The Night Ferry was an international sleeper train between London Victoria and Paris Gare du Nord (and later also Brussels). It was operated by SNCF (French National Railways) and the Southern Railway and, following nationalisation on 1 January 1948, the Southern Region of British Railways.
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Introduced on the night of 5 October 1936, it featured newly constructed sleeping coaches from the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits built to an adapted design to fit the British loading gauge, of the so-called type F (for Ferry). Twelve carriages (3788-3799) were built by ANF at Blanc-Misseron (near Valenciennes) in France in 1935-36, of which 1936-built Sleeping Car No. 3792 has now been preserved in the National Railway Museum in York. A further six were built in 1939 by the Compagnie Générale de Construction at St. Denis (3800-3805), but only entered service in 1946. A final seven (3983-3989) came in 1952, also built at St. Denis, to replace wartime losses. Thus, a total of 25 F-sleepers were built, all of the same design. In addition to sleeping cars, the train normally included two SNCF "Fourgon" baggage vans. Only one of those seems to be extant, and is currently stored in French rail sidings along with an unrestored F Class Sleeper Car (see also links to the irps-site below). Each overnight train carried up to five (very occasionally six) sleeping cars. When loaded onto the train ferry the train was split into sections and loaded equally on tracks on the port and starboard sides of the ship, to maintain its balance.
The Night Ferry normally departed from and arrived at platform 2 at London Victoria station. Customs checks were carried out at the station.
The (First Class) sleeping cars and the baggage vans travelled the entire journey. The British train from Victoria to Dover, and the French train from Dunkirk to Paris, conveyed normal second class coaches of their own railway. The passengers travelling by these walked on and off the ship in the standard way. In addition the British train conveyed one of a pair of standard Mk 1 Brake Composite carriages, which had been modified with a French-style gangway connection at one end. This provided the guard's compartment in Britain and enabled the guard to walk through the train.
Until the Eurostar service began on 14 November 1994, the Night Ferry had been the only through passenger train between Great Britain and Continental Europe. The carriages of the daytime Golden Arrow train did not cross the Channel.
A train ferry was used between Dover and Dunkirk to convey passengers as they slept. The train used one of the three Southern Railway train ferries SS Hampton Ferry, SS Twickenham Ferry and SS Shepperton Ferry, built in the mid-1930s by Swan Hunter in Newcastle. Two ships were normally in service with the third as a spare. After the loss of the MV Princess Victoria car ferry in 1953 on the voyage from Stranraer Harbour to Larne Harbour it was normal for the Hampton Ferry to go to Stranraer each summer to provide a drive on/off car ferry service, and the annual ship overhauls were scheduled in the winter when it would return to relieve the other two in turn. This arrangement ended in 1961. There was also a French-owned train ferry, the St. Germain, built in 1951, and some of the car ferries built later also had rail tracks and were used on the service; the original ships having been withdrawn over the years 1969-1974 (before the end of the Night Ferry).
At Port of Dover and Dunkirk special enclosed docks with sea locks were built so that the train ferry could be kept at a reasonably constant level relative to the railway tracks on the land. It was not possible for railway vehicles to ascend the steep gradient that road vehicles would sometimes have to use crossing a car ferry linkspan when the tide is at its fullest extent. At high tide the ship could steam directly in or out of the dock, but at low tide the water had to be let out first before departure, like a canal lock, and on arrival water had to be pumped in to bring the ship up to track level. There was a pumphouse alongside each dock to perform this rather long-winded process. In contrast the train ferries which used to link parts of Denmark and Scandinavia did not have such problems, as the tidal range in the Baltic Sea is far less than at the Strait of Dover.
Two ships were required for the service each night. They passed in mid-Channel, the voyage taking about three hours. The ships usually returned in the daytime, carrying only freight wagons. On some crossings road vehicles were also carried alongside the trains, the decks of the ships being level with the embedded rail tracks.
The coaches were chained to four parallel tracks on the decks. The train was not a good timekeeper because of the complexity of loading and offloading coaches. It was the only service of the Southern Railway to be regularly double-headed, with a Bulleid Pacific and E1 or L class 4-4-0 locomotives.
Following electrification of the railway between Sevenoaks and Dover Marine in 1961, the train was usually hauled within England by British Rail Class 71 electric locomotives. In its final years Class 33 diesels or Class 73 electro-diesels were often used.
Along with the removal of much of the old railway infrastructure at Dover Marine (renamed Dover Western Docks in 1979), the Night Ferry enclosed dock at Dover has been filled in and is now used as an aggregates terminal.
The Second World War stopped services, but they resumed on 15 December 1947. A service to and from Brussels was added in the 1950s.
Plans to build the Channel Tunnel were scrapped in the 1970s on cost grounds. This gave the Night Ferry a short reprieve; a tunnel would have inevitably led to the end of conveying passenger carriages by train ferry.
By the 1970s the carriages were dated and in need of replacement. They were not air conditioned, and during the ship voyage, while inside the ship, they became notably hot in summertime. This was exacerbated by the chaining of the vehicles to the ship's deck, an activity underneath the sleeping compartments which inevitably woke most passengers up during the middle of the night. The carriages were over 40 years old, and by some margin were the oldest passenger vehicles running on the British network. The CIWL livery was replaced on some, but not all, carriages by standard SNCF blue sleeper car livery including the SNCF logo and a prominent white stripe along the bodyside. Consideration was given to using British Rail Mark 1 sleeper carriages built in the late 1950s, but these too were dated and the idea was never adopted. The Night Ferry platform and trains as it was in 1974 are featured towards the end of the final Steptoe and Son episode, the 1974 Christmas special. The Night Ferry was also used in part during the 1976 Children's Film Foundation drama Night Ferry.
British Rail Mark 3 sleeping cars introduced in the early 1980s were unsuitable for the Southern Region's loading gauge. Competition from air services also affected the train. The Night Ferry was withdrawn on 31 October 1980.
An attempted resurrection of British-Continental sleeper services under the Nightstar (a play on Eurostar) brand after the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994 was abandoned after many of the coaches (night coaches, sleepers, and food service cars) for it had been built. Competition from cheap airlines in the 1990s meant the service could never be profitable, and the proposed service faced daunting logistical issues as well. The coaches, which were never used in Europe, were eventually sold to Canada's Via Rail.
The down journey London-Paris took 11 hours
Winter timetable 1959/1960
|21:00||d London Victoria a||09:10|
|22:42||a Dover Marine d||07:20|
|05:34||d Dunkerque a||01:21|
|09:00||a Paris d||22:00|
|08:44||a Bruxelles d||21:15|
Media related to Night Ferry at Wikimedia Commons