Thursday, 20 March 2014

The Caledonian Sleeper

The Caledonian Sleeper is an overnight train running 6 nights per week between London and Scotland, and although it's been going for about 140 years it's still quite a niche way to travel. Most people going from London to Scotland will fly or drive the 400-500 mile journey, seeing the sleeper train as an extravagant romantic or leisure option. I think they're wrong, so this blog post is the story of my trip on the Caledonian Sleeper and why I think it's a strong contender on purely practical, utilitarian grounds. This is meant to be an economics blog, after all.

Background and Planning

If you aren't interested in the practicalities of planning a journey and comparing the options, skip ahead to "The Experience"

Starting in London I needed to be in Greenock, to the west of Glasgow, for 11am on Saturday. I would then be returning straight back to London. Here's how my planning went:

Driving. It's a 900 mile round trip, so about 18 hours of driving and around £150 in diesel. I'd need to drive up on Friday then return on Saturday, so I'd also have to pay for an overnight stay, say £60, and I'd make myself unpopular at home by taking the car and leaving the kids.
Total cost: £210, two totally miserable days of driving and an unhappy family.

Flying. The Saturday morning flights weren't early enough, so this meant a Friday evening flight and an overnight stay. A short notice booking meant that I was looking at around £160-£220 return, though in theory you might get a return for about £120. You'd still need the hotel (assume £60) and airport transfers, easily another £100 there. And a 90 minute flight winds up taking over 4 hours because of all the mucking about.
Total cost: £350 (or maybe £270), the joys of airport security and transfers.

Neither of these options looked great, so it was about this point that I decided to look into the overnight train.

Caledonian Sleeper. Travelling overnight meant not leaving home until 10pm Friday yet still arriving in Glasgow just after 7am on Saturday: plenty of time for a leisurely breakfast and still be in Greenock by 11. 
Total cost: £178.50, including a £10 first class upgrade for the daytime trip home and connecting trains from home through to Greenock.
[See update below]

Because you're travelling while you sleep, the train actually works out faster than flying, it's cheaper than driving and less hassle than either. This is an easy win for the overnight train, which beats the alternatives hands down. See, I told you it was a strong contender on utilitarian grounds.

The Experience

The Sleeper leaves Euston at 23:50, you can board from 23:00. I walked out of the house at 10pm, caught the local train into London then the Tube to Euston. At Euston, the Sleeper is listed on the departure board...



...and when you reach platform 15, the train is ready and waiting. A nice lady directs you to your carriage and on you get. No waiting around and no pointless airport security theatre.



I had an exploratory wander around the train which totally by chance led me to the lounge car for a drink and a bite of supper.  All very civilised. There's a good menu of café style food at reasonable prices. Haggis, neeps and tatties are available (£5.40) for those who like that sort of thing.

The sleeper compartments are compact (and bijou) but perfectly big enough, clean and well organised. There is storage space under the bottom bunk, enough hanging space for about 3 items plus a shelf for each bunk. If you've brought a large suitcase you might struggle, but otherwise it's perfectly adequate. There is a basin in the compartment and there are gents' and ladies' loos at the end of each carriage. There isn't a shower on the train, but for a charge you can use the facilities at the station when you arrive. 

However, for all that the compartment is small, the bed is quite long: I would say that you'd need to be at least 6'2" or 6'3" before you'd have a problem stretching out. For the taller passenger, the bottom bunk is fractionally longer. The bed is only 2 feet wide, but I didn't find it a problem. Most importantly, I had a full night's sleep: much better than the slightly disturbed sleep I have travelling in a plane, car or coach. The train is quiet, the ride is smooth, the bed is comfortable and the next thing I knew we were in Scotland. 

My only criticism is that there isn't a 3-pin socket in the compartment so my phone couldn't recharge while I did. However, there is a 2-pin shaver socket, so an adapter would solve that problem. There are 3-pin sockets next to all the seats in the lounge car, hence everyone in there was sitting with a phone, iPad or laptop charging as they ate, drank and chatted.

This was the view from my compartment window as we entered Glasgow; the sun just rising over the Clyde. 



I arrived in Glasgow bang on time, feeling well rested. They allow about a quarter of an hour after arrival to pack up and vacate the train. I decided to grab a breakfast in a café nearby but found most of them shut at 7.30 on a Saturday, probably not unreasonable as there were hardly any people about. Fortunately, Café Nero on the corner of Hope Street and Waterloo Street was open and serving porridge which I can also recommend, so they can have a plug. As you leave the train, turn left and walk past the end of the platforms with the main entrance to your right. There's a small side entrance next to M&S which brings you out opposite Café Nero. One of the seats in the window to the left just beyond the counter has a plug next to it, which is ideal if you've been unable to charge your phone all night...

Conclusion

The sleeper train was cheaper than flying and it's even cheaper than driving, especially if you cost the car properly by including wear and tear, etc which I didn't. I won't even try to compare a night sleeping soundly on the train against a gruelling 9 hour drive. It also avoided all the tedious performance of getting to the airport, going through security and all the grief of air travel.

Unfortunately, there's no sleeper on Saturday night otherwise I'd definitely have caught the sleeper back to London rather than the 16:00 Virgin train. Leaving Glasgow at 4pm got me back home at 11pm, if I'd left on the 23:40 sleeper I'd have arrived home at 8am. So 7 hours longer in Scotland, and effectively no time lost at home.

I expected the Caledonian Sleeper to be a fun, unusual way to travel, ideal for a special trip or just as a way to get a taste of a romantic, old fashioned way to travel. I was completely wrong. While it is unusual and fun, it's also hard-headedly practical. If you're travelling between London and Scotland, you'd be mad not to look at the Caledonian Sleeper purely because of the cost and time savings. If travelling on a sleeper train also appeals because it sounds romantic or cool, then you're winning all the way.

Further Information

I found my information about the sleeper from the excellent Man In Seat 61 website, where you'll find all the details about timetables, booking info, plus photos and videos of the compartment. That website is highly recommended for all your long distance train needs.

Do feel free to post a comment if you'd like to ask a particular question that I haven't addressed here.

Update

Predictably, after posting this last night, a few more things occurred to me this morning.

I paid top whack for the sleeper because I booked at short notice. If you can book in advance you should pay about £65 each way, so for about £130 you could get the sleeper both ways, which is really a bargain. The Seat 61 page has information on how to pick up an even cheaper discounted ticket, sometimes under £50 each way. Booking 12 weeks in advance and going midweek seem to be the main ways to grab the big discounts.

For the daytime return leg on Virgin I paid £10 for a First Class upgrade. This is definitely recommended: for starters, I easily consumed a tenner's worth of complimentary drinks and Virgin Snack Boxes, but when I took a stroll through Economy to the little train shop it was like a different world. First Class was almost empty and quiet, I had a power socket, a wide seat and a table to work on. Economy was absolutely rammed. In the busiest carriages you had room to breathe, but only just. For such a long journey, it's £10 well spent.

That said, if you are travelling in economy, move forward in the train closer to the First Class carriages. They were quieter and had seats available, so a minute walking further along the platform is well worth the effort.

Finally, it strikes me that there's a real missed opportunity with the Channel tunnel. Although there are sleeper trains within the UK and numerous sleepers traversing mainland Europe, there are no sleeper services between the UK and Europe. You could board a train in the evening in the UK and wake up by the Mediterranean, in Paris, Berlin or Rome. Just as with the sleeper to Scotland, it would probably take less time and cost less than flying, but no one has tried a service like it. Is there really no demand?