A few years back we decided it was time to visit the Highlands of Scotland. Going there we went via Manchester, where most of my blood family reside.
Coming home, we were flying back from London (it’s hard to find a direct flight from DC to anywhere else). This meant a several hour train ride.
Which was when I discovered Britain’s last sleeper train. There’s something romantic about sleeper trains, something last century and beautiful. It’s called the Caledonian Sleeper.
And, to my shock, a second class berth on the Caledonian Sleeper cost less than either a hotel room or a day ticket. It was literally our cheapest way back to London.
And our experience is no longer possible to have, which I’ll explain below.
Where Does the Caledonian Sleeper Run?
Once life gets back to normal, the sleeper trains run from various places in Scotland to London. Our boarding point was Inverness.
There are two major routes; east side to Aberdeen and west side to Fort William in the West Highlands. East trains stop at Edinburgh and Inverness, while west coast trains visit Glasgow.
Why is it the Last?
Simple: High speed trains. It now takes, for example, about two and a half hours from London to Manchester. Those routes which don’t have high speed trains because of hills tend to be less popular, and they simply can’t afford to run the specialist trains on them. (It still, for example, takes eight hours from Nottingham to Penzance. I have nightmare memories of that route. I was five. It was eight hours. They overbooked the train. I had to stand. How it didn’t put me off train travel for life I will never know).
So, What was it Like?
Our boarding time in Inverness was about 8pm (I forget exactly). We stored our luggage in a station locker then swung by a pub for dinner and one last really good Scotch before leaving.
On the train, we found our berth, deposited our luggage, and then spent some time in the lounge car (We could have got food here, but pub food or train food? No offense to British Rail, that’s no contest. Unless the train is in France).
The lounge car gave the air of an old mystery, and we amused ourselves by deciding it was too obvious that the murderer was the guy who was screaming at the poor porter because he couldn’t get a cooked breakfast at the time he wanted and it was probably the quiet woman in the corner, and that the victim was obviously that guy over there.
Then we settled into our berths. Sleeping car berths are essentially bunk beds. No, I didn’t sleep well, but it was an interesting experience just lying there while the train rattled through the darkened countryside.
Because we didn’t book first class (do it if you can), we didn’t get breakfast. Instead, we ate at the station before finding our hotel (who graciously allowed us to store our luggage from the early morning).
Why Can’t it Happen Again?
No, the Caledonian Sleeper has not gone away. But a year after our trip, they replaced all of their trains. The one we rode on was so old it still had foot pedals to flush the rest rooms, and you still couldn’t use the rest room if the train was stationary! It belonged in a museum, but of course that was a huge part of the charm.
The new Caledonian Sleeper trains are much more modern with more amenities…and much more expensive because (at least pre plague) more people were willing to take them. Some first class berths even have their own bathroom facilities!
So, the old train with all of its character is gone, and I mourn it, even as I entirely agree with its replacement (I really hope they saved some of the rolling stock and sent it to York).
It was one of those things that you have to do once in your life to make your life complete, and I’m glad I did.