All aboard? Escape to Scotland on the Caledonian Sleeper

Aboard the Caledonian Sleeper by Dave Douglas Davis

Inverness is the gateway to the north of Scotland and the Scottish isles. The ancient Gaelic city on the River Ness is a launching point for explorers targeting Loch Ness, Skye, the Outer Hebrides, the Orkneys, and even the Shetlands. And although there are many ways to get to the UK’s northernmost city, the most transformative is the overnight train from London known as the Caledonian Sleeper. 

Over the course of its 11-hour nocturnal run, the gentle rocking of the sleeper carriages provides a rhythmic accompaniment to the nearly magical transition from the urban bustle of London’s Euston Station to the quiet majesty of the Cairngorm National Park, which greets the awakening traveler as the train wends its way toward its terminus in Inverness.

The Highland Sleeper, which makes the run from London to Inverness, is the direct descendant of the Scottish sleeper trains that began service in the 1850’s. It has something of a royal pedigree, having long been known as the Royal Highlander because it was – and continues to be – the royal family’s preferred means of traveling from London to Scotland. Today, the sleeper trains are managed by Serco Group, plc, a company deeply experienced in managing transportation enterprises.

My own discovery of the sleeper train was a happy byproduct of a trip that was mainly focused on a visit to the Neolithic monument on the Isle of Lewis that’s known as the Callanish Stones. Although that ancient ritual site is one of the most intriguing stone circles in Scotland – and a natural attraction for archaeologists like me – the memory of my journey on the Caledonian Sleeper competes for my attention. It was one of those felicitous situations where the side dish almost outshone the main course.

We booked the Sleeper at the suggestion of long time friends from the UK who had traveled on it before. “Of course, there are faster trains,” they noted. “Or an assortment of flights from the London area airports. But if you have the time – and after all, most of it is sleeping time – it’s worth every minute.” So I bit. My wife would be traveling with me, so it would be an easy matter for the two of us to share second class passage, with one taking the upper berth, and the other the lower. As it turned out, we waited until a bit late in the day to book our tickets (we were traveling in the summer, the busiest season), and the only berths left were in a first class carriage.  What first class buys you, is your own cabin, reservable dining in the lounge car, and admission to the first class terminal lounges at the London and Scottish ends of the journey. The terminal lounges offer complimentary WiFi, beverages, and snacks for first class passengers, along with a refuge from the bustle of the terminal waiting rooms. In Inverness and Edinburgh, passengers traveling first class are even offered a towel and a private hot shower!

But it is by no means necessary to book first class to enjoy the best aspects of the Caledonian sleeper experience. We traveled second (“standard”) class on our return trip to London, and still enjoyed the benefits of an accommodating staff, morning coffee or tea, and a very comfortable night’s sleep. Indeed, the hospitality of the Caledonian Sleeper staff deserves a little more attention, if only because meticulous attention to service is rarer these days than one might like.

The service staff on board the Sleeper take personal pride in attending to the comfort and particular needs of each individual passenger. Not surprisingly, the Caledonian Sleepers even have their own Customer Experience Manager. Ryan Flaherty, the current occupant of that position, tells us that “We feel we are very fortunate in the teams we have working on board our trains. Many of them have long service and feel a real sense of care when looking after their guests overnight. This is one of the things that makes Caledonian Sleeper special.”

For passengers who take their evening meal on board, the menu in the lounge car offers such diverse dishes as lamb cassoulet, salmon and butternut squash curry, and – for the traveler who is dedicated to a thoroughly Scottish experience – haggis with neeps and tatties. The drinks menu is equally impressive, with a well-chosen array of wines and, inevitably, fine scotch whiskys.

If it sounds as if the Caledonian Sleeper is an experience beyond improvement, that is almost true.  Yet improvements are coming. The current stock of sleeper carriages are getting along in years, having first come into service in 1972. Mindful of that fact, and to ensure a memorable customer experience in the coming years, the management company will be bringing new sleeper carriages on line in 2018.

The new fleet, which was manufactured to order in the Spain, is already undergoing extensive testing. Along with a variety of other upgrades, the new carriages will offer newly designed club cars and the option of a suite with en suite toilet and shower and, for the first time in the British rail industry, a double bed. The best news, though, is that the dedication to creating a memorable passenger experience will remain unchanged.

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