Robert Hampton

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5th October 2014

Berlin Finale: Night Train

Berlin Hauptbahnhof Upper Level

This is a very long post about my journey on the sleeper from Berlin to Paris. I also made a YouTube video of this journey – it’s embedded below, but you want to watch it first, or instead.

I’d been mulling a trip to Berlin for months. As far back as June 2013, I was considering the possibilities and had started saving up.

My original plan: take Eurostar to Brussels, then an ICE train to Cologne, stay there for a couple of nights, then travel onward to Berlin. On the way home, I would return via the overnight sleeper train to Paris, then take Eurostar back to London.

Of course, this is complete madness, given that easyJet fly between Liverpool and Berlin, a journey taking (in theory) just a couple of hours. But I’m a rail enthusiast, and the chance to take a long train journey on some of the most iconic trains in Europe was almost too good to resist.

The City Night Line sleeper runs daily between Berlin and Paris. The journey takes approximately 13 and a half hours, which sounds like a long time, but of course the idea is that you’re asleep for most of them. Go to sleep in Germany, wake up the next morning in France, refreshed and with a full day ahead of you. It’s undoubtedly the most time efficient option and a very civilised way to travel.

I wanted to do it so badly, but then… I hesitated. I sounded out some friends about the trip, but for one reason or another, none of them could come with me. Then I contemplated going on my own, but that was a scary thought. What if I was robbed, or kidnapped by bandits? No, I couldn’t possibly travel alone. It looked like my epic train trip would have to wait until 2015.

Then Deutsche Bahn threw another spanner in the works. The German rail operator announced that, from December 2014, the City Night Line sleeper from Berlin to Paris would cease operations.

It looked like I’d missed my chance. I spent a good few days kicking myself for not seizing the opportunity. I would never get to ride the City Night Line train, as I’d so often dreamed of doing.

Then, one day in early June, I sat staring at my computer screen. I can’t remember what made me do it. I remember that I was in the midst of revision for my Open University exams; was probably looking for something to distract me. Whatever the reason, I called up and started searching for night trains.

There was still good availability on night trains in September, but the cheap advance-purchase fares from London to Cologne had sold out. I therefore revised my plans: I would fly out from Liverpool to Berlin and then

So I thought about a trip to Germany, then decided against it, then changed my mind and booked a slightly different trip. That’s spontaneous, by my standards.

As you’ve already read, the flight from Liverpool to Berlin did not go according to plan. I was praying for a good journey back to cancel out the awful start to my holiday. It was all in the hands of Deutsche Bahn, and I had to confess to being a little nervous as I alighted from an S-Bahn train inside the massive Berlin Hauptbahnhof, ready to catch my train onward to Paris.

Berlin Hauptbahnhof is a new station, opened in 2006. Before then, Berlin had two main stations – Zoologischer Garten served the former West Berlin, while Ostbahnhof was the station for the former East. The new station provides a single hub for the whole city. Hauptbahnhof itself almost straddles the former border between East and West Berlin. It is, therefore, a symbol in more ways than one of the city’s reunification.

Berlin Hauptbahnhof Lower Level

From the outside, it looks incredible – a palatial structure of glass and steel. The interior cannot quite live up to the promise of the exterior. The station is on three levels – the uppermost level contains the platforms for the elevated Stadtbahn east-west line, while the low level platforms are in a new north-south tunnel excavated specifically to serve this station and provide extra capacity. On the ground floor, between the two levels is (of course) a shopping mall.

It’s undoubtedly spectacular, but you are then instantly confronted by aggressive neon signs and a maze of escalators and passageways. It can get really confusing very quickly.

I needed to take stock. There was a Currywurst Express on the station concourse, so I bought a meal there (using my Berlin Welcome Card discount again). The sole table was occupied by a group of teenagers, so I wandered round to another part of the food court and took a seat at a table there. It looked like it belonged to another restaurant, but I didn’t care.


I need to say again how much I love this food. Take a sausage, chop it up and then drown it in ketchup and curry powder – on paper, it sounds terrible, but in practice, it works. One more piece of Berlin to take with me.

