Robert Hampton

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28th March 2012

Sleeper Hit
Posted by at 11.25pm | 7 responses | Trains

Photo of First Great Western Night Riviera Sleeper coachPenzance station on a Thursday evening is a quiet place. In platform 3, a Sprinter sits silently at the buffer stops, lights off and engine powered down, waiting for the next morning’s rush hour (or what passes for it at the extreme southern end of Britain’s rail network). In the ticket office, only one of the four windows is nominally open, occupied by an extremely bored-looking booking clerk. Eventually even he gives up and pulls down his Position Closed blind.

Trains are few and far between at this time of night, but there is a service for Plymouth due to depart soon. A train arrives but the guard doesn’t unlock the doors immediately, instead disappearing into the mess room for a well-earned cuppa. The handful of intending passengers are forced to wait on the platform. They are an unsavoury bunch: among their number I notice an unwashed man with an aggressive-looking dog in tow and a young couple who have clearly had too much to drink.

The driver and guard finally return and release the doors for the grateful passengers. Within a few minutes the diesel engine revs up and the train disappears into the night. This causes some chagrin to a teenage boy and girl who arrived at the station just as the train was leaving. They are convinced that the timetable shows a different departure time and spend some time arguing with the point with the train dispatcher. Eventually they concede and disappear – no doubt to find somewhere comfortable to wait: the next train to Plymouth leaves two hours later.

Ticket for the Night Riviera sleeper serviceOn another platform, a few people are milling around. They are waiting for the late evening arrival from London, which left the capital some five-and-a-half hours earlier. The HST duly pulls in. Its journey has taken it through inner-city grime and dreary commuter towns; it must be a joy to finally reach open countryside, where the driver can open the throttle and speed along the tracks for mile after mile. Upon reaching the southwest, the train will have slowed down again, giving passengers a chance to appreciate the scenery flicking past their windows. Then, every twenty miles or so, there has been a stop at one of the characterful stations that make Devon and Cornwall’s railways such a pleasure, before it finally reached here, its final destination, some 300 miles away from where it started. An epic journey, but just another day’s work for the pinnacle of British Rail train design.

On the platform, a plethora of mini-reunions take place. A daughter runs up to hug her father; a middle-aged woman gratefully hands over her oversized suitcases to her husband. A man in his early twenties proffers a bouquet of flowers to his sweetheart. The station briefly bustles as people stream out in search of onward transport.

The alighting passengers, in their eagerness, have neglected to close the train doors behind them. The guard walks along the train slamming them shut. With all doors secure, the platform staff signal “right away”. The InterCity 125 reverses out of the station and heads for the nearby depot where it will be serviced and refuelled. Tomorrow morning it will head back to Paddington and the whole cycle will begin again.

Photo of platform indicator showing Night RIviera sleeper to London PaddingtonThe roar of the powerful diesel engines recedes into the distance, and the station falls silent once more. The Cornish rail network is undoubtedly beginning to wind down for the night. However, there are two or three trains left on the departure board and I am here to catch one of them: the 2145 to London Paddington, better known as the Night Riviera Sleeper.

I am slumped in a seat on the station’s small concourse. I’m tired after a day of exploring; first at St Ives, then at Land’s End. My phone battery is down to 15% and I want to save it for emergencies, so I have nothing (other than the aforementioned people-watching) to keep me entertained. Despite all this, at this moment there is nowhere else on the planet I would rather be.

Photo of class 08 locomotive in Penzance stationJust after 8.30, a shunting locomotive slowly drags the train into the station. It’s shorter than I expected: just seven coaches (two seated coaches, the buffet/lounge car, then four sleeper carriages). The locomotive is a Class 57, a 1960s British Rail design re-engined with a powerful American-built traction unit, necessary to provide the power required for what is essentially a hotel on rails.

The doors remain locked for now – passengers are not permitted to board until forty minutes before departure. Inside, I can see the crew busily working to prepare the train for service. I walk up and down the train, peering into the luxurious-looking lounge car with its reclining seats and table lamps – a first class coach at standard-class prices. I then wander up to Coach D and try to identify my sleeper berth.

As departure time nears, more passengers arrive and the sense of anticipation builds. I notice a woman with what I assume is her daughter. The little girl cannot contain her excitement; she jumps up and down and giggles. I know exactly how she feels.

Finally, the orange “door unlocked” lights come on and we climb aboard. Immediately I am confronted with this impossibly narrow corridor. I am not a huge person (quiet, you) but I have to turn sideways to negotiate it.

Photo of narrow corridor in a Mark 3 sleeper coach

I squeeze through and reach my compartment. It’s tiny, with barely enough room to turn around in (I hate to think how people manage in the twin berths). However, impressive use is made of the available space, with a shelf lifting up to reveal a sink, and a bottle of water tucked away on a shelf above the window. The bed is narrow but comfortable, with freshly-washed, warm-looking blankets.

The steward comes along checking tickets. There is a slight delay in reaching my compartment as she has to deal with a demanding customer: a regular traveller who is dismayed to discover that the complimentary toiletry bag is no longer offered (budget cutbacks). The steward manages to placate her by finding a spare bag from somewhere, then comes to attend to me.

