Sleeper trains combine travelling with a place to sleep. Before the breakthrough of air travel, sleeper trains were the preferred way of travelling long distances overland. A few trains, including an “Orient Express” which formerly ran from Paris to Istanbul, became famous through film and literature. Both the rise of aviation (now cheaper than many long train journeys) and high speed trains (slashing travel times) as well as financial concerns on the part of the operators have made sleeper services disappear.
The sleeping car or sleeper (often wagon-lit) is a railway passenger car that can accommodate all its passengers in beds of one kind or another, primarily for the purpose of making nighttime travel more restful. George Pullman was the American inventor of the sleeper car.
The first such cars saw sporadic use on American railroads in the 1830s; they could be configured for coach seating during the day. Some of the more luxurious types have private rooms (fully and solidly enclosed rooms that are not shared with strangers).
A few new sleeper services have been introduced for leisure travellers in recent years. These offer a level of comfort and sightseeing not possible while flying. Tourist railways may bring them back for nostalgia. In some cases, they may also be the cheapest or only way to reach certain places.
Sleeper trains often have different categories of accommodation. The exact details vary from train to train, but will typically be one or more of the following, at different prices:
Sleeper Cabins These are often one or two (bunk) berth cabins, and are usually sold for exclusive use, similar to a hotel room. However a cabin will feel very cramped compared to a hotel room, and often has no or very limited washing facilities, such as just a sink.
Couchette These are bunks in a shared compartment or carriage. In Europe, couchettes are usually in compartments with 6 bunk beds.
Seats These can be the same seats as in a regular daytime train, or they might be reclining. These may be intended primarily for those travelling shorter distances, or be offered as a budget option. With some rail passes you can travel in a seat on a sleeper train with no supplement.
On many trains – especially those that run more than one night – cabins have a “day” and “night” mode with bed either converted to seating or folded away in the day mode. During the daytime the bunks are folded up, with the lowest bunk forming a seat. You will usually get help from the train staff in converting your cabin to night mode and may even ask for a wake up service.
Usually a carriage of couchettes or sleeper cabins will have an attendant who will check your ticket and show you to your berth. In Europe, if the train crosses an international border, the attendant may take your passport to show to officials, or you may be woken at the border. If you are in a seat you may be woken for ticket checks as well as border crossings. In the Schengen area border crossings may not be noticeable in any way, but there are still often controls on international trains.
Possibly the earliest example of a sleeping car (or bed carriage, as it was then called) was on the London & Birmingham and Grand junction Railways between London and Lancashire, England. This was made available to first class passengers in 1838.
The Cumberland Valley Railroad pioneered sleeping car service in the spring of 1839, with a car named “Chambersburg”, between Chambersburg and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. A couple of years later a second car, the “Carlisle”, was introduced into service.
In 1857, the Wason Manufacturing Company of Springfield, Massachusetts – one of the United States’ first makers of railway passenger coach equipment – produced America’s first specifically designed sleeping car.
The man who ultimately made the sleeping car business profitable in the United States was George Pullman, who began by building a luxurious sleeping car (named Pioneer) in 1865. The Pullman Company, founded as the Pullman Palace Car Company in 1867, owned and operated most sleeping cars in the United States until the mid-20th century, attaching them to passenger trains run by the various railroads; there were also some sleeping cars that were operated by Pullman but owned by the railroad running a given train. During the peak years of American passenger railroading, several all-Pullman trains existed, including the 20th Century Limited on the New York Central Railroad, the Broadway Limited on the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Panama Limited on the Illinois Central Railroad, and the Super Chief on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.