Next, I decided to buy some snacks for the overnight journey. The City Night Line train used to have a bistro car where food and drink could be purchased, but this disappeared a few years ago thanks to budget cuts. You can, if you’re lucky, buy a Mars Bar from the attendant, but I decided to plan ahead. Scanning the station for familiar signs I saw a Spar, and headed for it. Always one to immerse myself fully in a country’s culture, I bought a bottle of Coke, some Pringles and a share-size packet of M&Ms.


It was about 7.45pm so I decided to head down to platform 6 for the 8.06 departure time. There were plenty of people on the platform already. I found the poster which advised which part of the platform to stand on for my coach. I always marvel at these – on the British system we can’t even guarantee the platform our train will arrive on, much less the formation of the train.

This impression of German efficiency was undermined somewhat when the train arrived with the coaches in the wrong order, forcing me and several other passengers to scurry up and down the platform in search of the correct coach.

Carriage plan

The sleeper car attendant greeted me at the door to my carriage, and directed me to my berth. In a fit of exuberance I had booked a first class ticket with solo supplement, which not only entitled me to travel in glorious isolation, but also granted me an en suite bathroom with shower and toilet.

I pulled back the blind to see the bright lights of Berlin flash past the window. So smooth was the ride, I hadn’t even noticed that the train had started to move.

Sleeper car

The sleeping car attendant came round to check tickets. In businesslike fashion, she took my ticket and neatly folded it away in a ringbinder. She explained that tickets were checked overnight and this would avoid having to disturb me. She asked me if I wanted tea or coffee with my breakfast (Ein Kaffee, natürlich) and then pointed out all the light switches, temperature controls, etc.

And then she was gone. I closed the door to my room and took stock of my surroundings. There was a hotel-style keycard, should I need to leave my room and come back later, but really there was no need to – everything I could possibly need was right here – including, most excellently of all, a complimentary bottle of wine. A boy could get used to this.

Water and Wine

I lay back on the very comfortable bed, and any feelings of stress began to evaporate. In stark contrast to my airport nightmare a few days earlier, this was international travel exactly the way it should be. Sedate, civilised, dignified. I relaxed totally, safe in the knowledge that the train would do all the work from now on.

I could overhear snatches of conversation from the adjacent compartments – an Australian (I think) couple who were every bit as excited to be on board as I was, and who could blame them?

At Hannover there was a bit of shunting business – we ran out of the platform a few hundred metres and then reversed back down the line to be coupled to another train. That done, we continued into the dark night. There was no moon visible, so all that could be seen from the window was pitch blackness, interrupted occasionally by the flash of light from a passing train, or the orange glow of streetlights as we passed through a town.

The Pringles and Coke did not last very long at all. In fact, after eating all the Pringles, drinking most of the Coke and devouring half the packet of M&Ms, I was feeling a bit queasy. I was grateful to have the en suite toilet just in case. There was only thing for it… break out the wine!



And then, that was it. It was 11pm and time for the trousers to come off. I settled down under the sheets and got ready to doze off.

Sleep didn’t come right away. We were travelling at a fair speed and, every time the train traversed a curve, the blood would be pushed either to my head or my toes. I lay awake for quite some time, but that didn’t bother me too much; I was enjoying the whole experience.

Just after midnight, we juddered to a halt again. I pulled open the blinds to have a look. We were at Göttingen which, I remembered, was the last stop. After that we would head non-stop for the French border and then on to Paris.

The platform was a hive of activity even at this time of night, with people hurrying to find their seats or beds. Tearful farewells were being said between relatives waving goodbye.


I watched for a couple of minutes, until I remembered that if I could see out, the people on the platform could see in. I also remembered that I was naked and, while Germans are big on Freikörperkultur, that may not extend to someone peeping out of a train window at midnight. I pulled the blind down again and settled down to sleep.

I slept well, although I have a vague memory of being jolted awake in the middle of the night by more shunting. Next thing I remember was waking up at around 7.30am. I got up, and opened the blind to reveal the French countryside zooming past the window, coated in a morning mist.

French countryside

Next thing on the agenda was to use the shower. I had no idea how this was going to work but I didn’t have to worry, as the train’s designers had it all figured out. The toilet cubicle is ingeniously designed to make good use of available space. There is a moveable shelf for soaps and washcloths which slides aside to give access to the shower.

The shower water was scaldingly hot when I first turned it on. The temperature knob was stiff and resisted attempts to adjust it, but I eventually managed to get the water down to something that wouldn’t remove layers of human skin.


