A rough guide to nocturnal and, mainly horizontal, travel options

Imagine boarding a long distance train by night and waking up in another part of the world the following morning. In another country, or another part of the country. Most of the great long distance trains, for example the Trans-Siberian Express, traverse more than one country. If you are an EU citizen, the journey from France to Czechia is as easy as one from Glasgow Central to London Euston (thanks to the lack of border controls in most of mainland Europe).

Over in Brexitland (sorry folks, I mean the United Kingdom), sleeper trains are very few and far between. There are five sleeper services: four of which depart from London Euston, the other one from London Paddington. The latter station serves the Night Riviera Sleeper, from Paddington to Penzance (operated by the present version of the Great Western Railway).

From London Euston is the most celebrated sleeper service to Scotland is operated by Caledonian Sleeper, a Serco subsidiary and Britain’s newest rail franchise. From London Euston to Glasgow Central and Edinburgh Waverley one of them is the Lowland sleeper. Firstly, the train splits into two portions at Carstairs Junction (one to Glasgow Central, one to Edinburgh).

At Edinburgh Waverley, the Highland sleeper train is split three ways. One portion to Inverness via Perth, a second portion to Oban, and a third one to Fort William. Southbound, the three Highlander Route sleeper trains combine at Edinburgh Waverley before returning to London Euston for 0747. From Glasgow Central, the second Lowland sleeper merges at Carstairs with a portion from Edinburgh Waverley. This one arrives in Euston for 0707.

Both the Riviera and Caledonian Sleeper trains were formerly operated by InterCity. In 1983, under Robert (Basil) Reid’s management of British Rail, the Scottish sleepers were transferred to Scotrail, a newly devolved part of the British Railways Board. After privatisation, the Caledonian Sleeper fell under the Scotrail franchise. In 2015, the sleeper trains were spun off from Scotrail into its own Caledonian Sleeper franchise.

Before you consider booking a sleeper train in the UK, please note there are no Saturday night/Sunday morning journeys. Sleeper fares tend to be singles (a return is two singles). If you already have a ticket with “Route: Any Permitted”, room supplements are available.

What to expect on a sleeper train journey

  • A choice of reclining seats and berth options;
  • Breakfast at your table, berth or lounge car;
  • A lounge car for dinner and drinkies;
  • First Class Lounges and Guest Lounges at selected stations.

At the lower end of the price scale, Caledonian Sleeper offers The Sleeper Seat. A small number of Mark 2f air-conditioned carriages were converted into communal seated sleeping accommodation, more akin to business class by air. There is no access to the lounge car (though a buffet service is available) and you need to bring your own toiletries and towels. Similar arrangements are available on the Riviera sleeper.

Next up in the price scale is the Standard Class sleeper room (or cabin). These typically have a bunk bed with a hanger for your clothes, a table-cum-sink, shelves, and somewhere to put your luggage. Sharing makes for a cheaper option than that of solo traveller prices. Breakfast can be taken in the lounge car or your room.

If you go First Class (increasingly offered to solo travellers instead of shared Standard Class berths), there is only one bed. You have priority access to the lounge car and the choice of having your breakfast in the lounge car or the cabin. Breakfast is included in the fare, which is otherwise a chargeable extra for Standard Class and Sleeper Seat passengers. Both Standard Class and First Class passengers are given a complimentary sleep kit and toiletry pack.

Further afield…

If the wanderlust takes you further than Inverness or Fort William, other sleeping options are available. Using the Trans-Siberian Railway as an example, First Class has two berths per cabin on the Rossiya train, with four berths per cabin in Second Class. On the Trans-Mongolian trains, Second Class passengers (four berths per cabin) have the choice of soft or firm mattresses (the latter being cheaper).

The closest equivalent to the Sleeper Seats on the Trans-Siberian Railway are the Third Class Bunks, which offer communal horizontal travel. From Moscow to Vladivostok, a one-way fare of £214.

The romantic way to travel?

Sleeper trains have inspired many travellers and creatives, whether in print form or digitised forms. Today’s sleeper train operators see sleeping trains as hotels on wheels. Both GWR and Caledonian Sleeper have ordered new rolling stock with the first new sleeping coaches since the failed Nightstar project. More specifically, the first new rolling stock of that ilk to enter revenue earning service since 1984.

With the ‘hotel on wheels’ premise, Caledonian Sleeper’s new coaches will include double beds. There is one other break from the old order that will affect solo travellers. Solo passengers are no longer able to share Standard Class cabins with fellow solo travellers of their own sex.

As for romance, the mystique of the train itself is one factor. Few passengers might say the same with today’s 35 – 45 year old rolling stock on Network Rail metals. Whether hauled by a Class 92 or a modified Class 73, the Scottish scenery is the Caledonian Sleeper’s trump card.

Why are there so few sleeper trains in the UK these days?

Faster daytime trains is one reason, whereas running costs is another. Improved journey times on the West Coast and East Coast main lines had rendered shorter distance sleeper trains as obsolete. In some cases, competition with domestic airlines and a buoyant budget hotel market haven’t helped.

S.V., 09 January 2019.

One thought on “The Duffers’ Guide to Rail Operations #2: Sleeper Trains

  1. Wonderful way to travel. Have travelled much of Europe in this manner including through East Berlin and a good number of other old Eastern-bloc countries. 25 years between my first and second visits to Krakow (1980-2005) and it was like visiting two entirely different countries – which they *were* in many respects, I suppose. So glad I had chance to travel in Eastern Europe before it became The West II. Also, much of the romance of rail travel vanished when they brought in airline-style seating imho. Nothing like a carriage for starting up conversation on a long journey. Bums on seats, I guess.


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