Sleeping on the rails part 1 – we have them in Britain?

Published on 14 April 2009 in , , , , , , , , ,

There’s something of a romance about train journeys. We love the idea of them. Probably a something in the genes that harks back to the glamorous days of steam trains bellowing out smoke into the sky, and grit into the eye, whilst a tear-stained woman runs alongside the long platform as the love of her life is swept away on the 08:15 from Manchester.

And when it comes to trains, nothing really evokes the romance of the sleeper. Of boarding a train, and of it whisking you through the night to another city, where an attendant gently wakes you crying “Good morning sir” before handing you your breakfast.

But for some reason, sleeper trains in Britain are a bit of an enigma – hidden away, not really talked about. People often seem faintly surprised that we have something so… so… well… so quaint.

However Britain isn’t always as small as we tend to think. London to Edinburgh is roughly four and a half hours on the train, whilst London to Aberdeen comes in at seven.

And whilst sleepers have been rather overshadowed from that completely unromantic form of travel that is the aeroplane, three sleeper routes continue to ply their trade – the Night Riveria links London and Cornwall, whilst the Caledonian Sleeper has two varieties – a Highland version links London to Aberdeen, Fort William and Inverness, and the Lowland does London, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Unlike the Night Riveria which features in First Great Western’s London/Cornwall timetable, the Caledonian is a more hidden affair, for which the privatisation of British Rail can be firmly blamed. For the Caledonian isn’t run by Virgin Trains, nor by National Express East Coast – the two companies who run daytime services between London and Scotland, and both of whose timetables deny any existence of the overnight services.

Instead the Caledonian sits with First Scotrail – a logical choice in that it serves Scotland, but an illogical one in that it’s not really an intercity operator, and the furthest south it normally goes is Newcastle and Carlisle.

Caledonian Sleeper at Fort William Station

The Caledonian Sleeper, by aminorjourney. Used under licence.

Hence why, if you go to Euston, you’ll be hard pushed to find any literature for the Caledonian Sleeper at all. There’s no dedicated station staff, no timetables, no maps and just one poster proclaiming that you must have a valid reservation.

It’s like the whole service is a bit of an enigma. But it was an enigma that seemed worth trying.

We’d been thinking of it for a trip later in the year as we’re going to a wedding near Aberdeen, so when it came to planning a trip to Edinburgh to see Catherine’s brother, it seemed like a chance to give it a trial run.

And so it came to pass that we booked the tickets, persuaded some friends to join us, and headed off to Euston in order to board. We were on our way. But what would we find?

Tomorrow in part two, we’ll be travelling on the Caledonian to Scotland and back.


  • Paul says:

    Ooh I look forward to the next part.
    Ever since I got to Fort William by way of a train to Glasgow, then a bus via Glencoe (so I could camp at Glencoe), I saw the Caledonian Sleeper in the station and thought “hey, I’d like to give that a go…”

  • MattFM says:

    This is so spooky! I’m taking the Caledonian Sleeper in June. And it’s for a wedding! I was in Euston yesterday to collect my tickets. You’re right about the lack of any information. It took me 15 minutes to find the Virgin-branded machines to pick them up.
    Looking forward to reading how it went for you.