Pullman cars were normally a dark “Pullman green”, although some were painted in the host railroad’s colors. The cars carried individual names, but usually did not carry visible numbers. In the 1920s, the Pullman Company went through a series of restructuring steps, which in the end resulted in a parent company, Pullman Incorporated, controlling the Pullman Company (which owned and operated sleeping cars) and the Pullman-Standard Car Manufacturing Company. Due to an antitrust verdict in 1947, a consortium of railroads bought the Pullman Company from Pullman Incorporated, and subsequently railroads owned and operated Pullman-made sleeping cars themselves. Pullman-Standard continued manufacturing sleeping cars and other passenger and freight railroad cars until 1980.
For nearly a year at the end of World War II the United Staets government banned sleeping cars for routes longer than 450 miles. The development of the Interstate highway system in the 1950s and the expansion of jet airline travel in the same decade negatively impacted train travel.
Cultural impact of Pullman porters
One unanticipated consequence of the rise of Pullman cars in the US in the 19th and early 20th centuries was their effect on civil rights and African-American culture. Each Pullman car was staffed by a uniformed porter. The majority of Pullman Porters were African Americans. While still a menial job in many respects, Pullman offered better pay and security than most jobs open to African Americans at the time, in addition to a chance for travel, and it was a well regarded job in the African-American community of the time. The pullman attendants, regardless of their true name, were traditionally referred to as “George” by the travelers, the name of the company’s founder, George Pullman. The Pullman company was the largest employer of African Americans in the United States. Subsequently, railway porters fought for political recognition and were eventually unionized. Their union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (established, 1925), became an important source of strength for the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement in the early 20th century, notably under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph. Because they moved about the country, Pullman porters also became an important means of communication for news and cultural information of all kinds. The African-American newspaper, the Chicago Defender, gained a national circulation in this way. Porters also used to re-sell phonograph records bought in the great metropolitan centres, greatly adding to the distribution of jazz and blues and the popularity of the artists.
From the 19th to the mid-20th century, the most common and more economical type of sleeping car accommodation on North American trains was the “open section”. Open-section accommodations consist of pairs of seats, one seat facing forward and the other backward, situated on either side of a center aisle. The seat pairs can be converted into the combination of an upper and a lower “berth”, each berth consisting of a bed screened from the aisle by a curtain. A famous example of open sections can be seen in the movie Some Like It Hot (1959).
As the 20th century progressed, an increasing variety of private rooms was offered. Most of these rooms provided significantly more space than open-section accommodations could offer. Open-sections, in the 1950s were increasingly phased out, in favor of roomettes. Some of them, such as the rooms of the “slumbercoach” cars manufactured by the Budd Company and first put into service in 1956, were triumphs of miniaturization. These allowed a single car to increase the number of sleepers over a conventional sleeping car of private rooms.
A Roomette, in the historically correct sense of the word, is a private room for a single passenger, containing a single seat, a folding bed, a toilet (not in a private cubicle of its own), and a washbasin. When a traditional Roomette is in night mode, the bed blocks access to the toilet. Like open sections, Roomettes are placed on both sides of the car, with a corridor down the center. Duplex Roomettes, a Pullman-produced precursor to the slumbercoach, are staggered vertically, with every second accommodation raised a few feet above the car’s floor level, in order to make slightly more efficient use of the space. Single-passenger slumbercoach accommodations are a particularly spartan form of roomette; slumbercoaches also included a few two-passenger units.
Compartments and Double Bedrooms
Compartments and Double Bedrooms are private rooms for two passengers, with upper and lower berths, washbasins, and private toilets, placed on one side of the car, with the corridor running down the other side (thus allowing the accommodation to be slightly over two thirds the width of the car). Frequently, these accommodations have movable partitions allowing adjacent accommodations to be combined into a suite.
Drawing Rooms and Larger Accommodations
A Drawing Room is a relatively rare accommodation for three people traveling together, again with a washbasin and private toilet, again on one side of the car. Even rarer are larger rooms accommodating four or more; generally the needs of large parties were better served with multiple rooms, with or without the ability to combine them into a suite.
