Night Train From Hell

By Alicia C. Shepard
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 8, 2002

Leafing through a budget travel magazine, I spy a brilliant money-saving tip: "Consider taking an overnight train for a long-distance trip in Europe and book an inexpensive, second-class couchette."

Oh, sure, it sounds good in theory: Travel overnight, save a night's lodging at an overpriced hotel and awaken well-rested at your destination. Some would even argue that riding the rails is a quintessential part of the European experience, in a way that flying from Paris to Rome could never be.

But there comes a point in an adult's life where second class is just not worth it. I know. I booked a second-class couchette last summer from Paris to Rome for the 15-hour overnight trip. It seemed like a good plan: I would leave Paris at 7:27 p.m., save the $45 taxi fare to the airport, avoid post-9/11 airport security and arrive in Rome at 11 a.m., with time to tour the Colosseum and the Forum -- for only $133 one way.

It may have been cheap, but I was miserable. Learn, please, from my mistake.

I arrive at Paris's Bercy Station on a Sunday night and walk alongside the France-Italy night train, passing car after car until I find mine at the end. Climbing aboard with my duffel bag, I negotiate the narrow corridor, searching for my designated six-person, unisex compartment. It consists of two banquettes, each seating three, that face each other. I squeeze in between a heavy-set woman dressed in an orange print muumuu with matching turban and a 17-year-old French boy off for a month's studying in Perugia.

My knees bounce against those of a quiet man from Istanbul. Maybe he's not really quiet, but we share no common language, save for nodding. On his left is an elderly Italian woman. A California English teacher named Cathleen has claimed the opposite window seat. Not being strong enough to heave her crate-size American suitcase up to the storage space, she's wedged it by the window between the couchettes.

We squirm until we fit like puzzle pieces. I pull out my book. Might as well read, because getting up would be more problematic than climbing over two seatmates on an airplane. Luckily, I brought along a sandwich.

Outside, the landscape is stunning: fields of six-foot sunflowers in full, glorious bloom, and burnt-orange Tuscan roofs against a vibrant sky. Inside, we are playing the childhood game of sardines.

The train attendant appears around 10 p.m., handing each of us a white sheet sack sealed in plastic and a bulky, unwrapped wool blanket. The dominant member of our sextet, the muumuu-clad woman, speaks to the group with such an authoritarian tone that even I, a non-French speaker, get the message: It's time to transform the couchette into a bedroom.

The two older women claim the couchettes; the other "beds" are two foldout berths above each couchette that you reach via a pull-down metal ladder. I, of course, get a middle berth, suspended by a mere five-inch canvas strap. In first class (sigh) the attendant would whip up our beds, but here, we take turns standing in the aisle between the couchettes, preparing them for sleep. "This feels like Girl Scout camp," says Cathleen, holding the ladder over her head so the luggage can be rearranged.

The two men in our compartment climb up the narrow ladder to the top berths, about six feet from the floor. Without discussion, Mme. Muumuu snaps off the lights and locks our compartment from the inside.

I flip on my reading light, but it's too dim to read. After 15 minutes, the snoring begins. I gingerly climb down the ladder in the dark, feel for the door lock and make my way to the lavatory -- where there's no toilet paper.

Even with air conditioning, the cabin is stuffy. I toss and turn, trying to find a comfortable position. My sheet sack, like an ultra-thin sleeping bag, gets twisted with each turn.

I wake at 7 a.m. to the rank smell of six bodies in need of a shower. I fumble to dress under my blanket, then grab my book and euros and bolt for the dining car. En route, I pass mansion-size compartments. So this is how the swells live -- in roomy, four-person compartments with plenty of legroom between the couchettes. One private compartment has a banquette and a berth, plus a sink. I spend the morning drinking coffee and reading in the dining car, and fantasizing about an upgrade for my return trip.

Alas, since I bought my round-trip ticket in the United States, I must purchase a new overnight ticket back to Paris if I wish to upgrade. And so a week after arriving, I find myself once again searching for my second-class couchette.

This time I'm early. I open the door to a familiar drab cabin, grab a window seat and wait. Minutes before departure, we are only four. Hallelujah! This won't be so bad. But just as the train lurches forward, an elderly couple pries open our door. Each struggles to push in a trunk-size suitcase. There's not room enough even to help them. We lift our legs. We squish together. We begin our dismal 15-hour game of sardines.

A second-class ticket on the overnight train from Paris to Rome costs $133 one way. For $23 more, you can bunk in a four-berth sleeping cabin with a washbasin and a closet. There is a special couchette for women only: three bunks, $184 one way. For schedules, fares and booking information, contact Rail Europe, the official North American representative for 60 European railroads, at 877-257-2887,

Alicia C. Shepard is co-author of "Running Toward Danger: Stories Behind the Breaking News of 9/11," published by the Newseum.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company