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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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.