Because I hate being herded around like cattle when flying, I travelled on this 24 Sept 2008, joining the train at Poznan at 2105. In Poznan station underpass between platforms there is an internet cafe, a Ruch kiosk that sells paracetamol etc and places to buy food. Also a poster advertising a trip on the "retro train" Piekna Helena, running on Helenas' name day, so that thrilled me as I am a Helena, and an ex-railwayworker, and the author of a book on railwaywomen.
The station controller at Poznan is a woman (as is her assistant) and she kindly let me leave my case in her office for a few minutes while I went shopping in the underpass.
When the train rolled in each sleeping car attendant got out and stood to attention on the platform, ready to meet, greet and help his "guests" (it's called a "train-hotel"). He takes your ticket and shows you to your sleeping compartment.
The compartment was an absolute delight: really well laid-out, and with all kinds of clever fixtures and fittings. There is a socket for a laptop, which I used to recharge the batteries in my videocamera.The lights are controllable from any of the three berths, and the attendant showed me how to adjust the heating. In the little cupboard was a "Seven Day Croissant" (no thanks!) a bottle of water and plastic cup, and a little plastic sealed package containing a "Wars" flannel and a piece of "Wars" soap. There is a wardrobe with three hangers and a worktop that lifts to reveal a washbasin. There's also a fold-down, upholstered chair. There's enough space for one person's luggage and it was a mystery where the luggage of two other people would be accommodated.
I'm a person who habitually sleeps in a cool room with the window wide open and as such was dismayed to find that the window only opens about two inches (5cm). I had caught a cold virus in Poland and it made me feel over-hot all the time, so more than ever I needed cool fresh air. The compartment was way too hot for me so I switched off the heating and opened the window the 5cm maximum. It was about 30 degrees in there, and the walls and cupboard doors and handles were actually hot, where they had absorbed the heat. It was also stuffy.
There are two blinds: one for privacy and another on top which is a blackout blind. But if you drop the blinds you are covering the window and thus shutting off the air coming in. So I rolled the blinds back up to get the air.
The bedding was immaculately white and crisp, but the one pillow looked woefully inadequate. Being off season I expected to have the whole compartment to myself so decided to use the other pillows too.
A tiny, white-haired old lady appeared, told me to close the window and proceeded to turn the heating up to its highest setting, remarking that she liked to be as warm as possible. She told me she was having the bottom bunk, relegating me to climbing the ladder!
I went immediately to the attendant and told him about this incompatibility. Luckily he found me a compartment in the next wagon, and carried my case there.
So far, excellent service, and a great privilege to have my own compartment! Window open, blinds up, heating off, I got undressed and washed, used three pillows and settled in my bed for the night. It was 9.45pm and I looked forward to a great night's sleep as I had a busy day ahead.
By midnight we were in Berlin and I was still awake. I had tried every conceivable way to lay, but it was so uncomfortable sleep was totally impossible. On examination the "mattress" was just a thin piece of foam. The train repeatedly braked very sharply while stopping at lights and at the series of Berlin stations, almost throwing me out of bed, then was very jerky on restarting, so I felt I had to hold myself tense all the time not to fall out.
Years ago I recall sleeping like a log on a couchette. The mattress was made from the actual thick, comfortable vinyl-covered, sprung seating. These modern sleepers were made so thinly that my shoulders, back, hips, neck and ribs hurt me too much to allow me to sleep, even though I was drugged up on paracetamol for my cold symptoms!
I got up, switched on the light and unmade my bed. Then I pulled the bed up to convert it back into seating, almost putting my back out from having to tug so hard at the mechanics of it all. Then I made the bed up again, it was a little bit more comfy on the cushions compared to the so-called mattress, and I put the quilt underneath me as well, to help a bit more.
After much more tossing and turning I eventually dozed off about 1pm out of sheer exhaustion.
At 1.30pm we screeched to an emergency stop and I was almost thrown to the floor. As I used to be a guard (conductor, train manager) I knew a variety of reasons for this (signal might have changed to red in front of us, for example) and was not unduly worried at first. After ten or so minutes I was absolutely desperate to look outside. It went totally against my 20 years of railway experience not to find out what was happening, but all I could see outside was total pitch black darkness. I went to the end of the corridor but found there was no window that would open at all. I asked the attendant what was happening and he rudely told me to go back to sleep. I returned to my compartment and laid down, but we were on a fierce bend and the train was so banked up that it was like a crazy house and I slid down the bed until my feet were flat on the window glass and I had to keep them straight to prevent myself sliding down to that end completely. My water bottle just slid time and again along the worktop and onto the floor, such was the gradient at which the train sat.
Once we'd been there an hour and a half I asked the attendant to find out what was happening. It went against all my guard's instincts, training and experience not to be able to see outside. Maybe the locomotive had become detached, or the train was divided and only my wagon was there, perhaps the rest of the train was hundreds of metres up the line? Perhaps someone had pulled the cord, or there was a fire, or some obstruction on the line. I was quite cross that the attendant didn't think a fare-paying passenger had any right to know what was going on. I asked him again and again to find the conductor and let me know. Eventually he did and returned with just two words to snap at me: "Lokomotyw zepsuty" (the engine has broken down).
Every other passenger (there were few) seemed to be sleeping soundly; at least, nobody else came out of their compartments. I tried again to lay down, but continually sliding down the seat towards the window was most uncomfortable so I sat up and wrapped the duvet about me and tried to sleep like that. We were in Germany, and I comforted myself that, as the German railways are so efficient and the staff so well trained, and this was such an important express train, we'd soon be moving off again.
We were there for four hours. Well, that's not quite true: after three and a half hours a loco went past and presumably was attached to us, as I could feel the attaching movement. Then it pushed us backwards ("wrong road") to the station, then about 20 minutes later we moved off in the right direction at last.
It was 5.30am by this time, and as I had the blinds up to get some air in, I could see Germans waiting for their commuter trains. Our four-hour delay became shorter as the driver made up time wherever he could and we ran into Utrecht only 1 hr 45 late. I tried repeatedly to get back to sleep, but it was fruitless. I got off at Utrecht a total wreck!
The last time I made this trip by train was 1987. One good and slightly unbelievable thing was no border controls etc, I didn't show my passport once from the time I arrived in Poland on 14th September until the time I left Amsterdam airport on 27th. Previously we'd be disturbed on the Polish/German border, then at East Berlin, then West Berlin, then entering East Germany, then entering West Germany, it just went on and on and on, the train being searched with German Shepherd dogs, the guards shining a torch in your face to check it against the passport photo; East German transit visas, Polish entry visas, currency checks, customs, ticket checks -- I tell you, a couchette compartment was like Picaddilly Circus!