There’s a magic about boarding a night train in a big city terminus. At that hour, some people are ending their nights out. For others their night out is just beginning. But skulking around the station with a mixture of luggage types is a band of travellers who are getting ready for bed, right here in the middle of the city. These are the residents of the night train, who must wait for some late hour until they can board.
To fill some time between the end of my workshop and boarding the train I had already been to a double-bill at the cinema. Arriving at the station I found another kind of cinema. For at Glasgow Central, ranged before the flashing departure board are rows and rows of seats. Like at the cinema, everyone is facing forwards all starting up at the silver screen.
I decided to sit and watch the show. Some people dressed as if it were very cold; others as if it were very warm. Groups of tall children taunting the police. Friendly banter between groups of folk walking in different directions – I’m not sure if they know each other. A commuter toping up on their Duolingo while eating a kebab. People comparing the train times on the departure board with the times on their app (I imagine being at a cinema where people are double-checking the plot on their phone as the movie plays).
There’s action on the screen. A train has arrived. Party goers surge out of the ticket gates. Moments later groups of homeward bound vacate their seats, surge forwards to board their trains. Towards Paisley Canal, Newton, Largs, East Kilbride, Lanark, Gourock. Their seats in the departure cinema are filled with the next round of travellers. (Some disgusted by the kebab litter left behind by their predecessors).
This steady flux continues, but there are some that stay put. These are the night train travellers. They must wait. Some in business clothes. A couple kilts, ready for a do in London. A couple with kids, clustered around their hiking backpacks. A man with six, large, matching, shiny, silver suitcases, wrapped in clingfilm.
We eventually board but there is disappointment for our odd assortment of night travellers. There are no sleeper carriages on this night train: they’ve been held up because of a storm. There’s just a restaurant car and a locomotive. We’re to sit here and ride in the restaurant car until 1am when at Carstairs we’ll be coupled with the rest of the train.
I decide to deploy my superpower, (falling asleep anywhere) and make myself a bed next to a dining table. I feel sorry for the family travelling with kids.
I’m woken by shunting. We’re at Carstairs and the junction is made with all the other bits of the Caledonian sleeper. It is a composite of carriages from different parts of Scotland pieced together before they are sent non-stop to London. With my grim sleep-deprived humour I imagine that coordinating this operation when some carriage are late must be a ‘logistical nightmare’.
When the carriages are assembled we are instructed to step down onto the platform and walk the length of the train – it is the longest operating training on the UK network – to find our appointed carriage. The man with six suitcases is fuming.
I board to find I have been upgraded to a luxury cabin. A climb into my bunk. I appreciate the weight of the duvet, which in mind is going to hold me in place and smooth out the bumps. The train rumbles slowly on and I drift off.
To sleep on a night train I think you have to not get concerned about what is going on outside. Sometimes you are zooming along, at others you are at a crawl. Sometimes forwards, sometimes backwards. Confusing bumps and clangs of metal. You need to let it just wash over you. (At least there is no passport control on this border crossing).
Next thing I know I am in London and being woken with a coffee. We have an hour to disembark Like on overnight ferries, the crew seem intent on waking us up far too early. From their perceptive I presume they have hundreds of people to wake up. From mine, I’d rather a little more sleep. And so I pull the cover up over my head while people walk past on the platform.
Memories return of once not getting off a night train quickly enough in Warsaw and being sent to the depot. So at the last moment I get dressed, disembark and walk along the platform.
On the concourse at Euston another strange juxtaposition: I’ve only just woken up and people are rushing around me in their smart work clothes.
I’m left with the idea that the night train picks up a group of misfits from one station and deposits them to be misfits in another. And still I love night-train travel.