Sleeper Trains: or The Wonderful 8.55 to Aleppo

The Luxury of a Sleeper

Of all the many modes of travel, perhaps the most evocative is the sleeper train. Travelling through the night over hundreds of miles, ensconced in a comfortable cabin can be the epitome of a travel dream. Or the setting for a murder mystery.

Dining in a pleasant restaurant car, sipping a quiet drink as the sun sets and you fly past the evening lights of a hundred small villages, is one of life’s most reassuring pleasures. The comfort and security of the Night Train, Hercule Poirot notwithstanding, is a marvellous experience.

Steam Train
The Golden Eagle departing Moscow

There are many such trains alive today.

From the grandest of them all, offering private “rail cruises” through Central Asia or Southern Europe, to the regular, intercity railways throughout the world. Some are functional, some are beautiful, and some are both. The 8.55 to Aleppo was a wonder.

The train, sadly no longer functional, departed Istanbul’s Haydarpasa station punctually every morning, and it was some years ago that I found myself, Syrian visa in hand, admiring the single sleeping car of the Syrian Railway Company waiting to depart.

The 8.55 to Aleppo at Haydarpasa Station Chemin de Fer Syrienne

This carriage, the only “through” part of the train, was attached to a Turkish express (or “Ekspress in Turkish”) as far as Adana, and then joining more Syrian rolling stock, headed south toward Aleppo.

It was a fabulous train; eleven of us on board, secured in our carriage for the Turkish part of the journey, a twenty-four hour picnic. I loved it.

Private Sleeper Trains

The Golden Eagle was magnificent. A refurbished early 20th century train, hauled across Russia by a steam locomotive was my home for a five-day introductory service of this new and most luxurious train. Now the set operates on a series of extraordinary adventures in Central Asia, but this introduction was a once-in-a-lifetime-experience.

Lunchtime on the Golden Eagle

The North Korean train from Beijing to Pyongyang was terrific, although the food was a touch eccentric; Kazakh trains are swift and comfortable, although the Eastern way of pairing compartment companions with no regard to gender was a little disconcerting, however, her fiancé was gracious enough to drive me to my hotel when we arrived in Astana. Closer to home, “The Canadian, which I have ridden on a few occasions, has been a most nostalgic experience.

Beijing to Pyongyang train
The DPRK train from Beijing to Pyongyang

International trains are even more fun because they involve a border crossing.

I am, perhaps, unusual, in that I love borders. I love the abrupt transition that land borders form between languages, cultures, politics and cuisine. The idea that a line in the sand can separate, often for indeterminate historical reasoning, two sets of people, each of whom are somewhat wary of those crossing between the two countries.

And either for scheduling purposes or for emphasis, railway border crossings are often at isolated outposts, and frequently in the middle of the night.

Navigating the Eastern Block

In the Bad Old Days, the Eastern Block frontiers were the most trying. Even within the block, suspicion reigned, and checks were thorough; arriving at the Romanian border at about three o’clock in the morning, the sniffer dogs were brought on board to search; our luggage was rummaged and our persons explored. What anyone was trying to smuggle from Hungary into Romania was never made clear.

Moldova: Not all trains are overly comfortable

From time to time, these interruptions were a delight. Passing between Armenia and Georgia in an ancient Soviet train we were stopped at the frontier in the very early morning. It was cool on the platform, and the examination of the train took some time. But watching the sun slowly rise over the mountains, and the sky edge from black to pink and to blue was mesmerising, and in itself, a reason to take that train again.

I am sure that overall, I have spent at least a couple of months of my life on overnight trains. Fortunately, I can usually sleep, although not everyone is so fortunate.

My friend and writer, Joseph Connolly, described a sleeper journey that we shared in less than flattering terms: “For the better part of the night”, he wrote, “it’s rather akin to being strapped face down around a washing machine during the lunatic throes of its final spin”. Harsh words, I feel, but one rarely travels overnight on a train for a relaxing sleep.

And now a renaissance. Slowly but surely overnight rail travel in Europe had been dying, however, the new push away from air to surface travel has opened a vast new market.

A sleeping cabin on the Spanish sleeper from Lisbon to Madrid

Europe has been almost flooded with new rail companies, and many of the existing railways have been relaunching their own overnight services.

The new European Sleeper Trains

One new company offering sleepers is the Dutch-based cooperative European Sleeper. They inaugurated service between Brussels via Amsterdam to Berlin and Prague in 2023, and plan on adding a new route each year. The company raised its initial capital of €500,000 from 350 small investors in 2021, and by 2023 had reach their target capitalisation fo €2 million. A great start for an innovative company.

Nightjet, a division of the Austrian Railway Company is another new venture. Their routes connect Brussels, Rome and Zurich with Vienna while Regiojet, based in Prague offer service to Croatia and Poland.

Once more, it is possible to travel throughout the continent, and indeed from Paris to Istanbul if one is so motivated, by train.

At rest on the 8.55 to Aleppo

Among these newcomers is a revival of the United Kingdom’s sleeper services to Scotland. A staple for travellers over many years, this service had become rather scruffy and less than reliable. Timely investment, however, has seen the service emerge into a fine new alternative.

Using the train between London and Scotland has several advantages.

The last flight of the day from London to Edinburgh is at 10.00pm; catching this will mean leaving central London by 8.00; flights to Glasgow are about an hour earlier. The sleeper departs from Euston station at 11.30pm arriving in Scotland by 7.30 the next morning. This, in effect, adds a whole evening in London, and the train cost for a sleeper for two is only £300, for the journey and overnight accommodation.

Travel to and from the Highlands is also available for a similar price, and should one feel so inclined, there are even two cabins on board with a double bed and en suite bathroom; £500 for the pair of you.

I like the idea that innovative rail travel is returning. For those seeking the convenience of a cruise but preferring to explore inland, there are fabulous options for private train journeys; for those of us who are less well heeled, the romance of the rails can be enjoyed on any European trip by simply booking a sleeper for one part of the journey.

A murder is improbable, but the romance of the rails, and a cosy berth on an overnight train journey is waiting for all of us.


Stalin’s Sleeping Car at rest in the Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia.