21 September 2014

Caledonian Sleeper

Somethings in life have a certain appeal: a romantic image from a bygone era, and so it is with sleeper trains. We’ve all seen the movies with glamorous people on luxurious trains, and perhaps the odd illicit assignation in a compact cabin.

There are now just three sleeper services in the UK: two to Scotland and one to Penzance. When the need to travel to Scotland at short notice came up, and with the Commonwealth Games in full swing and monopolising (and inflating the price of) hotel rooms, I remembered the Caledonian Sleeper from Euston and wondered what the cost might be: not as much as I expected.

There are two sleeper trains a night from Euston: the Highland Sleeper, to Inverness, Aberdeen and Fort William, and the Lowland Sleeper to Glasgow and Edinburgh. I was going to Glasgow, so the Lowland was mine.

There are a number of options available, from first class where you have exclusive use of a cabin to yourself through to the seated-sleeper service where, as the name implies, you have a seat.

If you travel standard class in a cabin, you will be required to share with someone else of the same sex - unless you pay a solo supplement. Or, if you’re travelling with a companion, you can obviously share the cabin. Families are accommodated too, with connecting doors between cabins that can be unlocked by the on-train hosts meaning four people can travel together.

I decided to travel first class, so I had a cabin to myself. Berth 13 (my lucky number) in coach C was to be mine for the journey, and we left on time from Euston.

Before boarding, sleeper passengers are allowed to use the Virgin Trains first class lounge at Euston. According to the information on the web site, a selection of hot and cold (soft) drinks snacks are available, with alcoholic drinks available to purchase. I appreciate that the sleeper is the last train to leave, but the state of the lounge was pretty poor. Dropped food on the floor, sticky tables and lack of anything to nibble - the reason given was that it was the end of the day so they weren’t putting out anything fresh, which is understandable, but the snacks were all pre-packed so that doesn’t make sense as they’d be fine to leave out for the next day.

The lounge is modern in style with some fairly firm sofas in the lounge area, plus a separate area with armchairs and laptop tables or more formal desks and chairs for anyone wanting to work. Sockets were available too for plugging in the laptop or phone, and the wifi was free too.

The train is scheduled to leave at 23.45, but it’s available for boarding from around 23.00 when the lounge closes. They’re long trains, the longest passenger trains in the UK I’m told, so it was a few minutes walk to the right part of the train. It divides en route at Carstairs, so getting on the wrong part of the train could lead to an unexpected surprise come the morning.

I was shown to my cabin by the attendant, who explained how everything worked including where to find the sink, the attendant-call button, how the lights worked and how to adjust the temperature of the air conditioning. There are no keys for the cabin door, but you can lock it when you leave and the attendant will let you back in on your return - and they will know if it’s your cabin or not! She also took my breakfast order, which is included for first class passengers: either a cooked breakfast or continental, with a choice of tea or coffee to be served at the time if your choice - subject to the train’s arrival time of 07.20.

Each cabin has two bunks, the upper one in my cabin was folded away as I was the only person in it. There’s a sink with hot and cold water, a luggage rack for your case and space to hang your clothes. Separate ladies and gents toilets are at the end of each coach.

The cabin was very comfortable if compact. The bed is full-length, but slightly narrower than standard. A cosy duvet and two pillows with crisp white linen are provided, and the bunk itself is comfortably firm. First class passengers get a comprehensive amenity kit with toiletries including a razor and even hand cream. Not only that, but the sign by the sink asks you to take your towel with you in order to help the environment.

Despite the lateness of the hour, I decided to sample the lounge car before turning in for the night. These have the air of a hotel bar, and there are tables with moveable chairs if you want a hot meal, or if just having a drink there are four three-seat banquettes along the sides. 

The atmosphere was very convivial, and there’s a good selection of wines to choose from plus, as you might expect, whisky. The hot food choices are limited, and they are microwave meals. Having eaten earlier I settled for a bottle of wine and a packet of cashew nuts. First class passengers get a £2.50 voucher to spend in the lounge car, so think of it as a drink on the house.

With limited seating, and the restricted space, inevitably you end up chatting with your fellow travellers, which is a very pleasant way to spend an evening and, without realising it, the earliest part of the morning. People were willing to swap seats to allow couples to sit together, or to make room for someone wanting a meal - food is only served at the tables, and after being jolted a few times as we left London I can see why the steward was so insistent: you'd end up wearing it.

Because of the lack of space there’s a priority system in place with first class passengers welcome at any time, standard class passengers can use the lounge if there’s room. Seated passengers can purchase items from a buffet and are not permitted to use the lounge car.

Moving around the train is a bit like being on a small boat in choppy water, and you need to find your sea legs. That said, the sleeping cars rode fairly smoothly apart from the odd suddenly jolt through the night and, whilst I can’t say it was the best night sleep I’ve ever had, I certainly slept and felt refreshed the next morning.

Waking up next morning and performing your ablutions whilst watching the countryside speed-by was perhaps the most gratifying part of the experience; until we made the stop at Motherwell where my window was directly alongside the train dispatcher. Cue a very rapid closing of the blind!

Breakfast arrived slightly early, and trying to receive the tray whilst not really dressed for receiving visitors was a little awkward - although I dare say the attendants will have seen it all before.

I went for the continental option, which included a fresh fruit salad, yogurt, croissant and coffee. When I’d ordered the attendant said I’d made the best choice: apparently the cooked breakfast is an airline-style meal and not so generous.

My only criticism of breakfast is that the hot water supplied for the coffee (sachets of Starbucks instant) is not quite enough for two cups - but a refill is readily available with just a press of the call-bell.

We arrived just a few minutes late in Glasgow and it was a short walk across the station for my connecting train. If you haven’t had breakfast, Glasgow Central has a number of cafés and coffee shops, and it’s right in the city centre too.

I paid £180 for my ticket just a few days before travelling, booking earlier is cheaper, and I would heartily recommend it as a way to travel. 

Cabins can only be booked via the Scotrail web site or their call centre, but seated sleeper places can be booked via any online ticket seller or National Rail station.

It’s currently operated by First Group’s Scotrail franchise, but from April 2015 it will become a separate franchise operated by Serco. Brand new rolling stock is due in 2018 with more accommodation options.

For all the romantic connotations of a sleeper train, there were no murders or jewel thefts, and the people on board were strictly down to earth types. The Caledonian Sleeper might not make a good film, but it does provide a very special and enjoyable way to travel.

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