Robert Hampton

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15th September 2013

A View To A Kilt
Posted by at 8.40pm | 4 responses | Trains

There are many, many blog posts to come, both here and on The Station Master blog.

It was hard to contain my excitement on Monday afternoon, as I boarded a Virgin train to London. Most people would regard travelling 200 miles south, in order to travel back north again by the same route, as slightly mad. But there was method in my madness: firstly, I was meeting my friend and regular partner in various rail-related adventures, Ian Jones, who was going to join me on the journey. Secondly, I wanted to get the fullest possible experience from ScotRail’s overnight Caledonian Sleeper service.

Neither Ian nor myself are sleeper virgins – we have both, at different times, “done” the Cornish sleeper – the Night Riviera – from Penzance to London Paddington (read Ian’s account here, and mine here). As special as that journey is, it pales in comparison to the Anglo-Scottish services. Sorry, First Great Western, but you are Star Trek Voyager compared to ScotRail’s Next Generation.

After sauntering down to Kings Cross for dinner at the Parcel Yard restaurant, we returned to Euston to begin our adventure. I’ve travelled countless times from Euston, but tonight felt different. There was not going to be an undignified dash to the platform to cram aboard a Pendolino tonight. On the departure board, alongside Watford Junction, Manchester Piccadilly and Tring, was an altogether more exotic train: the 21:15 to Inverness, Aberdeen and – yes! – Fort William.

Euston departure board

The epic nature of the journey ahead is immediately apparent when you see the enormous length of the train – 16 carriages (sixteen!) in total. We were booked in Coach F, which turned out to be the second coach from the front (the coaches are not lettered in order). We walked and walked for what seemed like an age, leaving behind Euston’s ugly trainshed and emerging into the night air as we neared the end of the platform. It felt like we were most of the way towards Watford Junction by the time we reached our coach.

Robert next to Sleeper

The steward greeted us. He was armed with a clipboard and ticked us off on our list. He informed us that our berth allocation had been changed, as a large group were travelling and he wanted to keep them in adjacent berths. We had been assigned berths 13 and 14, in the centre of the coach. He then took our breakfast drink order before beckoning us aboard.

The Caledonian Sleeper is generally regarded as being quite expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. If you book far enough ahead, in fact, an Advance single from London Euston to Fort William, inclusive of berth fee, can be had for as little as £66.10. Think about that for a second: not only does that get you from central London to the Scottish Highlands (a journey of over 500 miles) it also effectively includes a night’s hotel bill. That has to be a bargain in anyone’s book.

Unfortunately, these Advance fares can be hard to get on the Fort William section, which has only two sleeper coaches. That I was able to book them at all is mainly thanks to the invaluable Man in Seat Sixty-One who, when it comes to the Sleeper, has been there, done that and bought (and presumably slept in) the T-Shirt. His Caledonian Sleeper page advised that tickets are released for sale on Friday morning for the week 12 weeks ahead, and that is the time to book.

Which is why, on the morning of Friday 21st June, I found myself at work, repeatedly refreshing ScotRail’s web site to see if the tickets were available. Sure enough, at about ten past nine, the site was updated and the sleeper service became available. Credit card details were entered with trembling fingers, and it was done: Two tickets for a total of £132.20. Get in (a bed)! Also, apologies to anyone in the office who was expecting me to work that morning.

Sleeper ticket

One caveat to note is that the Caledonian Sleeper, unlike the Night Riviera, does not offer solo berths (unless you travel first class, or pay a hefty supplement). If the train is lightly loaded, you might get lucky and receive a berth to yourself, but if you’re a solo traveller you may end up sharing with a stranger. I’m sure nothing murder-y usually happens, but the best policy is to find a willing companion and travel with them in a twin berth. In any event, the sleeper is an experience best shared with someone.

Where was I? Oh yes, the berth:

Sleeper berth

When I travelled on the Cornish sleeper, I had a solo berth. The twin berths here are the same size, and – with two people sharing that space – inevitably they are more cramped. They make creative use of space, with innovations such as a shelf that lifts to reveal a sink, but Ian and I found ourselves climbing over each other at several points. A certain amount of patience and tolerance is needed to coexist in such a confined space.

Ian did admit to feeling a little discombobulated:

Ian in his bunk

I do love all the little control buttons for climate control and lights. Like a big child, I sat there playing with the switches to make sure they all worked.

Sleeper controls

The berths are nice enough, but hanging around in there all evening means you’re not getting the best value from your ticket. A much better policy is to head to the lounge car. Do this as early in the journey as possible, as there is limited space and it fills up quickly. The lounge car is elegantly appointed with leather sofas in one section, and movable chairs in the other. I don’t think there can be a more agreeable way to travel on Britain’s railway.

Caledonian Sleeper lounge car

There is an at-seat service of food and drink – Ian and I ordered tea and hot chocolate respectively, and settled back to enjoy the journey.

A slight fly in the ointment was the presence of a group of yah-boo posh students who had taken up residence near us. They took up a lot of space and were rather loud as they discussed their plans to go pony trekking. One red-trousered young man (whom Ian nicknamed “The Cunt”) earned our mutual ire for putting his feet up on the seats. The Tory MPs of the future, there.

I did my best to tune them out, and gazed out the window as London’s suburbs give way to commuter villages and finally the dark countryside.

Robert in the Sleeper Lounge Car

I finally felt able to relax. In the days before our departure, my excitement had given way to anxiety, and my mind had started turning over all the different ways that things could go wrong. A few days earlier, the sleeper from Fort William had been cancelled entirely due to a fault with the loco. On another recent occasion, the train had broken down, with passengers transferred onto the following daytime train to complete their journeys. I had fretted for days, becoming increasingly convinced that a similar disaster was about to befall us. Now, however, I realised that my luck was in, in every sense of the word. I was travelling in style, with a good friend, at the start of a week of fun. I pushed the boat out and ordered a Stella Artois.

