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What it’s like to catch the Brussels to Berlin sleeper train

Simon Calder’s Travel

At first sight, there’s nothing unusual about the passengers assembling on platform 4 of Brussels Midi shortly before 7.30pm. There are families with huge suitcases, enterprising fiftysomething couples and younger single travellers with backpacks. Excitable children are already in pyjamas, clutching cuddly toys. It’s a standard crowd for an international train, you might say, and yet we eye each other, and nod imperceptibly, acknowledging an instant confederacy: we all know what we’re in for.

The secret’s out when the 19.22 pulls in. Through the sleek Eurostars rumbles a pick and mix of carriages, most of them originally built in Eastern Europe in the 1970s, towed along by a locomotive clearly marked “freight”. Although in this instance, the “freight” is folk who want to do the 500-mile journey to Berlin (via Amsterdam) as sustainably as possible: on a sleeper.

Over the past couple of years, there has been a quiet revolution in long-distance train travel in Europe. Where once the focus was on how fast and far you could go in a day, now suddenly there is a clutch of more leisurely overnighters, of which this European Sleeper is both one of the newest – and oldest. It is also the most useful for UK travellers because it connects with the Eurostar from London, and will soon extend its service to Dresden and Prague.

The European Sleeper in Brussels station

(Andrew Eames)

On board, the sense of throwback continues. This is no Orient Express, although the carriages did run into Istanbul (from the Bulgarian capital Sofia) in a previous life. Dimly lit – “the batteries will recharge once we get under way”, says the train manager – there are so many levers and switches in my compartment that it seems as if I could drive the thing myself.

But there’s nothing arthritic about the way it moves efficiently off into the night. I quickly remember why I like this kind of travel. The sense of being in a timeless cocoon, with its instant multinational community. In the corridor, I get into conversation with Tomas, who has a job in Berlin but a girlfriend in Brussels. He’s originally from the Canary Islands, although he only goes back there once a year.

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