The Survival of the Caledonian Sleeper

Published on 24 June 2012 in , , , , , ,

The Caledonian Sleeper heading to Fort William

On Thursday a plan for the future of Scotland’s railways was announced to the Scottish Parliament – rail franchising in Scotland being a devolved issue.

Now as someone who has lived in London for nearly 13 years, you might wonder why I care enough to write about it. Scotland is, after all, a bit of a long way from my normal train usage. So I’m not exactly a big user of Scotrail’s services.

The answer to that question lies in one small part of the Scotland rail franchise – the Caledonian Sleeper which connects London and Scotland six nights a week.

I’m always surprised by how few people know about the network of overnight trains that run across our country, but they are fantastic things. The Night Rivera plies its trade between Paddington and Devon and Cornwall, whilst the Caledonian Sleeper trains link Euston with Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William.

They’re a wonderful way to travel. Far nicer than flying and all the stresses and hassles that airports offer. No, on the sleeper you get to sit in the lounge car supping beer and whisky before heading to a comfy bed and being whisked off to where you’re going. It’s the ideal way to do a long rail journey. London to Aberdeen will take you seven hours on a daytime train. But on the sleeper it’s a nice evening’s journey.

Celebrating a walk well done

So when, in 2011, Transport Scotland started a consultation on Scotland’s railway network that included such options as potentially making the sleeper trains a commercial decision rather than mandating them in the franchise, or even killing off some services completely, well naturally I was worried for their future. People have tried to kill off the sleepers before – especially when the trains show signs of needing updating.

But this time round the sleepers are safe. The franchise will be let separately to the rest of Scotrail – the new operator will get 15 years to invest and improve the service (and hopefully repaint the fleet in something nicer than the rather horrible plain purple they’re currently in!)

What the new operator will get is £100m to upgrade the service, and whilst I’m a fan of the service, the 1970s carriages that are used on the sleepers are showing their age.

Whilst they’ve been modernised and refurbished, the ride is not as smooth as more modern trains – not ideal when you’re trying to sleep – and the UK’s sleeper trains are way behind some of the European services in travel facilities. First class on the Talgo sleeper train that connects Spain and France will get you an en-suite with shower, whilst the Caledonian Sleeper just offers a sink with a tap that usually manages barely a slow trickle of water. On the Talgo you get in to your room with a hotel style keycard whilst on the Cally if you want your door locked from outside, you’d better talk to the attendant.

OK, showers would be a waste of space, especially given the sleeper berths are regularly fully booked, especially on the Edinburgh and Glasgow routes. Although that’s an issue in itself. There’s no additional capacity. The UK has no spare sleeper train carriages floating around, whilst the current trains are nearly at maximum length for the UK’s platforms.

This is because the sleepers leave and arrive in London as two trains. If you’re going to Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William, then you get the Highland Sleeper which is the longest train in Britain until it divides at Edinburgh in the early hours. It can’t be made any bigger as it wouldn’t fit on the platform at Euston.

The Caledonian Sleeper at Fort William

The Lowland Sleeper – which splits off to Glasgow and Edinburgh and is the busiest of the two sleepers – is smaller but the lack of spare sleeper carriages means it can’t be lengthened. Indeed, given how busy the service is, there may even be an argument for running two separate trains – a dedicated Glasgow sleeper, and another just going to Scotland. Without the need to divide en-route, each train could be longer, if you can get the extra carriages.

Similarly, as part of their consultation, Transport Scotland asked about whether somewhere like Oban should have a service. Which it only could currently if some other service (such as the Fort William one) got axed. Unless someone got some more carriages anyway.

Whatever happens though, it’s all a few years away. The sleeper franchise won’t kick off until 2014 and only then will be money be spent. It will be a fair few years before that £100m gets spent. But at least the sleepers will still be there. Their future is now secure. For the next 15 years anyway. Whether we have to start worrying again at that point is a whole other question.