For 140 years the Caledonian Sleeper has been carrying passengers from late evening in London to sunrise in Scotland. But how much has it changed? Travel writer Ben Lerwill checks in to discover that the romance of rail travel has not been lost on this timeless journey.
It’s 11pm in the capital. London’s Euston Station isn’t high on allure at any time of day, but it’s fair to say that this particular hour doesn’t see it at its best. On the concourse are shuttered-up pharmacies, a smattering of pub-bleared commuters and a small but spectacularly dishevelled queue for Burger King. Little, in truth, to kindle the senses.
But wait. Over on Platform 1, there’s cross-border adventure astir. Among the various late-night trains detailed on the boards – the 23.34 to Northampton and the 23.47 to Watford Junction, departures not destined to thrill – is a service that travels considerably further.
It’s up there in lights, with a departure time of 23.50. And if you squeeze aboard, sir, madam, you can settle into the lounge car and mull over the list of single malts.
Overnight sleeper services have been running between England and Scotland for more than 140 years. The current incarnation, known as The Caledonian Sleeper, has survived a number of threats to its existence, but is currently sitting pretty on the back of a fresh £150m investment, which has already led to an on-board overhaul.
The funding will, eventually, see a brand new fleet in place by 2018. I’m travelling to Edinburgh – scheduled arrival at a rather-too-early 7.22 – but my train also goes on to Glasgow and Carstairs.
The Scottish transport minister, possibly after one too many sore-kneed budget flights, has expressed hope that the fresh funding will see the Caledonian Sleeper “become a tourism draw in itself… and be emblematic of the best of Scotland”.
It’s certainly an infinitely more appealing prospect than a low-cost air hop. I’m greeted on the platform by a jolly tartan-tied attendant, who checks my ticket and asks for my breakfast order. Then I’m on, and within the hour we’re off.
The corridors are tight (you’d be hard pushed to blow your nose, let alone swing a cat) and the berths are of the same fashion, but there’s enough room for a sink, storage space and a full-length bed.
I’ve been left a magazine, a bottle of water and a little pack of designer toiletries, which includes a vial of pillow spray. Pillow spray? Ha! Take that, the 23.34 to Northampton. I’m in a single berth, but doubles are available too, as are very reasonably priced “sleeper seats”.
On boarding, I’m surprised to find a full late-night menu on offer in the lounge car: main courses, Scottish cheese boards, Highland ales and all. I order haggis, neeps and tatties, because it’s on there and because I’m congenitally pre-programmed to make this sort of choice in this sort of situation.
A dapper elderly man arriving at the next table, meanwhile, who upon entering the carriage has asked the waiter if he might be allowed to give his false teeth a rinse in the galley – “Well, yes,” comes the smiling but slightly startled response, “but, you know, you really could have done that in your berth” – opts for the fish pie.
The old man, who may or may not later reveal himself to be a former member of parliament, has been at Henley watching his grandson in the rowing, he tells me. He’s also a semi-regular on the Caledonian Sleeper. “Oh, I probably catch it four times a year,” he tells me, busying himself with a hefty glass of sauvignon blanc. “It’s very civilised.”
And so it is. There’s a lot of herding and harrying in modern travel, but not here. When we get moving, we roll north slowly. They say that in decades past, Scottish politicians would regularly do deals over drinks in the lounge car. It’s not hard to imagine. The passengers are a mix of business types and independent travellers – many of them quite thirsty – and the staff are, for their part, chipper and tolerant.
A whiskied 1am comes and goes. As nameless English towns flit past in the night, I make my excuses and retire to what is, I’m happy to report, a very comfortable bed.
Too few hours later, a tap at the door baffles me out of sleep, then reveals itself to come from the bearer of a pot of tea and an Ayrshire bacon roll. I raise the blind and sit up. Outside is Scotland – low green hills, morning light and cattle. I think: I could get used to this.
Within half an hour we’re at Edinburgh Waverley, a station with the prime asset of being slap-bang in the heart of affairs. There’s the castle, there’s Princes Street. The old city is waking up to sunshine, and the day ahead is mine. This is, I would venture, travel as it should be. And it’s always sunny in Edinburgh, right?