Modern Amtrak Accommodations
Amtrak’s Superliner Economy Bedrooms (now called Superliner Roomettes, although they are structurally closer to open sections) accommodate two passengers in facing seats that fold out into a lower berth, with an upper berth that folds down from above, a small closet, and no in-room washbasin or toilet, on both sides of both the upper and lower levels of the car. Effectively, they are open sections with walls, a door, and a built-in access ladder for the upper berth (which doubles as a nightstand for the lower berth passenger). Superliner Deluxe Bedrooms are essentially the same as historic Compartments and Double Bedrooms, with the toilet cubicle doubling as a private shower cubicle. In addition, each Superliner sleeping car has two special lower-level accommodations, each taking up the full width of the car: the Accessible Bedroom, at the restroom/shower end of the car (below the Deluxe Bedrooms), is a fully wheelchair-accessible accommodation for two, with a roll-in cubicle for the toilet and shower; the Family Bedroom, at the Economy Bedroom end of the car, accommodates two adults and up to three small children, without private toilet or shower facilities.
When the Viewliner sleeping cars were built, the accommodations were patterned after the Superliner accommodations, except that the Economy Bedrooms (or “Viewliner Roomettes”) include Roomette-style washbasins and toilets, as well as windows for the upper berths.
Rail systems with sleeper trains
Sleeper cars are still popular in the Indian sub-continent, where trains are one of the major mode of transport. Although reduced in prevalence in recent decades in the Western world, sleeping cars retain a powerful ability to provide travel that is both reasonably comfortable and potentially time-saving, especially between points that are between 800 km (500 mi) and 1,600 km (1,000 mi) apart, distances one can travel overnight, perhaps with dinner at the beginning of the journey and breakfast at the end. This offers efficiency in passing the time and distance by allowing travelers to do things that might be done in a hotel room during the same hours. The obvious advantage over day trains (even high-speed ones) is that the ride takes up less daytime.
A sleeping car is, in essence, a moving house of lodging. A night in transit can replace a hotel stay at the destination. Even where sleepers are more expensive than high-speed day trains or other modes of transport, the extra cost may be less than that of a night at a hotel.
Despite its recent overall decline in popularity, the overnight train still offers an enjoyable means of transportation for many. Many overnight trains arrive at their destination cities in the morning, which advantage is especially pronounced in major cities of China, where hard sleeper prices are very competitive, or in Russia and Ukraine, where sleeper prices are reasonable and the train compartments can be quite comfortable.
An interesting practice in sleeping car operation, one that is not currently employed in North America, is the use of “set-out” sleepers. Sleeping cars are picked up and/or dropped off at intermediate cities along a train’s route so that what would otherwise be partial-night journeys can become (in effect) full-night journeys, with passengers allowed to occupy their sleeping accommodations from mid-evening to at least the early morning. Common practice on such occasions is to close the passages between sleeper cars for the night to prevent accidental wrong destinations.
In Europe, the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (French for “International Sleeping Car Company”) first focused on sleeping cars, but later operated whole trains, including the Simplon-Orient Express, Nord Express, Train Bleu, Golden Arrow, and the Transsiberien (on the Trans-Siberian railway). Today it once again specializes in sleeping cars, along with onboard railroad catering.
In modern Europe, a number of sleeping car services continue to operate, though they face strong competition from high-speed day trains and budget airlines, sometimes leading to the cancellation or consolidation of services. In some cases, trains are split and recombined in the dead of night, making it possible to offer several connections with a relatively small number of trains. Generally, the trains consist of sleeping cars with private compartments, couchette cars, and sometimes cars with normal seating.
An example of a more basic type of sleeping car is the European couchette car, which is divided into compartments for four or six people, with bench-configuration seating during the day and “privacyless” double- or triple-level bunk-beds at night.
ÖBB’s modern Nightjet services operate in Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic. The services usually leave at around 20:00 hours and arrive at around 09:00 hours at the destination.
