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Landin in Scotland: The Caledonian Sleeper’s romantic appeal remains stronger than ever

Despite numerous failures and never-ending teething problems there is room for moderate optimism

AS REGULAR readers of this column will know, there’s nothing quite like the Caledonian Sleeper. Since my first proper trip north of the border as a kid, I’ve been a fan. I’ve done all five routes — the Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William portions which make up the Highlander, and the Glasgow and Edinburgh carriages which divide at Carstairs after a later departure from London Euston. From the random conversations in the lounge car, to the wealth of literary invocations that overnight trains conjure, even regular trips can’t help me shake off a sense of adventure.

The sleeper has been in the headlines of late — initially in what could only be considered a PR’s wet dream. The introduction of shiny new carriages has allowed for a thousand and one puff pieces to grace Britain’s national media, with the promise of a new golden age of travel.

The transition to the new sleeper started badly for me, with the advent last summer of a new pricing structure. The abolition of shared compartments meant the cheapest berth almost doubled in price. The overnight train could no longer be my default mode of transport between my home in Glasgow and my old London haunts. But could its new status in my life as a rarity to savour send it even further in my estimation?

I’ve written before about struggling to ever resent the sleeper, no matter how extreme its frustrations. Travelling to an oil industry summit in Aberdeen in February 2015, I awoke to find the power had cut out. Before long the steward was knocking at the door equipped with the backup lighting supply for those dark winter nights: a box of rave-style glow sticks. More recently I found myself waking up having moved not an inch from Glasgow’s Central station, and shortly decanted to the first Virgin Trains morning departure.

I just wish the train could strike
a better balance between this laudable aesthetic heritage and affordable convenience

After the initial fanfare — or rather bag-piping — of the relaunch, however, I did get a little worried. I’d been kindly invited to sample the new club class experience, and after a change of schedule I’d re-booked to ensure I could make an important early-morning commitment in London. Meanwhile teething problems with the new carriages were becoming a recurring nightmare, with passengers seemingly being decanted onto buses and checked into hotels on a regular basis.

I’d travelled already in a “classic” compartment en route to a freelance job in the south — and found, admittedly to my pleasure, it was remarkably similar to the carriages of old — which had been introduced in the 1980s, but barely changed, other than the addition of air conditioning, from British Rail’s original Mark 1 sleeping cars. The corridors were as narrow as ever, the compartments still snug — but with reassuring lockable doors and mattresses less tired. The new lounge car layout, with more secluded tables and an elegant zig-zag bar, seemed less amenable to the prospect of meeting strangers. But it had been a long night already, and I was well ready to hit the hay.

I’d also tried the new seated carriage — the only aspect of the service which appears to have stayed at the same — and very reasonable — price. The prospect of sitting upright all night can be daunting, but when you’ve already done eight hours on the train from Marseille to London, then why ever not?

A fellow passenger distributed leaflets from Living Rent, Scotland’s tenants’ union, with a helpful reminder that the service is operated by the same Serco currently pressing ahead with changing the locks on the doors of unsuccessful asylum applicants.

In one sense it’s inevitable: everything in this country is now auctioned off to the highest bidder. Yet there’s still something jarring about being referred to as “guests” and afforded even the comfort of an upright chair by a company content to leave people on the streets.

Tony Benn used to say that the way a government  treats refugees is instructive — because it’s how they’d treat the rest of us if they could get away with it. You could say the same of outsourcing giants.

A nocturnal knock against the footrest seems the most likely explanation for a painful soft tissue injury in my foot — still persisting — which materialised shortly after. But nonetheless, I can’t pretend I didn’t feel surprisingly well rested the following day.

On the night of my press trip’s outward leg, I was reassured by the train’s timely departure. It was a sharp contrast to the tale I’d heard from a friend who reviewed the sleeper for another paper a few days previous, and ended up in a hotel room for all of a few hours. I’d eaten, so I had no use for the excellent food menu, which includes the likes of haggis, neeps and tatties — though it’s forgotten you could get these on the old trains too.

After a stiff Macallan and an overheard conversation about theatre production, my eyelids began to droop. I staggered down the corridor in keen anticipation of a few thematic songs: Gerry Rafferty’s City to City, a description of the very same journey, being top of my list.

But an easy passage to sleep would, alas, be too straightforward for the sleeper. No matter how many times I tapped my key card on the door handle, the light refused to turn green. When I enlisted the steward’s help, it flashed encouragingly — but the door still wouldn’t budge. I was relocated to a compartment — I won’t call them the now-preferred “rooms,” which is both overly pretentious for a space so small, and undersells the romance of sleeper travel — designed for disabled access. This was comparatively spacious — only trouble was, my bags were locked in sleeper jail. The night was saved by two engineers on board, with the assistance of cutting-edge technology — a fork and spoon.

The return leg passed without any such drama. I quickly settled to “being carried sideways through the night,” as the poet Norman MacCaig put it. He wasn’t a fan, but the visualisation this conjures in my mind has always appealed to me in its strangeness.

The stewards still appeared to be unduly stretched. It’s perhaps no surprise they’re considering industrial action, given they’ve reportedly not been given extra pay for what they say is a higher workload. The lounge could do with a functioning bar, rather than the insistence on table service for even the most basic of orders.

If regular disruption continues, traffic from travelling workers will decline, with the options of flying and conventional trains considered more reliable for early commitments. The Caledonian Sleeper’s romantic appeal, though, remains stronger than ever. I just wish the train could strike a better balance between this laudable aesthetic heritage and affordable convenience.

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