There is a handrail in the shower to hold on to, and I needed it. The train’s movements had not been too noticeable up to now, but standing upright in that tiny cubicle I was very aware that we were rocking from side to side. Still, I managed to get all necessary nooks and crannies cleansed, and got dressed.

Now, it was time for breakfast. The sleeping car attendant returned with my ticket from the night before and a tray of goodies. She retrieved a table which had been stowed away behind a hidden panel in the corridor and clipped it into place.

Breakfast itself was simple but satisfying – orange juice, coffee and a variety of bread rolls with various spreads – jam, chicken paste, cheese. There was also a full-sized pot of apple sauce. It’s no currywurst, but it did the job. I devoured it eagerly.


And that was it. The countryside gave way to small towns and villages and eventually the Paris suburbs. We rolled into the Gare de l’Est bang on time, at 0924. It had been an enjoyable, exhilarating journey; I was sorry to see it end.

Paris Gare de l'Est

Paris Gare de l'Est Paris Gare de l'Est

I loitered at the station entrance for a while to record a little piece to camera. Yes, I had my video camera with me, and I had made a little mini-travelogue of the trip. I almost felt like Michael Palin, or Portillo (delete as applicable). At this point, it seems appropriate to retell the adventure in video form:-

The next leg of my journey was by Eurostar to London. Ever the pessimist, I had left a couple of hours between the scheduled arrival time of my train and the onward Eurostar connection, to account for any delays which may occur. This meant I had time to spare in Paris.

Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do in Paris in just two hours. I walked down to the River Seine, where I got a photo of the Eiffel Tower (from a distance, I didn’t have time to get any closer) and then walked back, past the Champs Elysses, to the Gare du Nord. Along the way, I negotiated some of the most insane traffic I have ever encountered. I thought London was bad, but this was another level entirely.

Eiffel Tower Paris Gare du Nord

I have used Eurostar from Brussels before, but this was my first experience of their French terminal. The Gare du Nord’s exterior is impressive, and inside they have a lovely old-style flip-board destination indicator of the type that was common at British railway stations until a few years ago, when electronic displays replaced them.

But… oh dear, this was a disappointing part of the journey. I was processed through security and passport control quickly enough, but then had to stand in a waiting area with hundreds of other intending passengers. Two trains were scheduled to depart twenty minutes apart, and it seemed like the entire two trainloads were squashed into this space. It was a relief when the train was called and we all dashed for our seats.

Gare du Nord waiting area Eurostar

To continue the luxury theme, I had booked a seat in Standard Premier class. This meant a slightly more comfortable seat, with lunch included in the price. It was a bit expensive, but the roast beef and potato salad was most welcome.

Eurostar lunch

I was just downing the last few drops of beer when we plunged into the Channel Tunnel. We emerged, twenty minutes later in Kent and were soon arriving at St Pancras. I had to admit to feeling a bit deflated – now my holiday really was nearly over.

All that was left was to saunter over to Euston for my Virgin train back up north (in boring old standard class this time). I rolled into Liverpool Lime Street at 1721, after twenty-one hours of near-continuous train travel.

The Berlin-Paris sleeper is an incredible experience. Sadly, it’s one that’s on borrowed time – the service is being withdrawn after 13th December. There are petitions to try and campaign against the decision, but Deutsche Bahn’s decision seems final. Unfortunately, the service is losing money, unable to compete against budget airlines and high-speed daytime train services. That’s a real shame, because it is a more relaxed and civilised option than either of them. There’s a real feeling that the journey is a part of the holiday, rather than just a way to get there.

Personally, I’m really glad that I rode the train while I still had the chance to. It is an experience that will stay with me forever. In fact, my whole German trip was great. Despite the awful start, I recovered from that to see and do a lot of things. I’m glad I overcame my initial fears and took the trip alone. I feel like my horizons have been broadened; I’m more confident and less fearful about taking long trips away. In fact, I am already idly wondering where I can go on my next trip. The world is my oyster…

But in the meantime, I have a lot of happy memories of Berlin to keep me going. I’m reminded of this poster I saw in the U-Bahn (it’s an ad for beer, but the message is still valid).

Berlin, du bist so wunderbar

It really is, you know.

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