Overnight to Inverness on the new Caledonian Sleeper
Note – The journey described below was made before the onset of the current Covid-19 crisis.
As of April 1st 2020, The Caledonian Sleeper is running, for essential travel only, to Inverness, Edinburgh and Glasgow. The Aberdeen and Fort William portions have been cancelled until further notice.
It is complete chaos at Euston this evening; there has been an incident on the line near Harrow; emergency services are in attendance and all main line traffic has been stopped. It has just gone seven thirty and, with the exception of the local trains to Watford, everything on the departure board is shown as delayed.
Thankfully, as I am actually extremely early for my own train, I am not feeling too worried at the moment.
I speak to a couple of railway employees and they seem to think things will be restored eventually, but they also tell me that there is no knowing exactly when that will be. The evening rush hour has been seriously interrupted and there are crowds of people on the concourse waiting for news.
There is no point in joining them.
I go up to the Signal Box pub on the second floor.
I get the last standing place near the bar and pretty soon I have some new “friends” to chat with; Andy works in finance at Canary Wharf and is trying to get home to Birmingham; Raj and Bob are in advertising and attempting to get to Manchester after a day in London for a meeting. We share stories of travel and delays before moving on to a wider range of topics.
It is past 20:30 before the trains start moving properly again. Very slowly, one by one, services that had been scheduled to leave well over an hour ago finally get departure platforms. My three comrades don’t hold out much hope of getting home before midnight though. Then suddenly, just before 21:00 and totally out of sequence, the platform for my own train is listed.
I have already told my drinking buddies where I am heading but it is clear now they haven’t quite believed me. I get looks of “are you serious?” as I bid them farewell and head out of the bar. Whatever happens next, I am sure I will be relaxing in a comfy bed long before they are.
Overnight to Scotland
I am heading to Inverness on the newly re-launched version of the “Caledonian Sleeper”. I was due to leave here at 21:15 and, if I do manage to arrive on time, I should be at my destination, almost 600 miles to the north, just before 9:00 tomorrow morning.
Even if you don’t like trains, the sleeper is not a bad way to get to Inverness. The last BA flight of the day departed Heathrow at 19:35 tonight and to catch it would have meant me leaving central London around 17:00. The first flight tomorrow, an Easyjet service from Luton, won’t land before noon.
Serco, the company operating the sleeper, obviously have confidence that there is still a market for the train because they have just completed a £150m investment in rolling stock. 75 brand new Spanish-built Mk 5 carriages, which feature en-suite cabins and double beds, were introduced in April 2019 and only started operating on the Inverness route in October 2019.
The sleeper is normally supposed to be ready for boarding by 20:30, 45 minutes before it is due to leave, so given the chaos here tonight I am pleasantly surprised we are only 30 minutes late in being allowed on.
I make my way from the brightly lit main concourse and walk down the long ramp into Euston’s vast train shed. I soon catch sight of the train I will be taking. At 16 coaches this is the longest train to operate in the UK, and unfortunately my carriage, M, is towards the front. I am in for a bit of a walk.
The Scottish service comprises of two trains in both directions. They operate every night of the week except Saturday.
The Lowland Sleeper leaves Euston at 23:50 and is also made up of 16 carriages. It travels to Carstairs where it divides into two equal portions: one for Edinburgh and one for Glasgow.
My train, the Highland Sleeper, leaves Euston at 21:15 and is made up of 3 portions. It travels the 400 or so miles to Edinburgh where it divides into an Inverness portion (usually 8 coaches) an Aberdeen portion (6 coaches) and a Fort William portion (2 Coaches).
The whole operation, with the 5 portions combining into 2 mega-trains, works in reverse in the southbound direction.
First I walk past the Class 92 electric locomotive that has brought the train from the depot. Then I come to the Aberdeen portion of the train; at the rear there is a seating carriage; then a catering vehicle and then six sleeping carriages; the last two of these are destined for Fort William.
The Inverness portion comes next in exactly the same pattern; a seating carriage, a catering vehicle and six more sleeping cars. At the front there is another Class 92 electric locomotive waiting to haul the whole train as far as Edinburgh.
As I walk along the platform, there are lots of smiling employees standing next to the carriages. The first couple make sure that I am not travelling to Aberdeen or Fort William and then encourage me to keep on walking towards the Inverness portion.
I reach coach M and show the ticket on my iPhone to the lady standing near the doorway. She checks my name off on the clipboard she is holding and then directs me inside the train.
I quickly climb aboard.
It is immediately apparent that the train is almost brand new as it has a lovely “new train smell”. The vestibule is nice and bright. It is furnished in a softwood effect.
I walk along the corridor; there are ten compartments indicated by numbers and I quickly find compartment “10” at the end.
Inside and out the train is decorated with the attractive new Caledonian Sleeper logo which features a stylistic stag and the initials of the company.
Journey of a Night Time
The first sleeping car in Britain was introduced by the North British Railway on the Kings Cross to Glasgow route in 1873. The concept quickly caught on and other companies followed. It was not long before a network of overnight services offering sleeping berths to a variety of destinations had been established across the whole country.
