the point of a sleeper train is not to sleep. Instead, it is to wake up to the German countryside sweeping past, drink a hot cup of coffee, eat a croissant and look out at the world as the sun rises then go out into the hallway and have sociable chats with the other passengers.

I met a woman travelling with her parents from the UK who said that they had always been in love with sleeper trains. Her elderly parents had got engaged in Prague, while she was excited to ‘go through six European cities’.


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The young train steward, who could not have been kinder, turned out to be an Antwerp bar owner who took this job with his best friend, who embarks at Berlin each journey, simply because they are so passionate about trains and about the project. He tells me that the company treat them very well and I enjoy the sleeper train just a little better for that too.

We get off at Prague Holesevice Station, our old neighbourhood, and the stop before Prague’s main terminal, Praha hlavní nádraží. Perhaps slightly bleary-eyed but exhilarated. The trip had felt like ‘real travel’, a proper passing through of places, full of nostalgia and yes, romance, something that feels scarcer than ever in these days of ultra-cheap flights. The steward and family waved us goodbye from the windows and we decided it wouldn’t be our last sleeper train. Indeed, it doesn't have to be because our son fell in love with the ‘train with beds’.

Given a choice we’ll choose sleeper trains over every other form of travel, not just to be green but also as a way to make the journey as joyous and memorable as the destination.