The sleeper train to no-where!

There’s something about travelling long distances by train that seems much more civilised and pleasurable than flying. Certainly, for me, the glamour that may once have been associated with taking a jet plane is no longer present – at least not in economy class – and there was nothing pleasant about arriving at a very busy “London Luton” Airport at 6:30 on a Monday morning to catch a flight to Inverness.

Of course, navigating our increasingly arcane airline security: disposing of liquids; removing items of clothing; and being asked to take a sizable chunk of my possessions out of my hand luggage before it can be x-ray scanned gave me something to do for an hour. That was followed by lots of waiting around at the terminal as I arrived far too early, because of the unpredicatability of rush-hour traffic in South East England.

But this trip was special – my return journey would be by train – and I’d booked onto the ScotRail Caledonian Sleeper as far as Crewe (from where I would make an early-morning exit and hop on a train to Manchester). One of only two remaining sleeper services in the UK (there’s also a Night Riviera Sleeper service from London to Cornwall), I’ve often seen the Caledonian Sleeper come through Milton Keynes as I’ve waited for my train to London and thought “what a great way to travel overnight”. This was my opportunity – and at £112.40 for train and a bed for the night, it was no more expensive than a no-frills flight and a budget hotel.

The day was going so well – right up to the point that my taxi driver to the station said that he’d always been delayed when he’d used the ‘Sleeper. Did he jinx me? Somehow I doubt it but I should have realised that the high winds that had made my flight a little bumpy would also be causing chaos with overhead power lines on the railways and I arrived at Inverness station to see that the 20:44 to London was cancelled. Cancelled? But that’s where I was to be sleeping!

I’m not sure if I was more disappointed that I wouldn’t be taking the sleeper train, or worried about a bed for the night but ScotRail’s station staff seemed to know the drill. Clearly the cancelled sleeper is something that they have seen many times before and it becomes a “stationary” hotel for the night when it can’t run south. Most Caledonian Sleeper passengers are heading for London and the advice given to those of us who had arrived early enough was to jump on a train to Edinburgh, then grab a bed on the Edinburgh sleeper (plenty of space at this time of year), before boarding the 5.40 “Flying Scotsman” to London, which only arrives in Kings Cross a couple of hours after the Sleeper should have got to Euston. My journey was a little more complex though: I could stay in Inverness and travel south the next day, hoping that the issues caused by adverse weather conditions on the West Coast route would have eased; or travel to Edinburgh, then see if there was a bed for me on the Sleeper carriages waiting there (although ScotRail staff were confident there would be) and take an East Coast and Trans-Pennine route via York to Manchester. I elected for the Edinburgh option (on reflection, I should have stayed in Inverness, got a longer night’s sleep and taken in the Scottish scenery the morning afterwards – although I would have been travelling for most of the day instead) and so I spent my evening on a three-and-a-half-hour stopping service to Edinburgh… Upon arrival, I was directed to the Caledonian Sleeper Lounge, which was a scruffy affair, piled high with cardboard boxes, but staffed by a friendly ScotRail employee who directed me to drinks and snacks until our train/hotel was ready and it was only a few minutes later when I was able to go to the platform.

Sure enough, there was plenty of room on the train and a steward showed me to a berth, explaining “it’s number 1 and over the wheels but that won’t be a problem as we’re not going anywhere tonight!”. I was tired and had it not been for the need to charge my mobile devices (and the lack of power sockets in the sleeping berths – a side effect of using 1980s-built railway carriages I guess) I might have turned in for the night but instead I headed for the Lounge car where I found a warm welcome.

Whilst complementary tea/coffee and sandwiches were on offer, I waited for a locomotive to be connected to the train to provide the power needed for staff to cook meals. A short while later I tucked into Haggis, Neeps and Tatties, washed down with Deuchars. After all, if I’m in Edinburgh, I might as well enjoy some Scottish food and drink! It was good too – not the railway travellers’ fare that I’m used to on Virgin Trains – although it maybe something that first class travellers are more used to!

Red lights for the Caledonian Sleeper train

By then, I’d been up for almost 19 hours and decided that it was time for bed, making my way back to my berth. The standard berths are bunk beds and there’s not a lot of space around them but I found the flip up cover to access the sink and the spare bed was somewhere to store my luggage! There are options for single berths in first class – or there’s a reclining seat option for those who don’t need a bed. The rooms are not en-suite but there are toilets in the end of each carriage. For those travelling in larger groups, there are connecting doors to the next compartment and the warm, comfortable bedding, together a variety of lighting options (including a night light) meant that I was soon in the land of nod, albeit without the sound of railway wheels running over joints in the track. Maybe that would have helped to relax me but I did have a pretty restless night – although I was surprised that I didn’t hear noise from other trains in the station there didn’t seem to be a way to turn off the noisy air conditioning unit (only a temperature control).

At 5:00, I heard a knock on the door, whereby a steward handed over a cup of tea and told me which platform the London train would be leaving from. Even though I wasn’t taking that service, my time on the sleeper had to end – staff were clocking off and it was locked up by 5:30. Maybe this wasn’t quite the Caledonian Sleeper experience I’d hoped for – but I had got some rest at least and was looking forward to taking in some east coast scenery as I made my journey south.

It was certainly an eventful trip but, far from putting me off the journey, it’s something I’d try again. ScotRail’s staff were all very friendly and there’s an atmosphere on board that makes taking the sleeper feel like something different and special. The Caledonian Sleeper is looking a little tired now, but there’s a £100M investment programme coming as part of a new 15-year franchise and it may be worth making a return visit.  Unfortunately, I can’t convince Mrs Wilson to join me, so it may just have to be the next time I have a business trip to Scotland!

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