Novelty or necessity? The world's best sleeper trains

When California finally secedes from Trump's Union, this train will be your only way across the land border. Image: Amtrak.

There’s something about a sleeper train that can’t be replicated by any other form of travel.

Bedding down in a narrow bunk, being gently rocked to sleep with track noise as a lullaby; waking up at 2am to peek at a station platform in a different country to where you started; queueing outside the toilet with six other people in order to brush your teeth.

But with the advent of cheap flights and high-speed rail, night trains are on the back foot. Luckily there are still scheduled services where you can kip as you ride the rails. We can’t hope to cover them all here, so for a completely comprehensive guide, try the Man in Seat 61.

For the sleeper train novice, a quick introduction: there are several sleeping options, not always available on all services. The most comfortable, private and expensive option is a one-to-three berth compartment, with decent mattresses, bedding and at least a sink, sometimes private or shared. Lower down the price scale is the couchette, which come in four-to-six berths per compartment. They’re more basic; you share washing facilities with the whole carriage and you usually don’t get changed into your jammies to sleep.

And then there are the normal seats, which we absolutely do not recommend. Seriously, don’t do this. It’s like the hell of an overnight flight but without the complimentary booze.

With that, here we go...

UK

We on this tiny isle can boast two sleeper trains. They both have the same basic setup: compartments sleep two people with washbasins. There are no showers on board, though you can use showers at various stations.

The Night Riviera (we kid you not about that name) runs between London Paddington and Cornwall. Ticketing is gloriously simple, costing £60 for a single occupancy cabin and £70 for double, added onto your ticket to travel.

A saucily-lit berth on the Night Riviera. Image: GWR

Complimentary breakfast means a bacon sandwich (veggie options are presumably available).

It’s getting a refit as we write, including adding USB charging points, and will eventually look very fancy.

The UK’s other sleeper is the Caledonian sleeper, running between London Euston and various locations in (as the name suggests) Scotland. Unlike the Night Riviera you can book just a berth rather than a whole cabin (isn’t that worse than sleeping in a six-berth couchette, somehow? You know, creepier?).

All aboard for indepen-don't. Image: Caledonian Sleeper

It’s not the cheapest: London to Inverness in a bed in a cabin that you may have to share with one other person will set you back at least £80*, and you don’t even get breakfast. First class gets you a cabin to yourself and breakfast, but it’s £175*.

*These are UK train fares, so your actual costs may vary according to when you book, when you’re travelling and how many cats crossed your path that morning.

Scandinavia

As usual, the Scandinavians do things properly. In Sweden, you can travel from Malmö or Gothenburg in the south all the way to the Arctic Circle, over the course of a full day. And for the cost of a flight, airport transfers and a mid-range hotel in Stockholm (approx. £150), you can travel in a first class compartment with your own bathroom and shower (sleeper train regulars will know how big a deal this is) from the capital to Lapland, which is going to be part of my next summer holiday thankyouverymuch.

Finland has upgraded some of its sleeper trains that run between the south and Lapland, to (always cool) double deck sleeping cars.

Lie back in the VIP Suite and think about Mother Russia. Image: Russian Railway

The really exciting bit, though, is the sparkling Siemens trains on the Russian-run Tolstoi overnight service from Helsinki to Moscow, where for as little as €116 you can get a first class cabin – in theory one to yourself, though I’ve failed to make that happen on the booking system. Still no private shower: you’ll need to pay upwards of €300 for a VIP suite, with its swagged curtains, for that pleasure. Curtain pelmets, ruched table covers and e-books of Leo Tolstoy’s works however, are for everyone.

 Here’s someone who’s done the trip and taken a lot of photos.

Continental Europe

Europe’s sleeper trains are undergoing a radical shake-up as some operators drop out and others step in. Routes I took not that many years ago – Paris-Munich and Paris-Madrid, for example – no longer exist. Deutsche Bahn doesn’t run sleeper services any more, but Austrian operator ÖBB has stepped in to fill some of the voids.

ÖBB has bought some of DB’s trains and is working on upgrading its fleet, aiming for new trains entering service in 2020 – which says a lot for its confidence in the service. Its network stretches from Hamburg to Rome and Zurich to Vienna, offering a variety of sleeping options: you can have your own compartment for €169 between Vienna and Venice (add €20 if you also want your own shower) or €89 if you’re willing to share with up to five others. And you get breakfast with your bed, which is a nice (and often overlooked) touch.

An ÖBB NightJet berth from Vienna Hauptbahnhof. Image: DB Autozug GmbH

Spain’s Renfe runs two routes within Spain (Galicia to Madrid and Barcelona) and from Madrid to Lisbon, no longer venturing beyond the Iberian Peninsula. They also have the option of a cabin with your own shower (€177 to Lisbon), or as little as €50 for a bed in a four-berth couchette. I only hope the Trenhotel is now properly air-conditioned, as a trip in a couchette from Paris to Madrid during a summer heat-wave once left me considering whether to burn the clothes I slept in.


