Over recent years the overnight sleeper train has made a significant comeback. Many people have opted to travel this way over other methods. Not only is it a very civilized and stress free way to travel, it can be cost-effective. The journey can negate the need for a hotel as transport and accommodation are all in one. Time is well spent relaxing in a safe environment. I’d rather be on a sleeper train than cooped up in a in a road vehicle with a far inferior safety record and wasted time stopping for comfort breaks etc.
Some passenger prefer to use sleeper trains rather than airline travel. The ever reducing amount of baggage allowed along with passport and security checks is off putting. It’s interesting that in Europe, ÖBB are introducing new sleepers called Nightjet Trains.
Mark 1 sleeper trains
I first used sleeper trains back in the 1970’s when British Rail Mark 1 sleeper carriages were employed. Sleeper trains ran on numerous routes as shown in the map below from that time.
Built in the late 1950’s, the standard of sleeping compartments of Mark 1’s was an improvement compared to vehicles built during the grouping era. However, by 1978, the Mark 1 sleepers was seen as less than luxurious and revenue generated by sleeper trains declined.
My memories of the British Rail Mark 1 sleeper train are much more positive. I made many journeys including very memorable trips to Fort William.
On numerous occasions when I travelled on the sleeper, I would peer from behind my curtains and observe station operations such as the loading of mail bags for example. It was very atmospheric although nowadays the railway transports hardly any mail.
On the Fort William sleeper I might be awoken around half past seven when the train would be in the vicinity of Crianlarich or Tyndrum Upper. I would open the window to let the fresh Highland air in and watch the beautiful scenery passing by from the comfort of my bed while sipping my tea and crunching biscuits – just a very memorable experience. Sadly it’s not possible to open the berth windows on modern rolling stock.
In the early to mid 1970’s the sleeper supplement was just £3.15p for a first class compartment with a single bed or £2.10p for a second class with twin bunks. Prior to leaving from the originating station, passengers are able to settle down for the night in their cabin some time earlier than the departure time.
The safety record of sleeper trains in the United Kingdom is exemplary. Sadly, 2018 marks the 40th anniversary of the Taunton sleeper fire on the 6th July 1978. Eleven people died due primarily to carbon monoxide poisoning. The fire was caused by sacks of dirty linen left in the in the vestibule too close to an electric heater which caused the material to combust. Although the Mark 1 sleepers were built with steam heating, the elimination of steam traction in 1968 meant that the fleet was converted to electric heating. At the time of the fire, British Rail were designing a replacement sleeper fleet based on the successful Mark 3 carriage designed to be used on high-speed trains. It’s reasonable to assume that BR brought forward the introduction of these new vehicles as a direct result of the Taunton fire.
A relaxing way to travel
I’ve travelled on the Penzance sleeper on many occasions but have not done so since they discontinued the Plymouth portion. It is very pleasing to note that the current demand is high for the Great Western Penzance sleeper, The Night Riviera. This has resulted in Great Western Railway obtaining additional sleeping cars.
I do enjoy the Scottish sleepers though. They maintain a less hurried atmosphere than other forms of transport. The current 16 coach train includes a lounge car with its luxurious leather seating. In this vehicle passengers have time to enjoy a cooked meal and a nightcap together with a relaxed conversation.
I have always found the standard of cleanliness in sleepers very high. A sleeper compartment includes full bedding, a sink for washing, shaver points and space for luggage. Also provided are a towel, together with an overnight bag which includes soap, toothbrush and toothpaste flannel and a razor. Attendant call button is provided in each cabin.
Today’s on board breakfast offering includes fruit juice smoked salmon and scrambled eggs and muffins with tea or coffee.
On the Caledonian sleepers the flavour of Scotland is everywhere and so it should be. From the branding to the Strathmore bottled water, the train plays homage to it’s Scottish heritage. You can settle in and experience eight hours of relaxation and five hundred miles of space on the Caledonian sleeper.
For me many Scottish place names have an evocative hold. Places such as Kingussie, Blair Atholl, Perth Gleneagles, Inverness and many more. On board train announcements in a wonderful Scottish accent add to the journey experience.
The sleeper train experience
The most recent trip I made on the sleeper was to Glasgow. On the evening of departure, decided to dine in the old booking hall at St Pancras, now a wonderfully period venue which serves excellent food by friendly attentive staff. Dinner finished I walked up the road to Euston to board the Caledonian sleeper.
Even though the Mark 1 coaches have long gone, the romance of sleeper travel still exists. Walking along the platform, the ambience of a relatively hushed Euston adds to the unhurried feel. A friendly ‘Good Evening’ from the sleeper attendant who checked my ticket and showed me to my berth. I was asked what time I required breakfast and was bade ‘Good Night’. Reading a book in bed is one of life’s pleasures but lying in the sleeper berth while the train bowls along at up to 80mph adds another wonderful dimension, before it’s time for some shut eye.
