The Caledonian Sleeper: Britain’s best train journey?
Ben Nevis sits cloaked in cloud the colour of charcoal as the Caledonian Sleeper jolts out of Fort William station. It’s one of those Scottish nights when you’re not sure if dusk fell or was pushed by the abominable weather.
The train gathers speed, leaving the warm glow of the town centre behind, as it rattles through dreary housing estates and into the rolling hills of the Highlands. A hush falls over the dining cart as faces press against steamy windows and eyes flicker at passing scenery.
The melancholic landscapes – their bleak indifference still evident in the fading light – contrasts wildly with the warmth and cheer on the Caledonian Sleeper, the name given to the overnight sleeper train service connecting London and Scotland. I’d hopped aboard under the pretence of finding out if this is Britain’s best train journey. Really, I’m on holiday with my wife. We’re travelling first-class as a treat.
The Caledonian Sleeper train curls around a section of track in the Scottish highlands with mountains visible in the distance
The Caledonian Sleeper connects the English capital with the Scottish Highlands © Joe Dunckley / Shutterstock
As the train settles into a gentle rhythm, the dining cart comes to life. A youngish couple interact playfully with their inquisitive kids, two lovers share private jokes over wine and a group of rugged, twenty-something-year-old men, who’ve spent the last four days stomping through sodden landscapes, head-to-toe in Gore-Tex, chat about their trip.
They tell us how they trekked to Fort William from the UK’s highest railway station, Corrour, which this train will soon pass through. ‘The hardship got to me,’ confesses one, who introduces himself as Oliver. ‘Even at high elevations we were walking through bogs. It was tough going.’
Nursing bottles of beer the four men look contemplatively out of the windows as, in a matter of minutes, the train unravels the landscapes they took days to conquer.
Oblivious to the scenery and the men’s adventure – and anything else on the train, in fact – is the woman sat opposite me, who merrily shovels macaroni cheese into her mouth while glued to her iPad.
We go full Scottish with our dinner: haggis, neeps and tatties, washed down with Laphroaig 10 year. The good stuff. The whisky, I figure, will send us into a deep slumber when we retire to our cabin.
That proves wishful thinking. Lying in bed that night, listening to the rat-a-tat-tat of the railway, I muse that a more apt moniker for the train might be the Caledonian Insomnia. It’s at that point my wife starts snoring.
The Caledonian Sleeper rumbles along a section of track in Scotland with wide green fields located on either side of the track
The famous train actually plies two different routes, one from London to Fort William and the other to Edinburgh © Construction Photography / Avalon / Getty Images
There are a few things you need to know before travelling on the Caledonian Sleeper. One, it’s not a single train. There are two services: The Highlander, which links London with Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William, with a few stops in between; and The Lowlander, which connects the English capital with Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Both the 16-car sleepers depart London late at night and both stop at some ungodly hour, somewhere in Scotland, to be dissected: The Highlander is split into three and the Lowlander two. These severed services then go on to their respective destinations with the reverse happening on the return leg.
Deep-sleeping passengers don’t notice any of this, but I’m not a deep sleeper and on the outbound leg had been roused from my slumber as the carriages and their human cargo were shunted around. My wife hadn’t stirred.
Sleeper trains are an endangered species in Europe. Competition from low-cost airlines and high-speed railways has driven many overnighters into the buffers. Britain, however, is still blessed with two such services: the Caledonian Sleeper and the Night Riviera, which rattles between London and Penzance, Cornwall.
The interior of a double cabin on the Caledonian Sleeper, with sink and large double bed visible
The Caledonian Sleeper has recently undergone a £150 million revamp © Caledonian Sleeper
In what many see as a vote of confidence in Britain’s overnighters, both services have been given overhauls of late, with £150 million being ploughed into the Caledonian Sleeper alone.
The train’s new, hotel-style, en-suite cabins (pictured) feature double beds and were introduced to the Lowlander in April (they’re due to be rolled out on the Highlander in September). But it’s not just the high-end rooms that have received attention, both the Classic Rooms and Club Rooms (both sporting bunk beds) have been given the once over, while the reclining chairs in seating class (cheapest tickets) have been completely redesigned, now boasting personal lockers, reading lights and charging points. It’s these touches that the company running the service hope will elevate the Caledonian’s reputation among rail enthusiasts to one of the best train rides in Britain, and perhaps even Europe (though Norway will likely have something to say about that).
In a country where grumbling about the railways is a national sport – and commuter services are synonymous with overcrowding and poor value for money – the Caledonian Sleeper clings defiantly to the Golden Age of rail travel. It’s an old romantic, an anachronism.
Mercifully, I manage to catch a few ZZZs in the end, nodding off somewhere around Cumbria. To say I arrive in London feeling refreshed, though, is pushing it.
We are sent into the day with breakfast in bed – Scottish smoked salmon and eggs – which we scoff before joining the morning commuters in the English capital. They have the same bleak indifference of the Highlands only with none of the romance.
I sigh. Perhaps next time it’ll be a one-way ticket for me.
An aerial shot of Euston train station in London at night with two trains leaving the station
The Caledonian Sleeper leaves from London’s Euston train station most evenings © pisaphotography / Shutterstock
How to do it yourself
How do I get tickets?
Tickets can be purchased a year in advance from the Caledonian Sleeper website. They sell out way in advance during holidays and busy periods so book far ahead to avoid disappointment.
How often do trains go?
The Caledonian Sleeper departs London Euston at 21.15 (Highlander Service to Fort William) and 23.50 (Lowlander Service to Edinburgh) every weeknight and at 21.00 and 23.28 on Sunday. There’s no service on Saturday.
The southbound Highlander starts in Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William, while the Lowlander sets off from Glasgow and Edinburgh. Visit the Caledonian Sleeper website for timetables for each station.
How much does it cost?
From £40 for a reclining seat; £80 for a bunk in a two-bed sleeper; £150 if you go first-class in a single-bed cabin. All prices one-way.