She squiggles on my ticket with a biro, ticks my name off on a list attached to a clipboard, then asks me at what time I’d like breakfast. I say 6am, then ask for a bacon roll and coffee (at 6am I will need caffeine). The steward then invites me to try the lounge car where drinks and snacks are being served. It is an invitation I immediately accept and I make my way to Coach C.

The train has not yet set off and there are still plenty of seats left in the lounge. I occupy one of the luxurious single seats, unfold my Times and relax in the reclining seat. The attendant soon appears and I ask her for a hot chocolate. While she gets it, I take the opportunity to do some more people watching.

In one corner of the carriage a prim and proper middle-aged woman sits looking distinctly unwell. She alternates between fanning herself and burying her head in her hands. Her husband returns from their compartment and tries to assist, but she waves him away, insisting she’s all right. She tells the concerned steward that she “had a shock earlier in the day” but will be fine. The steward brings water and asks the couple to call for assistance – if necessary she can arrange for an ambulance to meet the train. I selfishly but silently hope for that not to happen – for entirely selfish reasons of course: I cannot countenance any disruption to this experience.

The attendant brings my hot chocolate. It is served in a pot and contains enough liquid for at least two full cups. I pour a serving into the china cup and sip it. There are biscuits to accompany the drink and I nibble at them happily, while reading a detailed analysis of the many and varied ways that George Osborne’s Budget, announced the previous day, is going to ruin the country.

Suddenly, with a jerk and a bump, the train starts moving. We snake our way across the intricate pointwork outside Penzance station and start making our way eastwards. Soon the bright lights of the town are gone and the view from the window is of near-darkness as our train makes its way through the Cornish night.

The shocked woman and her husband return to their compartment. They are replaced in the lounge car by a posh lady and three equally posh girls. They are well-prepared for the trip – all are wearing pyjamas. I assume they got changed in the compartment and didn’t walk to the station like that, Kirkby-style.

I overhear the girls ask their mother a series of questions which reveal a certain ignorance about the wider world. “This train doesn’t stop at St Erth, does it?” (it does), “Is the Times a left-wing paper?” and my favourite: “Is Gaddafi dead?”

At one of the smaller stations (Camborne I think), a scruffy man with a dog (not the same as the one who was at Penzance) boards our carriage. He immediately heads into the toilet but the guard spots him and gets him out. After a brief argument the man is escorted through the lounge car to the seated coaches at the back. He gets off at the next stop, although I’m not sure it was of his own free will.

Having quaffed my beverage and put the Times away (too depressing), I retire to my compartment.

Photo of sleeper compartment showing bed and sink

First Great Western have converted some of the twin berths (with bunk beds) to solo occupancy, and it is one of those compartments that I find myself in. The space formerly occupied by the second bed is now taken up by a TV entertainment system. I browse the choices on offer, but I don’t need them; for me the trip itself is entertainment enough.

I’m sufficiently excited to make a video of my experience:-

We’ve reached Bodmin Parkway – 1 hour 20 minutes into our trip and we haven’t actually left Cornwall yet. The sleeper is slower than the daytime trains, ostensibly for passenger comfort, although I like to think it’s to prolong the magical experience.

It’s time for me to try and sleep, so I get changed and try to get comfortable. This is odd enough: I’m now on a train in just my pants – a subtle variation on a bad dream I have occasionally. I then realise with horror that I have neglected to close the window blind and we are pulling into a station. I quickly pull the blind down, lest the good burghers of Exeter get an eyeful of Hampo nipple.

The bed is just long enough for me to stretch out in full. I lie down and try to relax, but find it difficult. I am a seasoned rail traveller, well used to the movement and swaying on a train. I can stand up on a moving train without having to hold on to anything. However, I am now lying down, at a right angle to the direction of travel and the sensation is completely unfamiliar. I feel the train go round a sharp curve and we lean into the cant of the track. The tilting sensation gives me a slight feeling of nausea, although it soon passes. Also unsettling is the sensation of accelerating and braking – I’m sure the driver is being as careful as possible, but one brake application is sufficiently sharp to almost roll me out of bed.

I must have dropped off (not literally) at some point, because the next thing I know I am awake and the train is stationary. My compartment is still completely dark thanks to the blackout effect of the window blind, but when I open it I reveal the platform of Paddington station. It’s 5.45am and we have arrived.

Photo of sleeper breakfast - coffee, bacon roll and associated gubbins

I quickly get dressed and try to make myself presentable in time for the steward’s arrival. Right on cue, at 6am she knocks and brings me the breakfast I ordered, a cup of coffee and a bacon roll. I can stay in the cabin until 7am, but after that the train must get out of the way of the morning rush. At around 6.45 I alighted and headed to the first class lounge (which First Great Western generally make available to sleeper passengers). There I grabbed a muffin, charged my iPhone and boasted to anyone who was on Twitter at that early hour about how brilliant the last nine hours had been.