Former Soviet Union Countries
In the former Soviet Union overnight train travel formed the main mode of long distance travel. Distances between the capitals of Moscow and Kyiv and many outlying cities being ideal for overnight trips that depart in late evening and arrive at their destinations in the morning. Sleeping cars with berths are the only reasonable solution for railway trips lasting several days (e.g., direct trains from Moscow to Siberian cities).
Night trains are to this day a prime method of travel in key Soviet Union successor states like Russia and Ukraine, where a shift towards faster day time trains with seating rather than sleeping arrangements is hampered by insufficient investments in the railway infrastructure restricting the speed and by a lack of train sets. With its limited geography Belarus has managed to buck this post Soviet trend and largely made the transition to day time intercity trains, based on government funded purchases of rolling stock supplied by Stadler which operates a train factory in Minsk.
The national rail services in Ukraine and Russia continue to operate a large number of sleeper trains, to a large extent based on vintage life-prolonged rolling stock assembled in Eastern Germany back in the 1980’s.
The use of the old cars help keeping ticket prices on a quite reasonable level by Western standards, starting at below 10 Euros for third class tickets in Ukraine, with price levels higher in oil-rich Russia. Russia has renewed part of the fleet and introduced doubledeck sleeper cars but comfort levels suffer from a modest degree of innovation in the bogie suspension systems and the passenger compartment design. Out of around 2000 couchette and sleeper rail cars in active service on the Ukrainian network only one is equipped with private first class compartments with en-suite bathrooms and new cars, purchased since 2015 in limited numbers, come without showers.
Modern, air conditioned sleeping cars and couchette cars are part of Croatian Railways rolling stock. Croatian sleeping coaches include single, double or 4-beds compartments with washbasin and many additional hygienic accessories. Passengers also have catering services on their disposal and are given complimentary breakfast depending on the type of bought ticket. In Croatia, night train with sleeping carriages included operates on route between two largest Croatian towns, Zagreb and Split. Regarding international transport, Croatian sleeping coaches are included on EuroNight lines Zagreb-Munich-Zagreb and Zagreb-Zürich-Zagreb.
Another of the more substantial examples of current European sleeping car service is the Train Bleu, an all-sleeping-car train. The train leaves Paris from the Gare d’Austerlitz in mid evening and arrives in Nice about 8 in the morning, providing both first-class rooms and couchette accommodations. The train’s principal popularity is with older travelers; it has not won the same degree of popularity with younger travelers. Recently, the upper class coaches (wagons lits) have been sold to foreign railroad companies, so that only couchette cars (1st and 2nd class) as well as seating coaches remain. The Train Bleu is part of the French night service network called Intercités de Nuit.
In Italy, Ferrovie dello Stato operates an extensive network of trains with sleeping cars, especially between the main cities in Northern Italy and the South, including Sicily using train ferry.
Sleeping trains in Poland are run by Intercity company.
Night trains numbers have been reduced significantly as the quality of the rail infrastructure is declining and repairs are insufficient which leads to longer ride times between cities. A journey started in the Bucharest main station to Arad (599km), usually lasts 11:20 hours when there are no delays. Most night trains in Romania cross the country, covering distances of 400 to 750 km, usually to end at certain international destinations or in large cities at opposite ends of the ountry. The overwhelming majority of night trains with sleeping coaches are owned and operated by CFR Călători. Recently, private operators such as Astra Rail Carpatica, the newly-founded private operator of Astra Vagoane Arad has started offering sleeping train services, using own-made sleeping cars and Servtrans locomotives.
CFR today prefers operating more couchettes than sleeping cars in its train consists, a practice used in Italy and Austria, adopted by the CFR in the early 2010s. Thus it can increase the capacity on sleeping trains. The sleeping cars of the CFR in the 1990s consisted of Bautzen and Görlitz-made sleeping cars, standard in the Eastern Bloc. They were replaced by Grivița-made WLABmee 71-70 and Hansa-made WLABmee 71-31, brought second-hand from Deutsche Bahn. The most recent sleeping-cars are the WLABmee 70-91 made by Astra Arad, which is the same type used by Astra Rail (although the liveries differ), starting from 2014, 2 of the WLABmee 71-70 cars were refurbished, but no other examples have received the same treatment. Other examples that have been withdrawn since were second-hand examples of the TEN MU and T2S types.