Robert in the lounge car

After a good amount of lounging, we settled our tab. Excellently, I received my first Scottish banknote in change. I look forward to befuddling English shop assistants with this in the near future.

Clydesdale Bank £10

We retired to our berth, where we had to get the attendant to let us back in. The compartments do not have keys for passengers – you can turn the door to “locked” and then leave your compartment, but when you come back you find yourself locked out. It’s a bit of a hassle and one of the things about the sleeper that could do with being updated.

Familiar stations look different from the sleeper. We stopped at Crewe, normally a bustling hub with trains coming from all directions. At nearly midnight, however, it was quiet and deserted, with the newsstands and cafés shuttered, and hardly anyone in sight.

Crewe Through Sleeper Window

As the train passed Preston, we started to prepare for bed. I needed to use the loo, but had already taken off my shoes. I felt a bit strange wandering along a train carriage in my socks, but then Ian saw a woman emerge from another toilet wearing just a towel. Where’s your troosers, etc.

Ian and I discussed the thorny issue of who would get which bunk. A copious amount of “top” and “bottom” jokes were exchanged, before we finally agreed that I would take the lower berth.

Before we turned in for the night, though, Ian had some reading to do:

Ian reading Gay Times

I didn’t sleep as well as I had done on the Night Riviera. The coach rocked and swayed as we travelled at speed up the West Coast Main Line and the occasional sharp bend saw me slide from one end of the bed to the other. I found it difficult to settle down.

I must have dozed off at some point, however, as the next thing I remember was being jolted awake at 4am by shuddering and banging. We were at Edinburgh, and the train was being split to go off three separate ways. I was expecting this shunting manoeuvre, but if you don’t know what’s happening, it must be a bit disconcerting.

Our train started moving again, and I managed to get back to sleep. When I awoke again, it was just after 7am, and I pulled back the window blind to reveal an amazing vista.

View from the Window

This section of journey has an entirely different character to the previous night. Gone is the busy West Coast Main Line. Instead we now meander along the West Highland Line, through some of the most rugged landscape in Britain. The stunningly bleak and beautiful scenery was interrupted only by the occasional wayside station flashing past the window, marking another tiny, isolated settlement.

I have travelled over this line before, but it is no less spectacular the second time around.

Our steward brought us our breakfast with profuse apologies – the train’s electrical supply had failed at dawn, so there was no hot water to make tea. We had to make do with orange juice instead. More annoyingly for me, the special adaptor I had bought to charge my iPhone from the shaver socket was wasted, as that wasn’t working either.

We had also lost the air conditioning, so it was rather stuffy in our compartment. No worries there – just head to the end of the carriage and lean out the window (not too far, mind) for some bracing Scottish fresh air.

Leaning out of the window

We stopped at the remote station of Corrour (which we shall revisit later). “The Cunt” and his companions alighted here (I gathered that they were the large group for whom Ian and I had been moved aside). One of them waved at me as I leaned out of a vestibule window watching them go. I suspect Ian would happily have seen them eaten by wolves.

We pulled into Fort William station 1 minute early. Ian confessed that he didn’t want to leave. I could understand that – in spite of the minor problems, it had been a wonderful experience, and it was with regret that we finally hopped off the train.

Sleeper at Fort William

In the adjacent platform, the Jacobite steam train was simmering away, waiting to take its passengers on a scenic trip to Mallaig. Tourists swarmed around the locomotive, queueing up to pose for photos on the footplate. They completely ignored the sleeper train that had just arrived.

Jacobite steam train

Yeah, yeah, it’s a steam train. Does it have beds on it?! Pah.

Robert at Fort William

I am thrilled that this train still exists in the year 2013. The sleeper is a huge loss-maker – British Rail tried and failed to kill it off prior to privatisation, and today survives thanks mainly to a heavy subsidy and political goodwill. The UK and Scottish Governments have each pledged £50m to improve the service, which will be run by a dedicated Caledonian Sleeper franchise from March 2015.

While the lounge car is marvellous, the sleeper berths themselves compare unfavourably with equivalents in Europe, many of which boast en suite toilets and on-board showers. It’s been suggested that the sleeper cars (built in the 1980s) could be refurbished to include similar features, or even have a whole new fleet of modern sleeping coaches constructed. However, adding these features would have to be done by reducing passenger capacity, which means less fare revenue. Therefore subsidies would have to increase, or fares increased, to offset the lost income. While it would be nice to see a modernised service, it would be a shame if leisure travellers were priced off the service – as it is now, it’s the perfect way to start a holiday in Scotland.

I didn’t get a real sense of who the service is pitched at. Is it for businessmen who need to get to London or Scotland for an important early meeting, or is it for people heading off to Scotland who fancy a bit of luxury to start their holiday? If the former, then it needs investment in better facilities such as on-board Wi-Fi and power sockets to tempt business types away from early flights. If the latter, the pricing needs to be sorted out – £66.10 is just about affordable, but unless you’re very quick to book the tickets you will find yourself paying well over £100.

Whatever happens, it looks like the Caledonian Sleeper will be around in some form for many years to come, and that is excellent news. A little piece of Scotland travels to and from London six nights a week. Long may it continue.


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4 Responses
  1. Comment by Scottieboy
    15th September 2013 at 10:51 pm

    You’ve put me off the Night Riviera now. I’m scared Neelix might be doing the catering.

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    16th September 2013 at 9:53 pm

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    17th September 2013 at 10:39 pm

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