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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Which pairs of capital cities are the closest together?

Vienna, which is quite close to Bratislava, but not quite close enough. Image: Thomas Ledl

It doesn't take long to get from Paris to Brussels. An hour and a half on a comfortable Thalys train will get you there. 

Which raises an intriguing question, if you like that sort of thing: wich capital cities of neighbouring countries are the closest together? And which are the furthest away? 

There are some that one might think would be quite close, which are actually much further part. 

Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital, sits on one side of the estuary of the Río de la Plata, while Montevideo, Uruguay's capital lies on the other side. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But at 207km apart, they're not really that close at all. 

Similarly, Singapore – capital of, er, Singapore – always sticks in the mind as 'that bit on the end of the Malaysian sticky-out bit'. But it's actually pretty far away from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital. A whole 319km away, in fact:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Thinking of 'countries that cause problems by being close together', you inevitably think of South Korea and North Korea. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And while Pyongyang in the North and Seoul in the South are pretty close together, 181km just isn't going to cut it. 

Time to do some Seoul-searching to find the real answer here.

(Sorry.)

(Okay, not that sorry.)

Another place where countries being close together tends to cause problems is the Middle East. Damascus, the capital of Syria, really isn't that far from Beirut, in Lebanon. Just 76km:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Seeing as Lebanon is currently host to millions of refugees fleeing the horrors of Syria's never-ending civil war and the atrocities of Daesh, or Isis, this is presumably something that authorities in Beirut have given a certain amount of thought to.

Most of the time, finding nearby capitals is a game of searching out which bits of the world have lots of small countries, and then rooting around. So you'd think Central America would be ripe for close-together capital fun. 

And yet the best option is Guatemala and El Salvador – where the imaginatively named Guatemala City is a whole 179km away from the also imaginatively named San Salvador.  

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Another obvious place with lots of small-ish countries is Europe – the site of the pair of capitals that drove me to write this nonsense in the first place. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And in fairness, Vienna and Bratislava do make a pretty good showing of it. Austria's capital sits on the Danube; drift downstream, and you swiftly get to Slovakia's capital. As the crow flies, it's 56km – though as the man swims, it's a little longer. 

There are more surprising entries – particularly if you're willing to bend the rules a little bit. Bahrain and Qatar aren't really adjacent in the traditional sense, as they have no land border, but let's just go with it. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Manama, Bahrain's capital, is 140km away from Doha, the centre of the world's thriving local connecting-flight-industry which moonlights as Qatar's capital. 

Sticking with the maritime theme, Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago is 152km from St George's, Grenada. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Good, but not good enough. 

Castries, the capital of the Carribbean country of St Lucia, is 102km north of Kingstown, the capital of St Vincent and the Grenadines. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Better, but still not good enough. 

Basseterre, the capital of St Kitts and Nevis, inches ahead at 100km away from St John's, the capital of Antigua and Barbuda.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But, enough teasing: it's time to get down to the big beasts.

If you ask Google Maps to tell you the distance between the capital of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it comes up with a rather suspect 20km. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

A short distance, but considering the only thing separating the two is the River Congo, something's up: Google places the centre of Brazzaville a little north of where it should be, and the centre of Kinshasa many many miles south of where it should be, in some sort of suburb.


So, in true CityMetric style, we turn to train stations. 

Though such transport hubs may not always perfectly mark the centre of a city – just ask London Oxford Airport or London Paddington – in this case it seems about right. 

Kinshasa's main train station is helpfully called 'Gare Centrale', and is almost slap-bang in the middle of the area Google marks as 'Centre Ville'. On the other side of the river, 'Gare de Brazzaville' is in the middle of lots of densely-packed buildings, and is right next to a Basilica, which is always a good sign. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And when marking that distance, you get a more realistic 4.8km. If you want to be really keen, the ferry between them travels 3.99km, and the closest point I could find between actual buildings was 1.74km, though admittedly that's in a more suburban area. 

Pretty close, though. 

But! I can hear the inevitable cries clamouring for an end to this. So, time to give the people what they want. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you ask Google Maps to tell you how far away the Holy See, capital of the Vatican, is from Rome, capital of Rome, it says 3.5km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you set the centre of Rome to be the Palatine Hill, the ancient marking point for roads leading out of Rome, that narrows to 2.6km.

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Fiddle a bit and put the centre of the Vatican as, well, the middle bit of the roughly-circular Vatican, that opens up a smidge to 2.75km.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Mark the centre of point of the Vatican as the approximate location of St Peter's Tomb within St Peter's Basilica, which is after all the main reason the Vatican is a thing and not just a quirky suburb of Rome, and 2.67km is your answer. 

Though obviously in practice Rome and the Vatican are as far away as one single step over the railings at the entrance of St Peter's Square, which fairly blatantly makes them the closest capital cities in the world. 

But that would have been a very boring thing to come out and say at the start. 

Oh, and if you hadn't worked it out already, the longest distance between a capital city and the capital of a country it shares a land border with is 6,395km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

I know it's tough for you, Vladimir and Kim. Long-distance relationships are a real struggle sometimes.

I can't make a pun work on either Moscow or Pyongyang here, but readers' submissions more than welcome. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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