Spain and Portugal
In Spain, Trenhotel is a long distance, high-quality overnight train service which uses Talgo tilting trains technology and sleeping cars developed by the Spanish rail network operator Renfe. It is operated by Renfe and CP where it operates InternationalSud-Express and Lusitanea between Spain and Portugal, and by its subsidiary Elipsos (a joint venture between Renfe and French SNCF with a 50% share each) when operating in France, Switzerland and Italy. The Estrella (Star) is a low cost night train between Madrid and Barcelona served by berth carriages, with compartments for up to 6 people.
In the United Kingdom, a network of trains with sleeping cars operates daily between London and Scotland (Caledonian Sleeper), and between London and the West Country as far as Cornwall (Night Riviera). Using rolling stock designed and formerly operated by British Rail, these services offer a choice of single- or double-occupancy bedrooms. These services operate all week, except Saturdays and usually depart London (Euston and Paddington) in the evening, arriving at their destinations at approx 08:00. Both services use British Rail Mk3 sleeper coaches although the Caledonian Sleeper is having their coaches replaced with Mk 5 Coaches.
Other countries in Europe with sleeping car services
In Canada, all regularly scheduled sleeping car services are operated by Via Rail, using a mixture of relatively new cars and refurbished mid-century ones; the latter cars include both private rooms and “open section” accommodations.
In the United States, all regularly scheduled sleeping car services are operated by Amtrak. Amtrak offers sleeping cars on most of its overnight trains, using modern cars of the private-room type exclusively.
Today, Amtrak operates two main types of sleeping car: the bi-level Superliner sleeping cars, built from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, and the single-level Viewliner sleeping cars, built in the mid-1990s. Superliners are used on most long-distance routes from Chicago westward, while Viewliners are used on most routes east of Chicago due to tunnel clearance issues in and around New York City and Baltimore.
In the most common Superliner sleeping car configuration, the upper level is divided into two halves, one half containing “Bedrooms” (formerly “Deluxe Bedrooms”) for one, two, or three travelers, each Bedroom containing an enclosed toilet-and-shower facility; and the other half containing “Roomettes” (formerly “Economy Bedrooms” or “Standard Bedrooms”) for one or two travelers; plus a beverage area and a toilet. The lower level contains more Roomettes; a Family Bedroom for as many as two adults and two children; and an “Accessible Bedroom” (formerly “Special Bedroom”) for a wheelchair-using traveler and a companion; plus toilets and a shower.
The Viewliner cars contain an Accessible Bedroom (formerly “Special Bedroom”) for a wheelchair-using traveler and a companion, with an enclosed toilet-and-shower facility; two Bedrooms (formerly “Deluxe Bedrooms”) for one, two, or three travelers, each Bedroom containing an enclosed toilet-and-shower facility; “Roomettes” (formerly “Economy Bedrooms”, “Standard Bedrooms”, or “Compartments”) for one or two travelers, each Roomette containing its own unenclosed toilet and washing facilities; and a shower room at the end of the car.
Countries in South America having trains with sleeper cars
China Railway operate an extensive network of sleeper trains throughout the country, covering all provincial capitals and many major cities. With track upgrades, service speeds have increased; since 21 December 2008, a high-speed CRH2E sleeper train service even runs between Beijing and Shanghai. Upper and lower berths have different prices; in 2008, the difference was between 730 yuan for the lower berth and 655 for the upper berth.