For those on a budget, it’s entirely possible to get across Europe for less than €40 in a couchette – more functional than romantic, the UberPool of sleeper trains if you will – by planning in advance. You can pick up a €35 ticket from Paris to Venice in a six berth couchette on the Thello, for example, though it sounds a bit like organised chaos.

Other fun options include the MetroPol, which runs between Berlin and Vienna or Budapest via Prague from as little as €39, and Snälltåget, which runs occasional trains from Malmö to Åre between Christmas and Easter, and from Malmö to Berlin in summer from £35.

Japan

The bullet train has killed off most of Japan’s sleeper services. One of the holdouts, Sapporo in Hokkaido to Tokyo, ran its last train in August 2015, a few months before the Shinkansen opened its new route through to the island – here’s a first hand account of the journey in 2014. You can now get the bullet train all the way through to Hakodate in five hours, though it takes another three or four to chug up to Sapporo (the new Shinkansen line won’t open up to there until 2031).

The only scheduled sleeper train still running is the Sunrise Seto and Sunrise Izumo, which runs between Tokyo and Takamatsu in Shikoku and Izumo in the south west of Honshu (the train splits at Okayama).

The Sunrise Express trundling past rice paddies. Image: Mitsuki

The best thing about these trains is the basic ‘seat’ option, which isn’t a seat at all, but a lie-flat sleeping platform called Nobinobi, which is included with a Japan Rail Pass. This guy can show you.

Of course, you could just get the bullet train and a limited express during the day that would take less than seven hours, but where’s the romance? Speaking of which… On the other side of the scale, some of Japan’s rail companies are bringing back sleeper trains with a luxury twist. The Seven Stars in Kyushu, and new services for 2017 – the Twilight Express and Shiki-Shima – are tourist packages under a different name and therefore don’t count.

North America

There are some stunning train journeys across the US, but the size of the place makes it almost inevitable you’ll be travelling overnight. Amtrak is prepared for your accommodation questions, and has two types of trains: the double-deck Superliner and one-level Viewliner. All compartments in the Viewliner have their own toilet and some their own shower; in the cheaper Roomettes on the Superliner you have to share a loo and washing facilities.

The California Zephyr is perhaps the most famous train. It travels between Chicago and Emeryville, CA, through plains and mountains and across the Mississippi. It takes 52 hours, and a cheap Roomette will cost you at least $600, all meals included. Prepare to pay up to $1,800 for your own bathroom – if you can find one at all (they’re very popular). You could tack on an overnight from New York to Chicago on the Lake Shore if you wanted to go coast-to-coast; the route follows the Hudson Valley and looks spectacular.

But you still have to think that this isn’t practical travel. It’s slow and expensive, and the cars are no different to those you’d take on an overnight hop from Berlin to Vienna i.e., you may start to go stir crazy. European and Japanese trains are timed to be useful – leave around 9pm, arrive before 8am – whereas the Zephyr will get you into Denver and Reno for your morning meeting, but not much else. And according to Amtrak’s website, there isn’t even wifi on board.

(There’s a parallel here with the Trans-Siberian Express, across Russia, which is used by locals for real travel - but for foreigners, let’s face it, the journey itself is the point. Here’s a Guardian journalist taking it last year.)

Canada, on the other hand, has realised that its long distance trains are a treat, part of the holiday. So as well as offering berth options (where you can go all the way from Toronto to Vancouver over four nights for £630), VIA Rail has invested in super-swanky ‘Prestige’ compartments with a cosy double bed looking out on a picture window, and gives you a concierge, all your meals (and booze) and a private bathroom. Sure, it costs upwards of £2,340, but if you wanted cheap you’d fly.

The painfully beautiful Prestige compartment. Image: VIA Rail

Perhaps the future of sleepers is the way of planes: first class cosseting for a few subsidising economy berths for the rest of us.

Australia

Australia has one of the world’s great rail journeys, the Ghan, but it only runs once a week in each direction between Adelaide and Darwin so it’s not terribly useful. However, since we’re talking about planes, here’s an idea from QueenslandRail: lie-flat beds.

Look at this and try not to weep. Image: Queensland Rail

We have them in the air, why not on the ground? On the Spirit of Queensland between Brisbane and Cairns (a 2- hour journey) there aren’t any private compartments, just a choice between the Rail Bed (advance fare 240) and a seat. You also get TVs and free meals. Though given the lack of privacy and still having to share a shower and sink with the rest of the train, you’re really paying for the novelty.

Hopefully, ‘novelty’ won’t be the fate of all sleeper trains in the future.

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A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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