All aboard the night train to the highlands!

Posted on 19 October 2009 in Travel and Holidays (1 comment)

Earlier this year I travelled up to Edinburgh on the Caledonian Sleeper, and naturally blogged about it.

Arrived in Aberdeen!

Over the summer, Network Rail announced a plan to invest in a high speed railway line which could whisk people from London to Glasgow or Edinburgh in just over about two hours, may see the demise of the "Lowland Sleeper" which serves those two cities in around 2030.

However there is also the "Highland Sleeper" which goes to Inverness, Aberdeen and Fort William. Even with the high speed line in place, a train to Aberdeen or Inverness from London would still take about seven or so hours, so the sleeper is likely to be with us for some time to come.

The longest train in the UK, the Highland Sleeper divides into three when it arrives in Edinburgh, with different sections being hauled off of to its three destinations at around four in the morning. Conversely the three trains combine at Edinburgh going south, leaving around half one.

The train is so long that it fills the biggest platforms at Euston, and even then can't fit everything on. Despite dividing into three, there's only two lounge and two seated cars - the extra two carriages are coupled onto/detached from the Fort William train at Edinburgh, and anyone who is doing the journey in the seated sleeper has to change trains there.

Travelling the highland way

It was on the highland line that I found myself twice a few months ago - in July on a return trip to Aberdeenshire for a wedding, and in June coming back from Fort William after walking the West Highland Way, and climbing Ben Nevis. And in both cases, the cheapest tickets we managed to buy were first class meaning we got to travel a little more in luxury.

Ironically our first class tickets were cheaper than the standard class ones we'd bought for our trip to Edinburgh. For that trip we'd got Anytime tickets, costing £171 each return. For Aberdeen we had First Advance tickets which came in at just £136 each return. For Fort William we travelled for £104.50 - thanks to a deal the BBC negotiated with Scotrail in order to encourage rail usage instead of air travel. The deal is also available to BBC employees buying tickets for leisure, but you can rest assured that no licence fee money is involved in either case!

One of the most notable things about the Highland Sleeper is that it's a more leisurely journey. The train leaves London a lot earlier and arrives at its destination later - the train to Aberdeen leaves just after nine, and arrived up in Scotland around half seven. It's a sharp contrast to the Glasgow/Edinburgh trains which leave about half eleven and arrive around seven. The time meant you could get an earlier night, and not be woken up too early.

The time difference is ultimately due to the longer distance the train has to travel, but the train's movements felt more relaxed too. On our trip to and from Edinburgh, it felt rather jerky - like the train was constantly speeding up then slowing down dramatically. This just didn't seem to be the case for either the Fort William and Aberdeen journies.

A first class journey

The first class compartments are, ultimately, the same ones that are used for standard class, with the upper bunk raised and attached to the wall. This makes a huge difference to the comfort of the journey, as there's not two of you getting in the way of each other. The lack of a top bunk also makes the compartment feel bigger too - although clearly it's just psychological.

First class on the sleeper!

First class customers also get an enhanced toiletry kit - a bag containing a travel toothbrush, razor, shaving cream, shoe shine, moisturiser, a flanel and even a eye mask and sleeping socks. The eye mask did seem slightly superflous given the extremely good black out blinds the sleeper trains are equipped with, and you'd think a set of ear plugs would be much more useful! But then you wouldn't be able to hear the staff knocking on your door with breakfast.

The Caledonian Sleeper First Class toilet bag

In first class you also get room service if you want anything from the lounge car. We prefered to sit in the lounge car itself - it's the only way to travel.

First class tickets also gave us the opportunity to try the first class lounges at Euston and at Aberdeen. I think it's fair to say that sitting in the lounge at Euston is like being in another world, sitting on comfortable chairs high up above the crowds of people down below rushing for their trains. And I've yet to come across any other bar anywhere with as many bottles of champagne as I found there.

Breakfasts

Since we'd taken the Edinburgh trip, the breakfast menu had been revamped and - gasp - if you're in standard class you now only get shortbread and a drink, although you can upgrade to the first class breakfast if you desire.

During the journey from Fort William, we didn't get a full breakfast thanks to engineering work meaning we went down the East Coast Mainline rather than the West Coast. Why this makes a difference to food provision I can't tell you, especially when we came back from Aberdeen we were similarly affected journeywise and yet had the full breakfast.

Morning!

For us, breakfast consisted of a Breakfast panini, which to be honest had suffered the joys of the on board microwave, orange juice, tea or coffee, a porridge oat bar and a yogurt. Oh and a copy of the Scotsman for good measure.

The lounge car

The earlier journey times meant that we could enjoy the lounge car as well as get a reasonably good nights sleep - no getting to bed at half one and being woken at six!

And to be honest, there's not a huge amount more I can say beyond what's already been said. After all, it still does have an excellent selection of beer and whisky.

Closed lounge car.

However it was on the way back from Aberdeen that lounge car related disaster struck! Preparing for our journey back south, we found the lounge car closed due to a lack of staff. The helpful station staff pointed us in the direction of an off licence, but drinking very warm red wine out of plastic glasses just isn't the same somehow...

And so begins another series of posts about sleeper trains. Don't tell me you didn't want another one... Tomorrow it's off to the Fort William Line, as we say hello to the Deer Stalker.

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Simon said:

I tried the sleepers for the first time this year. In general I think it's a very civilized way to travel. I didn't manage to sleep much, partly because the carriages were insanely hot. The attendant explained that this was because the train had been left standing in the sun all day without power (hence without air conditioning), and had only had an hour to cool down before it was filled with bodies...

With that and the horrible 2nd class breakfast aside (they call that "orange juice"?) my only complaint was that on the Highland one, where you don't want to go to bed as soon as you get on board, there is a severe shortage of seating. The lounge car is very nice, but when the train is full it is a very long way short of being able to seat everybody. Theoretically they prioritise first class passengers, so on a full bank-holiday train second class pax are expected to go to bed at 8:30pm. Remember that in second class there is no room to sit up in bed.

The only sleepers I'd been on before were continental couchette-style ones, where the bunks fold up to leave train seats. It makes the beds a little less comfortable, but seems to me a much better idea.

Posted on 19 October 2009 at 1:34 PM

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