Typically, British sleeping cars had a side corridor and individual compartments. Each compartment could hold as many as six (upper, middle and lower on either side) berths. Sleepers were graded by comfort and they used the same class system as regular seats. Sleepers sold as first class might only have had one or two berths per compartment, second and third class sleepers may have had more.
Since the introduction of these new trains in April 2019, Caledonian Sleepers have started to sell the sleeping berths more like hotel rooms. There are now three basic types; Classic; Club and Caledonian Double. All three types can be reserved on the basis of either single or double occupancy.
I am in what is called a Classic Solo.
I open the door and on the bed I find a contactless key card, an accommodation guide, a bottle of water and a little pack containing some ear plugs and a face mask.
The Classic and Club rooms are quite compact: they have two berths but only one berth is supposed to be set for use in Solo mode. The Caledonian Double is a larger cabin with a much more generous-sized bed.
The Club and Caledonian Rooms have en-suite toilet and shower cubicles inside their compartments. My Classic is identical to a Club except that it has no toilet or shower.
I do have a washbasin though and I have plenty of soap and towels. I have access to a toilet next door at the end of the corridor but I will have to wait to Inverness if I want a shower.
There are power sockets and USB ports and an attendant call button.
There is also a menu in the compartment and it tells me that I can order food and drink and then have it brought to me.
I am not really interested in this option though as I intend to be a bit more social.
I quickly throw my luggage under the bed and head off to the Club Car.
The heyday of the British sleeper was probably in the 1920s and 1930s when overnight services were often faster and certainly more comfortable than their daytime equivalents.
Every night a succession of trains left their London termini for distant destinations; from Euston there was the Night Scot for Glasgow and the Irish Mail for Holyhead (and the boat for Dublin); from Kings Cross there was the the Night Scotsman for Edinburgh, the Night Aberdonian for Aberdeen and the Highlandman for Inverness; from Paddington there were sleeper services to South Wales and Devon and Cornwall.
Perhaps the most celebrated and most romantic of them all was The Night Ferry which left Victoria bound for Paris Nord; its sleepers designed to be loaded on and off the cross-channel ferry whilst the occupants were (theoretically) still asleep.
Join the Club
I find the Club Car a few coaches back. It is one of two identical vehicles on the train: the other is towards the rear in the Aberdeen section.
The old trains had Club Cars too, but the introduction of these new trains has taken the concept to a new level. The Club is basically a dining car with a kitchen at one end and a seating area at the other. It looks bright and inviting.
On one side there are rows of four seats set around tables; on the other there is a long jagged-edged counter with individual swivel chairs. It is a clever concept as it enables the solo traveller to look out of the window by his or herself or for a couple to swivel towards each other.
Access to the Club Car is limited to sleeping car passengers, which means that those in seated accommodation are not permitted. It is a bit of a harsh rule but it is possibly understandable; with only a seat to go back to I am not sure I wouldn’t just try to spend the whole night in here.
Even among the sleeping car passengers there is a bit of a hierarchy: Club and Caledonian passengers have priority at busy times over Classic people like me.
As I walk into the carriage, a steward with a soft Scottish accent introduces himself as Robert and shows me to a table that is meant for four. I sense he is not expecting too many patrons this evening.
I look around. Even though we are still sitting at Euston (it is just past our scheduled departure time now) the Club Car is already occupied by two couples, two businessmen and three people sitting alone. Some of them even have food in front of them already.
A few seconds later Robert is back with a menu.
Inter City Sleeper
After the Second World War, developments such as faster day trains, greater car use and the growth of domestic airline routes led to a slow decline in sleeper patronage.
Nevertheless, the sleeper was slow to die. Even as late as the mid 1970s there were still services linking London with not only with Scotland and the West Country but even places less than 200 miles distant like Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool.
A glance at my old 1975-76 BR timetable reveals sleepers on the following routes: Euston to Stranraer, Euston to Barrow, Kings Cross to Newcastle, Paddington to Milford Haven, Nottingham to Glasgow and Bristol to Edinburgh. All are now long gone.
Everything on the Caledonian Sleeper is designed to be a kind of showcase for Scotland.
The interior design is Scottish, the softwood decor is Scottish, the Glencraft mattresses are Scottish and even the complimentary toiletries are Scottish.
The Scottish identity is probably strongest felt in the food and drink selection. I pick up the attractive menu and see that it features starters such as John Ross salmon and smoked venison. For mains they have haggis and Scottish trout and for afterwards there is a Scottish cheeseboard or an Isle of Jurra whisky marmalade pudding on offer.
Even the snack menu features Mackies Crisps, Tunnock’s teacakes and shortbread. To wash it all down there is a range of Scottish beers and inevitably a large selection of single malts.
I find all this really admirable and coupled with the fact that many of the staff are clearly Scottish, it really gives you the feeling that you have crossed the border already. It is akin to boarding the national airline of the country you are about to fly to.
We pull out of Euston at 21:35: just 20 minutes late.
I order haggis, neeps and tatties and settle down for the ride.
In the early 1980s British Rail introduced new Mark 3 sleeping coaches which included all the latest mod cons and air conditioning. Over 200 of the new cars were built to replace all of their 1950s Mark 1 predecessors.
