The “Night Ferry” being loaded to cross the English Channel.

The “Night Ferry” was the first, and until the opening of the Channel Tunnel the only, through train from London to Paris. The train was made up of sleeping cars provided by the CIWL (Companie Internationale des Wagon-lits or International Sleeping Car Company) of “Orient Express” fame.

(Left) The Duke and Duchess of Windsor used both the “Night Ferry” and the “Golden Arrow” – they didn’t like flying.  Dogs substituted for children. The train used the newly constructed Train Ferry Dock at Dover and one of the three specially constructed train ferries, built by the Southern Railway to ferry the sleeping cars across the Channel to Dunkirk while their occupants (hopefully) slept.

The “Night Ferry” arrive at Victoria during the 1960s – approaching the end of  the run.

The first train left London Victoria Station at 10pm on 14th October 1936 and arrived at Paris Gare du Nord at 8:55am the next morning. The first return journey left Paris at 9:50pm on 15th and arrived in London at 8:30 on 16th. From 15th October the service ran daily in both directions, a return journey costing £9.20 in First Class and £7.10 in Second.

The “Night Ferry” ran as usual the night of 3rd/4th September 1939, then the French sleeping cars and their crews were returned to France on a freight sailing and the service suspended.

The three train ferries had an active war service, as did the sleeping cars.

In 1942 all twelve cars were requisitioned by the Germans for use in Germany, from where only seven returned.

After the war the service restarted on 14th December 1947 from Paris and in both directions the following night.

Dover and connections to the ferry boats for France.

The “Night Ferry” arrives.

In 1957 a through sleeping car from London to Brussels was added to the train. In 1967 a through car to Basle was also added but this was not a success and was withdrawn in 1969.

By 1974 all of the original train ferries had been replaced with more modern vessels. The service finally ended on 31st October 1980 with the last departures from London, Paris and Brussels.

Introduced on the night of 5 October 1936, it featured coaches built by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits to the British loading gauge. 12 carriages were built in France. 1936-built Sleeping Car No. 3792 has been preserved in the National Railway Museum in York. In addition to sleeping cars, the train normally included two SNCF “Fourgon” baggage vans.

Each overnight train used up to five (very occasionally six) of the sleeping cars, and thus there were normally two spares. 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 traveling by these walked on and off the ship in the standard way.

Prior to the Eurostar service on 14 November 1994, the Night Ferry was the only through passenger train between Great Britain and Continental Europe. The carriages of the daytime Golden Arrow train did not cross the Channel.
Train ferry

Uniquely, 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 Tonbridge and Dover Marine in the late 1950s, 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.

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.

(Left: Dining First Class) By the 1970s the carriages were dated and in need of replacement. The CIWL livery was replaced on some, but not all, carriages by standard SNCF blue sleeper car livery including the SNCF logo. 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.

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 proved expensive and unsuccessful. Competition of airlines in the 1990s meant the service could never be profitable. The coaches ordered for the service were never used in Europe; they were sold to Canada’s VIA Rail.

In France.

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