Decline of the sleeper

Hidden Europe: Cross-Channel rail services

Just think how good it would be to board a train in Milan and wake up the next morning in Manchester. Forty years ago this spring, civil servants in London and European rail planners were sketching out the first tentative ideas for just such a train service.

The prevailing pieties in Britain about all things European were very different then. The UK had opted into the European project at the start of 1973 and, that October, parliament approved a White Paper that gave the green light to the Channel Tunnel. In the spring and summer of 1973, the pro-tunnel lobby was busy sketching out what might be a feasible pattern of passenger rail services through the tunnel.

British Rail suggested that eight daytime trains would suffice on the London to Paris route, complemented by one overnight service. The draft timetable envisaged services running under the Trans-Europe Express (TEE) brand. The idea of Eurostar was a long way off, yet the TEE element anticipated some aspects of Eurostar's Business Premier product. The TEE services would speed from London to Paris in 3hrs 40mins, conveying only first-class passengers with full meal service.

The other four daytime trains would take 30 minutes longer than the TEE services and would carry first- and second-class passengers and included a stop at Saltwood (just near the Kent portal to the tunnel). On the 5pm departure from London, dinner would be available in a restaurant car and that train would also convey, through sleeping cars and couchettes, for the French Riviera.

In 1973, planners envisaged Victoria as the London terminus for Channel Tunnel rail services. Victoria had long styled itself as "Gateway to the Continent" and had hosted the luxury Golden Arrow daytime service (ironically, axed in October 1972). And in 1973, the night ferry was still going strong, leaving Victoria each evening with sleeping cars to Paris and Brussels (conveyed on a ferry from Dover to Dunkerque).

A separate 1973 study looked at night train services from England to the Continent. It suggested an initial offering of overnight sleepers from northern England, the Midlands and London to over a dozen cities across Europe including Amsterdam, Bordeaux, Hamburg, Milan, Salzburg, Toulouse. Presumably with an eye on winter-sport tourism, Chur and Interlaken also featured on the map, too.

Within just two years, the scheme was abandoned, only to be revived in 1984. The idea of direct night trains from Britain to the Continent still commanded much support. Nightstar rolling stock was built to complement the daytime Eurostar services. In the end, Nightstar never entered service and the sleeping cars were sold to Canada, leaving Eurostar's seasonal overnight services from London to the French Alps offering just regular seated accommodation.

Britain's sole international night sleeper train disappeared from the timetables long before the Channel Tunnel opened. The night ferry ran for the last time on 31 October 1980.

Hidden Europe is a print and online collection of writing that reflects the Continent's diverse cultures and landscapes. You can subscribe through hiddeneurope.co.uk

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