Sadly, their introduction was too late and it failed to halt declining demand. Many sleeper services were soon reduced or removed entirely. More than half the new sleeper carriages had been withdrawn within ten years and some were quickly scrapped.
By 1988 British Rail was operating sleepers on just two basic routes: London to Penzance and London to Scotland. The Scottish services which had previously been shared with Kings Cross had also been consolidated to depart only from Euston.
Both basic routes were continued after privatisation in 1996 and both still remain today. The trains from London Paddington to Penzance are now operated by GWR using the “Night Riviera” brand.
On the routes that remained, the Mark 3 cars themselves proved to be very popular with passengers. They were refurbished several times, have only just been replaced on the Scottish services and still remain on the Paddington to Penzance “Night Riviera” services.
The food arrives.
I love eating on trains and the food here, although obviously microwaved, is not bad at all.
I chat to two businessmen who are heading up to Inverness to start work on a construction project connected with the oil industry. They are actually regulars on the Edinburgh sleeper and they tell me all about the various glitches that marred the introduction of the new trains.
Back in April 2019 when the new trains were first launched on the Lowland Sleeper services the various faults made the press. There were all sorts of little incidents such as loss of heating, water, lighting and power that led to constant lateness and cancellations.
There was even a brake failure at Edinburgh that could have had serious consequences. At one point the employees were so unhappy with dealing with disgruntled passengers that they threatened to strike.
It seems things are improving now but my two travelling companions think we might need to give it another few months before things settle down completely. They also advise me that earplugs will be useful and I suddenly feel glad I have brought noise cancelling earphones.
By the time I have finished my haggis we have already passed Bletchley and we are making steady progress along the West Coast Main Line.
Our speed is limited to a sedate sleep-inducing 80mph; not much more than half the 125mph that the London-bound express trains flashing past in the opposite direction are making.
I order a Scottish cheeseboard to finish off and it goes down very nicely. I am tempted by the idea of a whisky but as I am starting to feel a bit tired I quickly give up on it.
I get the bill from Robert, pay it and make my way back to my compartment.
Off to Bed
I resist the temptation to hang the breakfast order sheet on the door.
Breakfast in bed is tempting but, rather than tying myself to a specific time, I have decided I will wake up when I wake up. I will snooze a bit if I want to and then either return to the Club Car to eat or more likely wait till after I arrive.
I wash, brush my teeth, get undressed and climb into bed.
It is remarkably comfortable and I feel quite cozy.
Many of my previous attempts to sleep on trains have not really met with much success.
Just by coincidence: there have been 13 of them !
It is 7:19 and as I look out of the window I can see that it is still dark outside; it is only just coming light.
We have arrived, on time it seems, at Kingussie.
During the night the train has passed through my old stomping ground of Preston, climbed to the great summits of Shap Fell and Beattock, lost its Aberdeen and Fort William portions at Edinburgh and made its way onto the Highland Main Line at Perth. We are now down to eight coaches and we are being hauled by two Class 73 diesels.
I snooze a little more. I am in no particular hurry to get out of bed. We stop at Aviemore, about 20 minutes after Kingussie, but it is almost 8:00 before I finally make a proper effort.
I have as full a wash as I can from the sink, then I dress quickly and head off back to the Club Car.
The breakfast service has finished but that doesn’t worry me at all.
There are quite a few people just sitting around in the car looking out of the large windows as it starts to gets light and the gorgeous highland scenery is finally revealed.
I join them.
It looks a bit grey and cold outside and it is raining quite hard. At around 8:15 we pause in the loop at Tomatin to await a southbound train to pass before we can enter the final section of single track to Inverness.
After about ten minutes there is an announcement, actually it is the first announcement I have heard since boarding last night, and we are told that the track ahead is flooded. The train we were expecting to pass is reversing to Inverness and we will have to wait.
In the Club Car it seems that everyone suddenly begins talking about Caledonian’s generous delay repay policy. A delay of 30 minutes will mean a 50% refund, a delay of 60 will mean all our money back. We sit waiting and soon we realise we are already 25 minutes late. It is clear the people who are now anticipating a cheaper trip outnumber those who are bothered about being late!
Then we start moving again. We go slowly at first through some obviously flooded sections of track but then we gather speed.
This last part of the journey is quite beautiful and includes the magnificent Culloden Viaduct. Eventually and, much to some people’s minor frustration, we arrive at Inverness station just 20 minutes late at 9am.
No delay repay today !
All in all, it has been quite a satisfying and relaxing trip. It seems a long time since I was in the bar at Euston Station and as I emerge from the station and into the town, London feels a very long way away too.
The trend in Europe at the moment is very much against sleeping car trains. The recent rapid growth of low cost airlines has meant that very few overnight services now survive.
So, considering, for example, that it is no longer possible to catch a sleeper from Paris to the Alps, it really is gratifying to see such beautiful new trains being introduced on the run from London to Scotland.
The new trains have come in for their fair share of criticism and a lot of it has been deserved, but it is difficult to fault my own experience.
I wish the new service every success.