Last Wednesday I travelled up to Inverness after work on the Caledonian Sleeper train (service run by Scotrail). I had only done this once before – many years ago – and the things I remember were meeting some fairly strange people in the lounge car and the booze running out by the time we reached Watford…
This time I was travelling up with a friend and we were joining our families at Greenhill for a long weekend.
We booked late so missed out on some special deals and travelled second class. The single tickets cost £141 each (ouch) but because the train left at 9.15pm it meant that I didn’t have to take any additional time off work so felt it was worth it.
Paul and I both arrived at London Euston about 40 minutes before the train was due to leave. We left our bags in our cabin and headed straight for the lounge car. I’d strongly recommend arriving early. The lounge car is small and if you don’t get a seat you miss out on the main reason for travelling by train.
We settled down and ordered the first of several rounds of drinks from our friendly host. This was followed by a reasonable selection of food from the menu. All the hot food was microwaved but not too bad – Paul went for the haggis, neaps and tatties to start his acclimatisation. I was less brave and stuck to a selection of cheese, biscuits and strong lager..
Around midnight the lounge car had all but emptied and we decided it was time to turn in. Heading back towards the cabin a little the worse for wear I clambered onto the top bunk and dozed off.
In the morning we were gently awoken by the our carriage host. He brought in a box of breakfast and some coffee and told we were an hour away from Inverness. It was only in the light of day that the cabin started to feel a bit like a prison cell. There is a small washbasin but really no room for 2 people to stand up at the same time. The view out of the windows across the Cairngorms made up for it though.
As we pulled in to Inverness and got off the train I felt some of the sensation of getting off a boat. The constant rocking during the night meant it took me a little while to stop swaying from side to side.
By 9.30 we had our hire car from the Thistle Hotel – a short cab ride from the station – and were on our way to Achiltibuie.
Would I recommend the sleeper train as a way to travel to the Highlands? Absolutely. But I do think it could be vastly improved.
The idea of being able to travel in a pub to your destination is a very attractive one and it’s so nice to avoid airport security and delays. However, it did feel as though Scotrail are missing a trick with the Caledonian Express. They are clearly trying to compete with EasyJet and Flybe for customers and have therefore not made much of an investment in the service. Entering the lounge car felt like stepping back in time 20 years and surely there are opportunities to carve out a luxury segment of the train travel market?
We checked out the First class cabins as we got off the train and there seemed to be no difference apart from being single berths. They were able to order room service but it was still the same microwaved fodder. Imagine if they were to offer a pullman style dining car and proper beds? Now that would be differentiation worth paying for..