THE Caledonian Sleeper is to be radically overhauled to create a luxury train service that is “emblematic of Scotland”.
Bidders for a new 15-year franchise to run the overnight Scotland-London link have been told that government ministers are insisting that the trains must “send a strong message about Scotland” and “reflect” what visitors can expect when they arrive in the country.
The new service – to be boosted by £100 million of investment pledged by the Scottish and UK governments – could also include luxury-class cabins to attract well-heeled tourists heading on sporting holidays. Other new features likely to be considered by potential operators include showers, TVs, gourmet dining and wifi access.
Overnight sleeper services have operated between Edinburgh, Glasgow and London for 140 years, with a separate train now operating to and from Aberdeen, Fort William and Inverness, which divides at Edinburgh. Until now it has largely hosted business travellers and politicians attracted by the early-morning arrival at London Euston, and carries 270,000 passengers a year.
But the Caledonian Sleeper – currently operated by ScotRail – uses coaches which are up to 40 years old with cramped, shared accommodation and spartan facilities. The service also costs £25m a year to run, with annual losses of more than £5m.
Bidders for the service from 2015, which would be run separately from ScotRail, have been told to make sleeper journeys such a compelling experience that passengers will want to revisit Scotland.
The Scottish Government’s Transport Scotland agency, which is in charge of the franchise, said it effectively aimed to make the sleeper like “Scotland on wheels”.
A spokeswoman said: “The Caledonian Sleeper stands as a unique and cherished service for rail users to and from Scotland. It is more than just a train service, it is part of a holiday, a business office and a hotel which is close to the hearts of passengers.
“We will let a separate 15-year franchise and this, coupled with over £100m of investment, is intended to give this historic service the 21st-century future it deserves.”
Transport Scotland said the Caledonian Sleeper was an “immediately identifiable brand” and it had asked bidders to propose an approach, including livery, which will be emblematically Scottish.
“This is an opportunity to showcase the best of Scotland in terms of hospitality, service and quality. The new service should be a source of pride,” the spokeswoman said.
“The sleeper serves a number of Scotland’s iconic tourist and sporting destinations so we have asked bidders to consider the possibilities around adding a luxury travel option.
“The Caledonian Sleeper will be an important factor in Scotland’s visibility in London – as a destination for leisure and business. It will not just be a means to an end, but a destination in itself.”
Potential bidders, who will be asked to lodge their interest in April, include Dutch railways offshoot Abellio, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin and Serco, which runs rail franchises such as the Docklands Light Railway. Abellio runs daytime services in England, and Virgin runs the main west coast line service between Glasgow and London.
Regular passengers said that, despite its charms, the sleeper desperately needed updating.
Jane Lindsey, who uses the service to travel on business for her Snapdragon gifts business near Drymen, said: “It’s a 1970s experience: all a bit tired and cramped, but really clean, and the service by the staff is absolutely brilliant.
“But there are no power sockets for laptops and it is difficult to wheel even airline cabin-size baggage along the corridors.”
Jill McNicol, development manager with Moray Tourism, who also runs holiday accommodation near Inverness, said: “It’s a really disappointing service.
“If it was up to scratch it would be fantastic, such as with showers and only single cabins so you did not have to share with someone you had never met before. It does not put Scotland in the best light, although the staff are great.”
Professor Jim Gallacher, a former board member of watchdog body Passenger Focus, said the sleeper should be as good as the best European overnight trains, such as the “hotel on wheels” that runs between Paris and Madrid.
He said: “It is a very high-quality experience, with en suite facilities and a very good dining car.
“I would be worried about waving the tartan too much, but you could provide good-quality Scottish food, which is very patchy at the moment.”
Professor Iain Docherty, a rail expert at Glasgow University and former Transport Scotland board member, said: “Flight disruption caused by the Icelandic volcano eruption proved the value of the sleeper, while new high-quality services have opened across Europe.”
ScotRail, currently run by Aberdeen-based FirstGroup, said it had invested £1m in sleeper refurbishments, including toilets and cabin wash basins.
A spokesman said: “We have a programme of continuous improvements to the product, including enhancements to the catering and the introduction of duvets in cabins.”
An Abellio spokesman said: “Transport Scotland has outlined an exciting vision for the next sleeper franchise.
“We are following developments closely and look forward to the next stages of this important opportunity.”