The Chinese “hard” sleeping car in use today is very basic, consisting of 6 fixed bunk beds per compartment, which can be converted into seats in peak season, especially during Chinese New Year. The middle level bunk bed will be folded and top level bunk bed will still be sold as sleeper, while the lower bed will be occupied by three passengers. Chinese trains also offer “soft” or deluxe sleeping cars with four or two beds per room.
A major portion of passenger cars in India are sleeper/couchette cars. With railways as one of the primary mode of passenger transport, sleeper cars vary from economical to First Class AC (air conditioned). Most Indian trains come in combinations of first class A/C and non-A/C private sleeper cars with doors, and A/C and non-A/C 3-tier or 2-tier couchette arrangements.
Japan once had many sleeping car trains, but most have been abolished because of the development of air travel, overnight bus services and high-speed rail. As of May 2016, sleeper car trains of regular service in Japan are as follows:
Sunrise Izumo: Tokyo – Izumoshi
Sunrise Seto: Tokyo – Takamatsu
Keretapi Tanah Melayu, the Malaysian national railway company, offers sleeping car service on several of its long-distance trips. Sometimes the same trip can be made either during the day in a normal carriage or at night on a sleeper. The Kuala Lumpur to Hat Yai train has sleeping cars, since the journey takes 14 hours.
Other countries in Asia
Countries in Africa having trains with sleeper cars
Democratic Republic of Congo
Republic of the Congo
Ivory Coast / Burkina Faso
Sleeping cars are used on:
Great Southern Rail’s east-west transcontinental train the Indian Pacific between Sydney and Perth, and the north-south transcontinental train The Ghan between Adelaide and Darwin.
NSW TrainLink’s overnight XPT services from Sydney to Melbourne, Casino and Brisbane.
Queensland Rail’s long distance trains the Spirit of Queensland and Spirit of the Outback.
Unlike daytime trains, sleepers usually must be booked in advance.
While most railways allow you to simply book sleeper trains the same way you book any regular train (e.g. at ticket counters, online or via phone), you often have to get a seat – or in this case berth – reservation, which often includes the surcharge for sleeper service. Often passes, like Interrail, only cover the price for a “standard seat” in second class and the sleeper surcharge has to be paid on top of that.
Accommodation is usually sold on a first come first served basis and you may get bargains by booking early or by getting an “upgrade” when already on the train if berths happen to be available.
Most sleeper trains also have a dining car, while almost all of the others offer food at your cabin. However the dining car can have limited supplies which may run out if the train is running late, so you may wish to bring some food with you as a backup. Many train companies post their menus (including prices) on-line and you can usually rely on these being at least somewhat accurate. However serving sizes are often smaller and prices often higher than comparable food outside a train. Depending on the route and railway breakfast or even all meals may be included in premium fares or all sleeper fares.
The tap water on a train is usually not fit to drink – in Europe this is usually clearly indicated either by a pictogram or in so many words (usually in more than one language), in other places it might be apparent from context. You may want to bring some bottled water with you, as it will be cheaper to buy this in the station (or a regular supermarket) than on the train. In the rare cases of catastrophic air conditioning failure, you might get free drinks to ease the heat. But as sleeper trains travel mostly at night, this is rather unlikely.
In some countries you are not allowed to bring your own alcohol, as the train is “licensed premises” like a pub. On some trains all alcohol is prohibited, but in most countries this rule only affects commuter trains and has not yet spread to sleepers.
While some people love the rumbling and bumbling of the train that “rocks them to sleep” others hate the noise and cannot sleep. While some countries invest a lot in their rail networks to reduce bumps, in other countries you are definitely in for a bumpy ride. Your mileage as to sleeping may certainly vary. In bunk accommodation that is shared with several other people snoring may also be a problem, so bring something to cover your ears. Sleeping in a regular seat, even if it is reclining, is certainly not all that comfortable, but a lot of budget conscious travelers have done so in the past and regular seats are still available on most trains with sleepers, sometimes for quite affordable rates indeed, compared to more comfortable options.