The Caledonian Sleeper

There’s a good set of benefits for those of us lucky enough to work on the railways. As is to be expected in a unionised industry that is very proactive when it comes to collective bargaining. As things should be in most industries if you ask me, but that’s another story. Pay, pensions, holidays and more all have generous terms. But there’s one benefit I really do like making the most of. The travel perks.

I get free travel on the network I work on. Which is nice. Visiting London is no longer quite such an expensive day out. But I also get heavily discounted travel on the rest of the rail network. Which is a sweet deal. There’s plenty of trips I have planned. But there was one trip I’ve been wanting to do since day one. There are just two sleeper services on the UK network, and the best is the Caledonian Sleeper. Departing from Euston late in the evening, the 15 carriage train winds its way up to Edinburgh for about 4pm. There it splits into several sections to go on to different destinations.

So Mrs P and myself boarded the Caledonian a week or so ago and headed north. Our destination was Fort William, at the foot of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain. But that comes later. On this trip, the journey is as much a part of the adventure as the destination. First of all, you have to check in with your steward at Euston, give him your breakfast order, dump your bags in your cabin and then get down to the lounge car as quick as possible. Before all the seats are taken. We were quick and we got our seats. Dinner was microwaved lamb and tatty stew for me, a salad of some sort for Mrs P. It wasn’t overly expensive and it was of reasonable quality given the mode of cooking.

There’s little point staying up too late though. There’s not a lot to see through the windows once the sun has set. Even before the sun sets, there’s only so much of London’s suburbs that you’d want to see. The views you’ll want to feast your eyes on come early in the morning. So back to our cabin we went. The cabins are very, very compact. But they are perfectly acceptable for getting a nights sleep and there’s a sink to brush one’s teeth in the morning. It’s not a bad idea to partake of an alcoholic beverage before getting down to sleep. The mattresses are comfortable enough, and while the ride is reasonably smooth and the cabins reasonably quiet – well, it’s not your own bed, is it?

Ideally, you’ll want to be awake sometime between 5 and 6 am. The views are postcard perfect as you go through the Scottish national parks, the mountains, the lochs and request stops at isolated little stations. I live in the real world, so I stirred nearer to 7am. Mrs P had the views to herself. But one should get oneself back into the lounge quick sharpish – which will probably not be where you left it the previous night thanks to the splitting up of the carriages – and enjoy the views through large windows with a cup of complimentary hot coffee,  and a recently microwaved Highland breakfast. In a polystyrene tray.

The West Highland line (which, like this story on another day, continues past Fort William to the west coast) is regularly voted by travellers as the finest rail journey in the world. It would be hard to disagree. But I’ve ridden El Chepe through the Copper Canyon. And that ride still gets my vote. But that’s not to take anything away from the spectacular scenery on display on this side of the Atlantic.

Before you know it, its nearly 10 am and the train has pulled into Fort William. It’s a terribly civilized way of travelling. Sleeping through the boring bits. Dining through the best bits. And winding up in the remote Scottish highlands at the end of it, ready for an adventure. Which is easily recorded and turned into a little video thanks to my iPhone and a handy little app called Quik. Sure, it won’t win me a Bafta or a Golden Globe. And I could definitely improve on this effort with a little practice. But it’s a nice memento of a lovely couple of days.

2 Comments

  • I guess that Europe is a bit more compact and densely populated that the US helps the economic case for having an extensive rail network. But still, from what I’ve read, Americans don’t, as a general rule, seem to be terribly interested in rail travel. Which is a shame. It has to be said, the Mexican system is even worse.

  • Sounds like a wonderful trip. I love to travel by train when I am in Europe. I just wish that we had the same level of service here in the U.S.

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