11 September 2016

Silent Hunter and the 100mph cupboard (Review of the Caledonian Sleeper and also the Jacobite)

At the beginning of July this year, I took the longest duration train journey that I have taken in my life; while I may well have gone further, that was on a faster train.

It's not as well known as it could be, which is one reason why I'm writing this post, but it's one of the few survivors of a once thriving sector of the rail industry; the sleeper train.

This is the Caledonian Sleeper.

Every evening, except for Saturday, at the 1960s concrete affair of London Euston station (which I actually happen to like, although it would have been nice to have retained the Doric Arch), two sixteen-coach trains leave, hauled by electric locomotives, making their way north. Travelling at up to 100 miles per hour, one train splits at Carstairs, portions ending up at Glasgow Central and Edinburgh Waverley.

The other, designated 1S25 in the working timetable, also goes to Edinburgh Waverley, where it splits into three portions, which are hauled by diesel locomotives to their final destinations; Inverness, Aberdeen and Fort William. These is what used to be known as 'through coaches'; now disappeared with multiple units and semi-permanent train sets.

There used to be a lot more sleepers in the UK. My 1967-68 British Rail Eastern Region timetable (bought from the second hand book store at the Great Central Railway), from the time when Beeching's axe was chopping up lines all over the country and the West Coast Main Line only had wires up as far as Crewe, has sleeper portions going all over the country to places like Holyhead, Milford Haven, Manchester and Penzance. To quote the timetable:

A conductor travels with every sleeping car and personally services each compartment. He will cally you in the morning and bring you tea (or minerals [I am taking that to mean mineral water]) and biscuits at a nominal charge.

Today there is only the sleeper services from Euston to the five destinations in Scotland and vice-versa, as well as GWR's 'Night Riveria' service from London Paddington to Penzance. The rest have gone, many being cut in the early 1980s when the Mark 1 sleepers were replaced by the Mark 3 version (indeed the last planned batch of the Mark 3 was changed from sleepers to day stock); a famous loss was the 'Night Ferry', which ran from London Victoria to Paris. On the continent, it's not much better; SNCF are cutting their services down to only three and Deutsche Bahn are eliminating all their CityNightLine services later this year; the Austrian state operator will take over some of these.

However, the British one does provide dinner and breakfast.

The Euston sleeper services are currently operated by Caledonian Sleeper, an independent train operating company that was split off from Scotrail in 2015 and is currently operated by Serco.

The company operates an array of electric and diesel traction. Primary duty for the electric part of the service is handled by Class 90 locomotives (late 80s built, top speed of 110mph and currently to be found in freight traffic or on Abellio Greater Anglia's London to Norwich expresses) or newer Class 92s. Empty Coaching Stock workings i.e. transporting the coaches back and forth from Euston to the depot at Willesden is typically done by a Class 86 or a Class 87, locomotives of a rather older vintage. Diesel traction is typically handled by hired-in Class 73/9s, re-engineered versions of the Class 73 electro-diesel that is capable of running on both diesel and third rail power; it had much use in the Southern Region on boat trains i.e. trains that were scheduled to connect with ferry services, as well as on the Gatwick Express.

While many of these locomotives are painted in the dark blue Caledonian Sleeper livery, the company has often to hire in locomotives and rolling stock from elsewhere that doesn't feature that livery.

The company does not operate Driving Van Trailers that allow control of a locomotive from the other end of a train without the need to do any uncoupling; therefore you have one of the very rare service train examples of a pre-DVT practice in which one locomotive will pull in a service and another will couple onto the other end to pull it out.


You have to book in advance for a sleeper berth; the entire process can be completed through the Caledonian Sleeper website or you can buy a regular ticket and pay a sleeper supplement. Regular tickets are valid, but will necessitate you travelling in the seating coach, with those going to Fort William having to move coaches at Edinburgh as those coaches are detached and another two added for that section of the journey; there isn't the space at Euston for dedicated stock for the Fort William portion.

Aside from the seating section, you have two basic options; First Class or Standard class. First Class involves having a berth with a single bed, while Standard involves having two beds in a bunk bed style. The berths are in fact easily convertible from First Class to Standard Class. They come with a washbasin, adjustable heating (which I had to twiddle a few times to achieve a comfortable temperature) and some fixed hangars, but the toilet is at the end of the cabin. Disabled toilets are present in some carriages.

The cost varies depending on day and whether you want ticket flexibility; First Class costs more, but in Standard Class you may have to share with a stranger of the same gender. I chose First Class, because that's not my cup of tea. You also get a free breakfast, a complimentary Arran Aromatics amenity kit (body wash) shampoo and priority access to the lounge car.

Both of the sleeping berth types are contained in the aforementioned Mark 3 sleeper cars. These are made up of either twelve or thirteen berths; the former case there will either be a disabled toilet or a room for the attendant. The Mark 3 is a very common sight on British railways in some form due to its use on the High Speed Trains i.e. the InterCity 125; notable features include the need to lower the window and reach outside to push the handle when exiting the train.

As a railway enthusiast, I am well used to working those.

