photo © Yirmi Oppenhime / dreamstime.com
By the time I climb aboard the train at Aachen, hurrying to make the connection from one side of the platform to the other, I am resigned to my fate. I should be almost in Berlin by now, having left London early this morning, but instead, thanks to an exploding e-cigarette on the Eurostar before we even left St Pancras, I’m settling into a well-worn seat on the last carriage of a train that will travel through the night to drop me at Berlin’s Zoologischer Garten station with the last of the late-night stragglers.
Normally I wouldn’t mind. I think back to previous overnight journeys on the rails. Prague to Budapest. London to Fort William. Hamburg to Trieste. They are some of my favourite rail travel experiences. But as we move through the Aachen suburbs and I look down into the back gardens of the houses, with their barbecues and trampolines, plastic tables and sun umbrellas, I am wary of what’s to come, for the 21.48 from Aachen is a night train without any beds.
The list of stops along the way seems to be never ending. Düren and Cologne. Düsseldorf and Duisburg. Oberhausen, Essen, Bochum, Dortmund… This train appears to be like Harry Potter’s night bus, crossing the country to pick up waifs and strays. Who is catching a train from Bielefeld at 01.23? Who is making their way to the station in Braunschweig at 03.16?
And yet, as we travel through the night, there are always people waiting to board. Lonely, shadowy figures on the platforms of otherwise deserted stations. As I move through the carriages in search of coffee, I realise that the train is packed. There are hundreds of people dozing, curled up on their seats, or else staring down at backlit screens with headphones to block out the low conversation and snoring, and I cannot help but ask the question: Deutsche Bahn, where oh where are the beds?
We’re still in the industrial Ruhrgebiet when darkness falls, the sun setting behind a giant chimney pushing white smoke into the red sky. From now until we reach the flatlands of Brandenburg on the edge of Berlin I will see little of the world beyond the carriage window. It becomes a journey of the imagination.
Station names above the platforms create a solitary word-association game or trigger memories. Bochum is a Grönemeyer concert at the Waldbühne in the forest of west Berlin. Dortmund is a collection of footballers in yellow and black. Bielefeld is a night in a hotel on a hill above the town, drinking beer on the terrace.
From the moment I realised I was going to have to take this train, after an apologetic Eurostar official told me that it was the only option, I knew I wasn’t going to sleep. I bought supplies in the bowels of the station in Brussels and made sure I had enough reading material. Somewhere between Minden and Hannover I finish up the work I had planned for the following day. I can sleep in Berlin. Now I’m just waiting for the sunrise.
It’s been a long, long time since I pulled an all-nighter. The feeling, as first light appears beyond the horizon, is one born of a tiredness that I’ve come out the other side of; a kind of low-level euphoria mixed with nostalgia. It is tied to memories of other journeys, of catching a glimpse of Scottish moorland in the early morning light, of bread rolls delivered to the train somewhere close to the Austrian-Italian border or a coffee amongst the commuters at the end of the platform in Munich.
What had seemed an unholy pain in Brussels now feels like an experience to be grateful for. As the sun comes up over misty Brandenburg fields I see a landscape I recognise. I know these places. I’m almost home. And yet, on the 21.48 from Aachen, on this night train without beds, I’m experiencing the joy of discovery, of adventure and travel. The magic of the rails.
Magdeburg, Brandenburg, Potsdam. This is day-trip territory from my home in Berlin. I see the first regional trains and then an S-Bahn. Familiar sights.
At Wannsee I consider getting off, to go sit by the lake in the early morning light. But now I’m starting to yearn for my bed.
When you travel long distances overland, it’s like you enter some kind of limbo. You are at once following timetables far more specific than at any other moment of your life – Magdeburg 04.04, Brandenburg 04.47, Potsdam 05.04 – and yet, for the period you are moving, it also feels like time has stopped. Real life is frozen, between Aachen and Berlin, as we travel through the darkness. It is only now, inside Berlin’s city limits, the sun low in the sky over beyond the allotment gardens and apartment blocks, that I feel it begins to start again.
This journey, on a night train without any beds, is almost done. Last night, I feared the worst. Now, as we pull into Zoo station, I know I shall remember it fondly.