You will gather from the above 2,000 word post that the Sleeper was quite possibly the best train experience I have ever had. I will mention two minus points:

  1. I couldn’t get a shower. There are no showers on the train, obviously, so I arrived in London feeling a bit grungy. There are showers at Paddington station, but the surly Network Rail toilet attendant refused to let me in unless I surrendered my ticket to him (which I couldn’t because I needed it to access the first class lounge). I tried to argue the point, but the attendant spoke only broken English and I was tired and not in the mood for a long conversation, so I cut my losses and left.

    Fortunately I had a first class ticket on Virgin later that day, so was able to use the showers in the Euston first class lounge. This gave me another novel experience, that of being naked (legally) in a railway station. The showers at Euston are actually intended for use by sleeper passengers as well – ScotRail’s Caledonian Sleeper. They were freshly installed a couple of years ago and are clean and pleasant to use.

    They are individual shower rooms rather than a communal shower as might be found in a changing room or similar, so no opportunity for hi-jinks of any kind. Here I hit another problem: I forgot to bring a towel, so had to make do with using one of my dirty T-shirts to dry my nooks and crannies.

  2. No power points – well there are power points, but only 2-pin sockets for shavers, requiring a special adapter for anyone wanting to use a phone or laptop. My phone was down to 15% battery on Thursday evening and I had no way to charge it. In one way this worked out well – without the temptation to tweet every two minutes, I was able to sit back and appreciate the experience. However, I think most people have come to expect long-distance trains to come with (3-pin) power sockets as standard, and if the sleeper is to continue it will need to be outfitted with them.

Despite these two minor niggles, I would not hesitate to recommend the sleeper to anybody. My trip had a practical purpose – I was travelling home, albeit by a very round-about route – but I would even go so far as to say it is worth making a special trip for. It’s an absolutely amazing experience, one that will stick in the memory for a lifetime. It was cheap too: just £49 for an Advance ticket, admittedly booked over two months before travel on First Great Western‘s web site. If you can’t get the Advance ticket, you can use an ordinary off-peak ticket provided you pay extra for a sleeper berth (reserve a berth as early as possible to get one) – it should still come in at less than £100 one-way.

All of this comes at a cost. The sleeper is a financial basket case and occasionally comes under threat of total withdrawal. A new Great Western franchise will start in 2013, and the Department for Transport is “consulting” on the Night Riviera’s future. The sleeper is genuinely useful for business travellers (the first “normal” train from Penzance doesn’t arrive in London until after 10am, not much use if you have an early meeting) but does that justify the expense of the service, especially when the 1980s-built sleeper coaches are approaching the end of their useful lives?

That future depends on the willingness of the powers-that-be to throw money at the sleeper service in these times of austerity. Will cold hard financial reality or rose-tinted sentimentality win the day? I hope it’s the latter; this train is run exactly the way I want Britain’s railway system to be run: heavily subsidised and bloody marvellous.

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7 Responses
  1. Comment by Tredwell Stairs
    29th March 2012 at 12:31 am

    Fantastic write-up.

    But are you implying that you have on a previous occasion been naked (illegally) in a railway station? I think we should be told.

  2. Pingback by Cornish Patsy « The Station Master
    29th March 2012 at 1:33 pm

    […] enjoy my account of my trip on the Night Riviera sleeper train, which I have written up over on my personal blog. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. from → Meta ← Burscough No Go […]

  3. Comment by Andrew Bowden
    29th March 2012 at 1:55 pm

    Ah I love the sleepers. I did the Night Riveria in December 2010 with the only drawback being that there was no buffet car on the way out from Paddington! The attendant told us that there might be someone opening at at Exeter but conceded that at 4am, this might not be much use! The way back was equally fun besides waking up to Paddington’s tannoy announcements at 5:30. Arriving in Penzance is far nicer though – you get in at 8am. I don’t quite understand why they don’t just park the train up somewhere sensible for a few hours – allow the train to get in around 7:30. I’m sure Paddington’s not that overcrowded.

    Whilst the Cornwall line is lovely, the best sleeper experience is, for my money, the Caledonian from Fort William to London – especially in June or July. Chugging gently through the wild highlands as the sun sets and deer run across the land whilst you sip a dram of whiskey. Well there’s no finer train journey in Britain.

    I’ve done a few sleeper journeys and blogged about them myself at

  4. Comment by Scottt
    29th March 2012 at 7:17 pm

    I am, of course, insanely jealous.

  5. Comment by Ian
    29th March 2012 at 7:45 pm

    At least you’ve actually been on a sleeper, Scott. This is still one of life’s riches I have yet to experience.

  6. Pingback by The End at St Erth « The Station Master
    17th June 2012 at 11:39 am

    […] for me – the journey home, via Night Riviera sleeper train (an account of which I wrote up on my personal blog and am unashamedly plugging […]

  7. Pingback by Long night’s journey into day « A railway runs through it
    24th June 2012 at 3:30 pm

    […] I was also forearmed with tips and tip-offs courtesy of Robert, who’d done exactly the same journey a few months ago. […]