1S25 departs from London Euston at 2115 from Platform 1, but you can get into your cabin 45 minutes before departure. It arrives at Fort William at 0955 the following morning, a journey time of 12 hours and 40 minutes, which is not the longest possible journey in the UK - that is 1V60, the 0820 Aberdeen to Penzance service that takes 13 hours and 23 minutes.

The Fort William portion is at the far end of the train and my carriage (there were three sleeper cars for Fort William) was right next to the locomotive, itself a Class 90 bedecked in Freightliner Grey. The security fence stopped me from getting any better pictures.

You may notice a former '1' there; some of the locomotives were converted to freight working and had their top speed lowered to 75mph becoming Class 90/1; they have since been converted back to their original configuration.
The train departed about a minute late and soon got up to a decent lick of speed as it headed out of London. The service normally runs at 80 miles per hour, but can run at up to 100mph if it needs to make up time and the line speed allows it; this especially applies on the southbound service as it needs to run to time or it will cause delays to rush hour trains. The view from your berth is rather restricted once it gets dark; there's not much to see between towns. There's also a pretty poor mobile signal in many places...

I like to ride in the vestibule (that's the bit at the end of the carriages where the doors are) sometimes, standing by the open window - I don't stick my head out, I'm not stupid - and I can tell that there is quite a bit of wind force when a Pendolino goes past you in the opposite direction at full tilt; so basically at a relative speed of over 200mph.

As you can see below, the corridor at the side of the berths is pretty narrow; only wider enough to fit one person in; moving between the carriages, you frequently have to go into empty compartments to allow other people to pass.

With my gear stashed in my berth, I tried to go to the lounge car, only to find that it was full up and I would have to come back later. If you're not booked for dinner, it's turn up and see if there's room.

About the berth; I was swapped to another one from my originally booked choice and this one had some issues. Namely a faulty blind that took some effort to get to open and difficulty lifting the catch that holds the door open.

Also, it was fairly hard to get the door to close; I had to reach down and flick a catch at the bottom to unhook the door. You can lock the berth door for safety and security; however, you will need to find the attendant to let you back in if you lock it and leave. This person - in my case a lady with a Scottish accent (there are a lot of Scots on the service) - is not always the easiest person to find until you realise where the attendant's cabin actually is.

There is a lot that could be explained for people in a free leaflet. Like that you're not allowed to take photographs in the lounge car for privacy reasons; something there was no sign for, but which I was told by a member of staff.

I would point out that the leather sofas as depicted on the site were only present in the Inverness portion (at least on the journey back) and in my case, I was in an older format of the British Rail Mark 2E buffet car. In the absence of my own photo, this picture from another enthusiast will suffice. They're old, but remain very elegant.

The seats, which I believe are the IC70 design (but I may be wrong on that), can recline back, but are difficult to get comfortable with my proportions.

One area in which the sleeper can be truly recommended is in the quality of the food. Despite the fact that they only actually have a microwave in the 'galley', all of the food itself is of high quality, sourced locally and tastes very nice indeed. Portions are small, but very filling.

I can't, however, say that I got the best night's sleep of my life. The rocking motion of the train, combined with a constant squeaking noise, probably from the coupling to the locomotive ahead of me, made it difficult to drop off properly and I woke up on a number of occasions. Most notably at Edinburgh Waverley, where the locomotive was changed over and we reversed direction - I also had to sort out an issue with my phone. The three Fort William sleeper cars were detached being attached to another lounge car and seated car before heading away as service 1Y11.

Waking up fully the following morning, the scenery outside my window as we wound our way down the (single with passing loops) line from Helensburgh Upper to Fort William was truly spectacular.

It was like Westeros with more telephone wires and fewer battles.

I had breakfast in the lounge car, which is worth remarking on here. Due to problems with their own rolling stock, Serco have hired in two coaches from another company... which look rather old-fashioned. The lounge car was in the old Virgin Trains red and black livery (no longer used by them - image from this blog).

However, the seated car, used by day passengers as well, looks like this:

That's right... that's a British Rail livery.

The Class 73s, however - the train was double-headed - looked brand new-ish:

Fort William itself is a nice looking town with superb scenery but with very little to do for a tourist, not helped by the rather bad weather encountered while I was there.

I visited the West Highland Museum, which is an excellent detailing of the (at times rather bloody) history of the local area, which in the 'recent' past played host to training for the Special Operation Executive.

I also went over to nearby Corpach to visit a mediocre rock museum, which was really just an excuse to 'bash' a couple of Scotrail Class 156 Sprinters, getting off at this particular stop on the line that I was going to be traversing in full on the following day.

Loch Eil Outward Bound isn't a request stop - there are two on the West Highland Line, IIRC - but had only 632 passengers total in the 2014/15 financial year (the latest for which data was available). I added two to the 2016/17 total as I bought tickets to there and back from the guard on the train.

The station only has a single tiny platform; the four-car service could only fit one and a half carriages in it.

This was on the Tuesday. The following Wednesday, I went on this service.

The Jacobite, which is its current name, dates back to 1984, when British Rail introduced a steam-hauled tourist service in the summer months to boost income on what was otherwise a line that required a heavy subsidy; the section of the West Highland Line going from Fort William to Mallaig.

