Serco’s new £150 million Scotland-London overnight fleet is finally getting there after months of glitches but some creature comforts remain work in progress.
As someone who has travelled on sleeper trains since childhood, it’s difficult for me to imagine what it would be like to step aboard for the first time – an experience unlike any other on Scotland’s railways.
In contrast to other rail tickets, which effectively entitle you to just a seat, booking onto the Caledonian Sleeper takes you into a different world. You’re greeted by a friendly tweed-clad attendant on a late-night platform and your name is ticked off their clipboard. It isn’t the Orient Express, but perhaps a modern Scottish equivalent.
Step aboard and along the corridor, passing a row of cabin doors until you reach your berth – a mini hotel room bigger than first class on many airlines.
It’s not spacious – the single mattresses are only around two thirds the width of a single bed – and two people sharing requires an element of choreography, however well you know each other.
But two bunks, a wash basin and ensuite toilet/shower “wet room” for around £100 each one way – if you book in advance – isn’t bad, complete with toiletries and breakfast.
That’s the offer, and when the brand new Caledonian Sleeper rolled into service in April, it sounded very enticing. Many passengers since have been very happy with the experience.
However, the journey has not always gone smoothly, as other travellers have found to their dismay, providing an unexpectedly lengthy string of stories for The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday.
Technical faults, wrong type of chemicals
Where our previous coverage was all about the new services’ allure – pillow sprays, gentle driving and double beds – since the fleet has taken to the rails, it’s been technical faults, poor cleaning, a runaway train and the wrong type of chemicals damaging water pipes.
Having experienced a hugely delayed inaugural run on the new Sleeper’s first night, and no water in my shower, it was with equal parts trepidation and optimism I paid for a ‘Classic’ room between London and Glasgow on Tuesday night.
The train was on the platform at Euston on time – late boarding being another chronic problem – and I was upgraded to an ensuite ‘Club’ room as a guest of operator Serco.
All was in order in my berth, and I managed to sleep better than on previous trips. The ride seemed smoother and the train divided without a jolt at Carstairs.
However, I was disappointed to find, once again, the air conditioning has yet to warrant its “fantastic” billing. My room remained too warm despite turning the temperature to its lowest setting as soon as I walked in.
The dimmable main light and vertical lights bordering the basin are a big improvement on the old trains, but the reading lights don’t seem to be directional and shine horizontally above the bunks.
Having a loo on hand ends the need to skulk down the corridor in your pyjamas, but having a shower too – doesn’t that sound great? It should avert stepping off the train for a bad hair day. And how hard can it be – after all, the Night Scotsman train boasted showers in the 1930s.
Alas, the new Sleeper is still perfecting this one, because, after a delicious breakfast of bacon roll, muffin, coffee and orange juice served in my room, I stepped into the shower to find the water... cold. An unexpectedly invigorating start to my Wednesday. Will it be third time lucky on my next trip?