On this occasion, I didn’t wake up until I heard a polite knock on the door followed by a friendly ‘Good Morning’. I had a wash and shave and dressed then ate my breakfast looking out of my own personal window. No Highland scenes on this occasion, but the Lowlands of Scotland and the approach to Glasgow still had its own attractions.
We arrived in Glasgow on time and I walked up central station platform admiring the fine architecture of the station as I had on previous occasions.
Caledonian Sleeper New Trains
The Caledonian sleeper is due new trains as part of a major upgrade in 2018. A fleet of 75 new carriages will replace the BR Mark 3 vehicles that have performed so well for over 35 years. More information is available on the Serco Caledonian website.
Key features of the new carriages include suites and en-suite toilets and showers. The suites even have double beds – something never seen before on British over-night sleeping trains. The flavour of Scotland is a prime attraction of the existing trains and will continue with the replacement carriages. A key element of sleeper travel is the comfort of the mattress. The Caledonian Sleeper new train passengers can expect a great night’s sleep thanks to handcrafted spring mattresses manufactured by the Scottish firm of Glencraft . This company has supplied mattresses to four generations of the British Royal Family at Balmoral and have a Royal Warrant from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The company is based near Aberdeen and have been trading since 1843. What a truly wonderful facet to these new trains! I look forward to experiencing these quality beds in the near future.
Why not take the sleeper train to Edinburgh and then pick up the re-opened Waverley Route?
Did you know that there is a limit on how much luggage you can take on the train?
Barrie is right to highlight the pleasure of using the sleeper services to Scotland. Over the years I have used them to Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William for both business and pleasure, including carrying a heavily laden tandem in the parcels vans, though those are now a thing of the past.
The new Caledonian sleeper coaches look very good, and although the MkIII’s have served well those on my last trip north looked rather ‘tired’, except for the excellent lounge cars with leather armchairs and a drinks service to your seat.
Indeed it is remarkable that new stock is being procured for this service as all around the world, notably in Europe, despite the new trains for OBB, sleeper services are far fewer than 20 years ago. There are a number of reasons for this:
Faster day trains. High speed lines have made longer daytime trips, and round-trips more acceptable. Who would use a sleeper from London to Manchester when there are three trains per hour all day doing the trip in a little over two hours?
Low stock utilisation. Each coach makes six one-way trips per week, i.e around 550 miles per day. A MkIII in an HST set can do one and a half round trips between London and Edinburgh, that’s 1,000 per day. Also, a sleeper coach can carry 24 passengers, while an HST standard coach carries 70 or more. So while a sleeper passenger will pay more per mile for their journey, overall a sleeper train generates far less revenue per mile than an InterCity day train
The result is that the sleeper services require a huge level of subsidy. Estimates vary, but a figure of £50 per sleeper passenger to Scotland is probable. The main towns served by the Scottish sleepers (Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness) have plenty of day trains and air services to London, and my impression is that most customers are well-healed tourists rather than residents of inaccessible Scottish towns. How the Scottish government managed to come up with a reasonable business case for new stock is a mystery, and it’s notable that there is no talk of new stock for the Penzance sleeper.
Of course I wish the new services every success, and long may it be possible to board a train in Euston, have a couple of drinks in the bar, chat to other passengers, and then grab a few hours sleep. Waking up half way up the West Highland line and pulling up the blind to see the highlands rolling past is a special pleasure. A word of warning; on business trip to Aberdeen I was semi naked and having a shave when the train stopped. I pulled up the blind to check where we were – it was Arbroath – to see that the opposite platform was full of school girls, looking at me. The blind went back down quickly!
PS: Barrie mentions the Taunton sleeper fire. One of the reasons people died is that many of the coach doors had been locked. This was said to be for “security”, though there were those who said that the attendants liked to be at the only unlocked door in order to receive a tip from passengers leaving the train. The incident left a bad stain on BR’s reputation.
Thank you Nick for sharing your views on the sleeper. Interestingly I was talking with someone recently who are off to Arbroath and thought the length of time by day services was long and that actually the sleeper would be an attractive option.
Re the Taunton sleeper I didn’t go into too much detail in the blog but yes your right about the locked doors but also the simple pressure ventilation system was a major contributor to the distribution of carbon monoxide.
Simon Kemp says
The fascinating British Rail publicity leaflet for Sleeper travel, which quotes supplements of 55/- for using a single berth cabin, and 35/- for using a twin berth cabin, must date from the very early 1970’s. After all, the United Kingdom finally got around to adopting a decimal currency in 1971!
It was Simon. I have had it in a scrap book I made up when I was a boy.
The DfT published an interesting document recently.
Among many interesting details you’ll find in table 2.15 that the subsidy per sleeper passenger in 2016-7 was £92.30. Because of the length of sleeper journeys (400 – 500 miles) the subsidy per passenger-km was 14p., which is actually lower than ScotRail, Wales, Merseyside and Northern, though far higher than most Englsh regions.
Alan Bedford says
Sadly there have never been sleeper trains through the channel tunnel to European cities!