The regular service is patchy to put it mildly; there are three daily return services from Mallaig to Glasgow Queen Street (reversing at Fort William) run by the aforementioned Class 156s. Many of the stations, not just the aforementioned Corpach, see less than 10,000 passengers a year. A thought occurred to me that this is what many lines might have ended up as an alternative to being shut under the Beeching Axe - while Beeching did not in fact propose the closure of this line, he did propose eliminating the stopping service.

(I downloaded a copy of the two-volume report, which also proposed the closure of the Romford-Upminster line and the Gospel Oak-Barking lines in my local area; both survived and have since thrived)

Currently run by West Coast Railways (who have had their own safety issues lately and two network bans, since lifted), the Jacobite consists of one or two return services from Fort William to Mallaig. The morning service, which I went one, is hauled by a 'Black Five', more formally known as a Class 5 4-6-0. Designed by William Stanier for the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, 842 of these mixed traffic locomotives were built between 1934 and 1951. 18 of these have survived into preservation; four currently having mainline clearance and being used to haul rail tours - or this service, which has two of them.

The morning service consists of British Rail Mark 1s, that ubiquitous feature of heritage railways (they were what happened to be available when many of them got started up). Developed after the war as a 'standard' coach for British Railways, they combined the features of pre-nationalisation stock and their all steel construction made them considerably safer then their predecessors, although they are not up to modern standards. Indeed many a multiple unit was also based on the design.

The afternoon service uses the 1960s Mark 2; distinguishable by their rounded ends as opposed to the flatter ones of the Mark 1s. West Coast Railways corporate livery is a maroon recreation of the original BR livery... which I think looks rather odd on a Mark 2, as they were nearly all painted Blue/Grey on first build. However, I am informed that the first batch was in maroon or Southern Region green.

It is highly recommended to buy your tickets in advance, which come with a seat reservation - there are limited numbers available on the day. First Class passengers are in compartments and standard class uses open saloons in refurbished form. Some personal pictures from elsewhere:

There is a buffet car, a trolley service and an on-board souvenir shop that sells a fair amount of Harry Potter related stuff, but be aware that it doesn't take credit or debit cards. A guidebook is available.

The journey goes through some truly spectacular landscape, but it is rather difficult to take pictures as there are a large number of trees next to the line; no sooner had I got my camera on to take a picture there was some foliage in the way. Here's the best of the shots.

On the outward leg, the train stops for about 20 minutes at Glenfinnan, partly to let a service train past on the passing loop; having a slight delay before fully pulling in to let the Sprinter come in to the other platform. The station has a camping coach, a small museum (which I didn't have time to visit) and an array of old posters.

The Black 5 gets up to a fair lick of speed; around 50 miles per hour. I really seeing these old locomotives in their native environment, doing what they were meant to do; they're only generally allowed to do 25 on heritage lines.

Mallaig itself is quite frankly a rather dull town.

The museum wasn't worth paying the price of admission to go on, the most exciting thing in town is the ferry out of there or the station and the mobile signal is non-existent. In the end, I found out the outcome of the Iraq War Inquiry via my MP3 player's radio.

The local places to eat filled up very quickly with people from the train and I eventually ended up eating takeaway chips in the station waiting area. I also had a can of Irn-Bru and am now a real fan of the drink, so that's one benefit of the trip.

The journey back is slightly quicker - no stop at Glenfinnan and the views are equally as great, but the weather was getting worse at this point.

Here's a video of the train in action that I recorded on the Tuesday in Corpach.

I caught the sleeper train back that evening, which leaves Fort William at 1950 and is designated 1B01 until it gets to Edinburgh, joining the other portions to become 1M16 arriving at Euston at 0747 the following morning - passengers may stay in their compartments for a further thirteen minutes. There is no First Class lounge in the station at Fort William, but there is free Wi-Fi for passengers in the waiting area.

I'd booked dinner for the train back and I have to say that this was superb. I even paid extra for dessert; the portions are somewhat small, but sumptuous.

The train was running half an hour late on its initial stage of the journey - I found out this was due to a brake issue. The sleeping wasn't particularly better the second time around; this is going to be something of an acquired skill... and I slept through the Great Storm of 1987 as a kid!

Due to a lack of space and time, my cooked breakfast was given to me by the attendant in my compartment - not easy to eat it on the bed, but the meal was again very nice. Next time, ask them to hold the black pudding - I had to scrape it out of the way.

The delay overnight was quickly made up once we switched to electric traction - it also seems that we arrived at Edinburgh second because our portion was in the middle of the train rather than the Scotland end. In fact, we arrived early at Euston!


The Caledonian Sleeper is a nice train fulfilling a necessary and useful function in the British railway system, but at the moment it's not as good as it could be. In particular, more information is needed for first-timers. The Mark 3 carriages are probably past it and while I would go on this again, I am planning to wait until the new CAF carriages are in service in 2018.

Mind you, the pillow spray I got for free has proved very useful, but it also appears to have given me weird dreams...


The Jacobite itself is well worth doing in itself and should definitely be on a rail enthusiast's 'bucket list'.


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