Alastair Dalton: Sleeper worthy of its name

LIE BACK and think of the Sleeper’s future, writes Alastair Dalton

Caledonian Sleeper service. Picture: TSPL
Caledonian Sleeper service. Picture: TSPL

In the age of ever-faster rail journeys between Scotland and London, taking a leisurely seven-and-a-half hours might seem quaint.

But the Caledonian Sleeper is not about speed. Its selling point is – or should be – convenience and comfort.

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Overnight trains have been crossing the Border for more than 140 years, but unfortunately for passengers, the current carriages have now been making the trip for almost 40 years.

In fact, my berth on board the Glasgow sleeper this week, travelling as a guest of operator Serco, looked largely unchanged from those I remember from family holidays in the 1970s.

Serco made immediate changes when it took over the service from ScotRail on 31 March, but they are all necessarily superficial.

There’s more Scottish food and drink on the lounge car menu, new duvets and a second pillow in the berths, along with Arran-produced toiletries for first-class passengers.

Staff have been given new tweed and tartan uniforms, and they were as unfailingly welcoming and helpful on my trip as many passengers have said in the past.

Installing wi-fi is not thought possible, but electric sockets are due to be added by the end of the year.

However, there is little that Serco can do to improve the basics until brand new trains arrive in three years’ time.

The coaches dating from the heyday of British Rail are very much showing their age. Some toilets in the corridors have mechanical foot-operated flush pedals that were so difficult to use that my fellow passengers clearly gave up.

In the cabins, the bunks, though comfy, are just 2ft wide, which I imagine you’d only have to be slightly on the large side to struggle with.

On my trip south, the incessant squeaking of the carriage suspension prompted my neighbour to suggest a can of WD40. On the way back, the berth was so warm – despite setting the temperature to “min” – I had virtually no need for the duvet.

As for trying to sleep, it must be a practised art. It is perhaps something you get better at, or at least get used to, with all the bumps in the night as the train starts and stops, and hitches and unhitches carriages for different destinations during its journey.

But I’m hoping that will be a memory in April 2018, when an entire new fleet is due in service.

It will feature Europe’s first lie-flat beds, in screened-off “pods” in seated carriages, and ensuite berths complete with showers.

Final designs are being completed, which Serco say will go on show this autumn, with the first coaches arriving in the UK from Spain for testing in 2017.

Then at last the Sleeper might finally be true to its name.