Magazine article The Spectator

Train Strain

Magazine article The Spectator

Train Strain

Article excerpt

There's something about travelling on a night-sleeper train; something glamorous, thrilling, something faintly aphrodisiac that elevates the mood. Standing at the busy bar in the buffet car of the Night Riviera service from Paddington to Penzance, prior to departure, is a bit like being at a party where everyone is acting in a restrained and polite manner yet clearly on cocaine. It's a struggle, or so it seems, for the various attendants, stewards and train managers passing to and fro with clipboards to keep their cheerfulness within acceptable bounds. Rarely have I seen people so in love with their job. Every night must be a celebration. These are more than mere railway employees. These are shamen leading initiates back to an enchanted era when travel was always an adventure and the railways were manned -- or, better still, overmanned -- by courteous omniscients.

The Night Riviera service used to be a well-guarded secret. It wasn't advertised and those responsible for selling advance rail tickets would strenuously deny all knowledge of it. The only way to obtain a sleeping berth, as far as I knew, was to turn up on the platform at ten to midnight and negotiate with a steward.

Last year, however, the Strategic Rail Authority more or less admitted the existence of the Night Riviera by publicly threatening to axe it to save £2.5 million.

This announcement, plus the subsequent wailing and gnashing of teeth by a small but well-connected and vociferous coterie of regular users (one of whom is the explorer Robin Hanbury-Tennison), brought the media spotlight to bear. The train was reprieved, but thanks to the SRA's foolishness the cat is now well and truly out of the bag, and the feeling among us of belonging to a small society of true believers is gone.

That more people know about it than formerly came home to me last week. I turned up on platform one relatively sober and eager for bed. The Class 57, 2,750horsepower diesel locomotive on the front of the 200-meter-long train was growling in readiness. I found a steward and asked for a berth. She looked at her clipboard.

Sorry, she was full, she said, shaking her head in disbelief. I reeled. Not once in ten years had I had to share a cabin, let alone been told that there were no berths at all. …

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