ROLLING BETWEEN COLOGNE AND BONN — Sleeper trains have a special place in the world of travel. There's something about that late-night rendezvous on the platform. OK, so it's not with Humphrey Bogart, it's with a conductor who knows you as Car 15, Berth 25, or whatever.
Still, there's something about being able to wiggle your toes freely under the bedclothes as the train rolls through one unfamiliar city after another in the dark, without your having to worry about navigating through these places. It's like a return to childhood, when your parents would have you get into your pajamas before you all set off homeward after a family outing, and you could doze trustingly in the back seat knowing that Dad was at the wheel.
As a practical matter, sleeper trains are a possibility to consider for any trip that can't be managed in a day. Europe is compact enough that a good many trips can be managed by rail in just a few hours - preferably full daylight hours, if you're on vacation and want to enjoy watching the scenery going by.
But for some long hauls, an overnight train is a good alternative. It's cheaper, of course, than flying, which can be quite expensive within Europe, and although sleeping-car accommodations are more expensive than a seat on a day train, they are typically cheaper than a hotel. And of course the sleeper train takes less of a bite out of your time, whether you are vacationing or trying to pack a lot into a brief business trip. I have found, for instance, that if I take the overnight train from Bonn to Berlin and return on an evening train the next day, I have virtually two full workdays in Berlin, and only one night in a hotel - at much less cost than if I flew.
Railroad planners are always rethinking their schedule of sleeper trains. Improvements in tracks and rolling stock mean shorter travel times, and in some cases that has made sleeper trains redundant. On the other hand, the political changes in Central Europe referred to here generally under the shorthand term "Die Wende" (the change) have opened new possibilities for service, as tracks have improved and border crossings have become less onerous - or have disappeared.
For 2-1/2 years now, Deutsche Bahn has been running its crack InterCityNight trains between Berlin and Bonn and between Berlin and Munich. In January, another pair of trains will be introduced between Hamburg and Munich. CityNightLine, a joint venture between Deutsche Bahn and the Swiss National Railways, is another series of "hotel trains" offering deluxe overnight service connecting points in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria.
If sleeper trains are a special experience for the passengers, they make special demands on the staff who serve them. These people need to have organizational skills, some technical know-how, and interpersonal skills - and they have to be able to work at night.
"We're a well-adjusted team," says Thomas Mittag, a "team-chief" on the InterCityNight trains between Berlin and Bonn. "Everybody knows his part; I don't really have to say much," he explains in an interview in the train's "reception" area, equivalent to a hotel's front desk, adjacent to the dining car.
The Bonn-Berlin train can accommodate 90 passengers in its sleeping compartments, plus another 108 sitting up in coach class, where the seats recline like airline seats. Serving this population is Mr. Mittag's team of five, all employees of Mitropa (the catering subsidiary of Deutsche Bahn and the largest restaurant concern in Germany), plus a conductor responsible for the coach passengers, and an on-board mechanic employed by Talgo, the Spanish firm that manufactured the train. And oh, yes, the engineer.
Mittag himself, a 25-year veteran of Mitropa, comes to his sleeper-train work after decades in the catering sector, working in dining cars. Others on his team have backgrounds in other service industries.
Interpersonal skills are particularly important in a job where most of your customers are in their pajamas much of the time, and that's something Mittag has to look for: "I have to see what the resonance is between the individual and the guests. And that's something I have to do here; it's not something that the bosses at headquarters can do."
The train starts out from Cologne at 8:38 p.m. and arrives in Bonn-Bad Godesberg a little after 9 p.m. It sits there for nearly an hour as passengers board at their leisure. At 9:58, it reverses direction and heads back to the main Bonn station and then on to Cologne again; the passengers that got on earlier are likely to be those wanting to dine aboard the train, Mittag explains.
At each station, Mittag consults his little computer printouts to know how many passengers to anticipate, and in which cars. He and his staff check tickets and make sure they know when each passenger needs to be awakened. Later on, when it gets really quiet, Mittag will punch each passenger's requested time into the computer that makes the wake-up calls over the train's internal phone system.
A few minutes after midnight, the train takes on its last passengers, in Dortmund. There will be a few more stops along the way, but those are just to kill time. The passengers aren't supposed to notice anything until their automatic wake-up call. Then there's time to shower (each compartment has a bathroom), dress, and breakfast before disembarking in Berlin.