2020 – UK – “Call it Sleep”

Many of my previous attempts to sleep on trains have not really met with much success.

Just by coincidence, there have been 13 of them.

1) Edinburgh 1982

My first experience of a bed on a train was during my university days.  It was in an old British Rail “Mk 1” sleeper carriage on a train from Kings Cross to Edinburgh.  It took me until past Grantham to get to sleep but I was already awake again by Newcastle. The train was then diverted via Carlisle and I only managed to doze off again half an hour before we got to Edinburgh.  I remember the attendant bringing coffee and the biscuits that came with it: custard creams.

In 1984 we toured Europe and spent almost every night on a train. We couldn’t afford sleepers though and had to make do with the regular seats on the night services.  It was the same story when I crossed Australia by train in 1987: three consecutive nights trying to sleep in a seat.

2) Trans Manchurian 1988  

Being on the train from Beijing to Moscow for almost a week helped me to eventually get into the rhythm of sleeping well at nights.  By contrast, I actually struggled to sleep the first night in the hotel in the Russian capital; my body seemed to miss the train.  The effect didn’t last long though and I still had trouble sleeping on the train a few nights later on the final Moscow to Berlin section.

3) Japan 1991

Japan has largely removed all its sleeper trains from service now, but back in 1991 there was still an extensive network of them. I took one once to get down to Yamaguchi.  The train was the “Sakura” and I remember it departed Tokyo relatively early in the evening.  There was a dining car and I had a meal before turning in.  It was comfortable enough but the narrower gauge track they have in Japan wasn’t so conducive to sleeping uninterrupted for long periods.

Sakura at Hiroshima 1984    / Spaceaero2 / Creative Commons 3.0 

4) India 1994

On our honeymoon in India we took several overnight trains as we toured the country by rail and I actually managed to sleep well on some of them. My favourite trip was from Udaipur to Ahmedabad.  The train was hauled by a steam locomotive. The only time in my life I have been on a steam-operated train in regular service.  I was too excited to sleep much but it didn’t really seem to matter.

5) South Africa 1995

Not able to afford the famous and luxurious “Blue Train” from Cape Town to Pretoria, we took the much more ordinary “Trans-Karoo”.  Our sleeper was comfortable enough but the problem, like Japan, seemed to be the narrower gauge track.  Too many jolts and a lot of rocking motion had me struggling to doze off and I couldn’t manage more than about 4 hours.

6) Italy 1998

We took a sleeper from Rome to Venice during our tour of Italy by train.  It was a mistake: I couldn’t get to sleep at all.  I was in the lower bunk and I spent most of the night looking out at the track through the curtain.  The saving grace was a really early arrival in Venice.  Unable to check into our hotel, we stored our luggage and toured the city before any of the other tourists had woken up.


7) Vienna to Brussels 1999

At the end of a holiday touring Hungary and Slovakia we boarded the overnight “Donauwalzer” from Vienna to Brussels.  It started off well and we enjoyed Campari sodas and Viennese sausage salad in our compartment before the attendant came in to convert the seats into beds.  I don’t know why but I didn’t sleep a wink.  I finally dozed off on the Eurostar to London the next morning.

8) America 2005

America’s railways predominantly carry freight and as a result it seems that the track is not maintained in a way that is conducive to a good night’s sleep.  That is my excuse anyway.  We went overnight from New York to Chicago and then, after a stay in a hotel, took another two nights to reach San Francisco.  I never managed more than 3 consecutive hours of sleep on any of the nights and struggled to get more than 5 in total.


 9) Finland 2008

I took the sleeper from Moscow to Helsinki during a business trip.  I shared my compartment with a Finnish guy who was working in a similar industry to me.  We got on well and spent too much time chatting over several cans of Baltika Beer.   It was well past 2am before I managed to doze off.   I was already awake again for the Finnish frontier.

10) Vietnam 2011

We spent two separate nights travelling on the Reunification Express.  The first was from Hanoi to Hue and the second from Danang to Saigon. On the first night we were sharing a four berth compartment with part of a large family who had split up over three compartments. Their comings and goings kept me awake until late and I only managed about three hours sleep.   On the second night, perhaps I wasn’t as tired because the constant jolting and noise meant that I managed even less.

11) Myanmar 2014

We travelled back from Mandalay to Rangoon on the sleeper.  It was, without doubt, my worst night on a train ever.  The track was in truly dreadful condition.  There were three of us in a compartment for four.  I spent the first part of the night watching the Buddhist monk in the opposite bunk hold on to stop himself falling out of bed as the train bounced up and down. I was seriously concerned it might derail.  I gave up trying to sleep and went off to sit in the day seats in another part of the train.


12) DPRK – China 2018

The best night’s sleep I have ever had on a train was in a car operated by the North Korean State Railway.  I had left Pyongyang at 10am and had spent the day traversing North Korea before passing over the border into China. The train was continuing on overnight towards Beijing. I was alone in a compartment designed for four.  I managed to use the extra duvets to make a really comfortable bed and then set the cabin temperature just how I wanted it. I was soon out like a light.  It needed the alarm on my phone to wake me.


 13) Estonia 2018

Ironically, I did manage to sleep quite well on a sleeper during a day trip.  I booked a sleeping compartment on the early morning train from St Petersburg to Tallinn just because it was inexpensive and offered a bit more comfort.  The train left around 6am and arrived around 1pm.  I had actually never intended to sleep.  It was already breakfast time when I got on, but the Russian attendant still provided me with a full set of comfortable bedding and I managed to doze off several times during the trip.



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