Operator: Caledonian Sleeper Headcode: 1S25 Route: EUS-INV Class: Club
Seat Room: P01 M01 Date: Thursday 29th October 2020
After a journey into London that reached the northern suburbs before being diverted back to Stevenage and via Hertford (Overhead cables can REALLY cause problems), I arrived at King’s Cross around three hours before I was due to head north from nearby Euston. Of course, there are plenty of options for getting between the two, from the Underground’s paradox (you can head north from either and reach the other!), to a multitude of buses along Euston Road, however given the weather was holding, I decided to take the 10 minute walk from one of London’s most beautiful stations, to one of its most ugly!
Heading from London to Inverness, there are just two direct trains each day, LNER’s ‘Highland Cheiftan’ which leaves King’s Cross at 1200 and the Caledonian Sleeper’s ‘Highland Sleeper’ which leaves Euston at 2115. Having decided to tick off a bucket list item on this trip, I was booked on the latter, a journey that would take just over 11 hours and cover almost 600 miles through the night.
The Caledonian Sleeper have been operating their new trains consisting of Mk5 coaches for a couple of years now and whilst initially there were teething issues, it seems these have mostly been ironed out. These new trains have three types of accommodation available on them, with ‘Classic’ as the most basic consisting of a twin room with shared toilet facilities down the hallway.
My accommodation was the next level up, ‘Club’ which offers ensuite rooms which can be configured as either singles or twins. These rooms are essentially Caledonian Sleeper’s version of first class and include access to lounges, priority access to the club car (when its open) and had breakfast included. The final type of room is ‘Double’ which as the name suggests includes a double bed as well as all the other benefits of ‘Club’.
As I mentioned, my ‘Club’ room provides access to lounges where available and at London Euston Caledonian Sleeper have an agreement for guests to use the Avanti West Coast lounge. With conflicting information on the standard and Covid pages of the Caledonian Sleeper website, I decided to double check with their customer service team on Twitter who advised that I could use the lounge from two hours before boarding began (so 1830 for the 2115 train). Arriving at Euston around 1915, I headed to the lounge only to be told that access was only for an hour before departure (so 2015) due to social distancing capacity and it had been that way since March.
Slightly frustrated at the incorrect information from Caledonian Sleeper, I wasted an hour at The Signal Box pub which is next door to the lounge before heading back to grab a drink and some snacks before boarding. Due to Covid the Caledonian Sleeper Club Cars are currently closed and so no refreshments other than breakfast are available onboard the train. Having stocked up on snacks for the journey before leaving home, I made the most of the Tea and snacks at the lounge to tide me over until the morning leaving my snacks for if I woke early.
Heading down to Euston’s platform 1 around half an hour before departure, I had a bit of a walk given that the Inverness portion of the train is the front section upon leaving Euston. Meeting one of the hosts at the back of the Inverness section, I was advised that my room had been moved from coach P to coach M, however the room was of the same type. Walking slightly further down the platform, I boarded coach M and stepped inside my room on the sleeper for the first time.
The first thing I noticed inside the room was how much space there was despite being on a train. Even with my bag taking up a decent amount of space on the floor, I was still able to move around easily and the with the ensuite toilet/shower being a wet room, the space for showering was more than in many hotels. I was disappointed to find that the room was set up as a twin room, despite me booking as a solo occupancy a month in advance. Whilst not the end of the world, it does mean the top bunk is set up which reduces the space when on the bottom. Caledonian Sleeper do advise if you book less than 24 hours in advance that both bunks will be set up, so I assume the fact my room was moved relates to this.
Also provided in the room was an amenity kit, however worryingly mine had clearly been opened as the eye mask packing was torn open and an empty sweet wrapper was in the bottom of the bag. Whilst clearly this would be not a great thing in normal times, it was even more concerning given the current Covid situation. After getting this swapped with one of the hosts, I had a look inside and along with the eye mask and ear plugs, there was pillow spray, moisturiser, body wash and shampoo. A bottle of water was also included in the kit as the water from the taps isn’t drinking water.
As I was investigating the amenity kit, we departed Euston on time at 2115 and soon passed the surprisingly empty Camden Carriage Sidings. For those of us that boarded at Euston, the first stop for alighting was the Scottish city of Stirling, however the train makes another five stops before there, of which two are advertised. The first of these stops is Watford Junction just under 20 minutes later to allow more passengers to board the train north.
Following this brief stop we had an uninterrupted two hour run up the West Coast Mainline (WCML) to the Cheshire railway town of Crewe. The fastest trains on the WCML take just 95 minutes to reach Crewe, but with the Sleeper generally limited to 80mph for passenger comfort, we were right on time when we arrived at 2345. The railway first arrived in Crewe in 1837 and the station is one of the most historically significant in the world, whilst the nearby Crewe Works were where some of the world’s most famous locomotives, such as the ‘Duchess of Sutherland’ and ‘44871’ (the latter of which hauled The Jacobite when I travelled on it), began their lives.
Settling down for the night I was pleasantly surprised at how comfortable the bed and bedding were and I was soon falling asleep to the ‘Clickety Clack’ and sway of the train. I woke up just after 0100 as we stopped at Preston, again to pick up more passengers, and found we were running about 15 minutes late at this point in the journey. Looking out of the window, I noticed there was a bit of rain, however most of the storms that had caused problems in this part of the UK earlier in the day had passed.
The next time I awoke was as we passed through Haymarket station on the approach into Edinburgh Waverley. With the Lowland Sleeper providing overnight travel between the English and Scottish capitals, the stop for the Highland Sleeper at Waverley is unadvertised but very important in the operation of the service. It is at Edinburgh that the Highland Sleeper is split into its smaller portions and the locomotives changed from the electric Class 92 that brought us across the border to a brace of diesel Class 73s to take us on to our destination.
Despite leaving Edinburgh late, I was hopeful we’d make time up on the journey north and after a bit more sleep, I spent the rest of the journey looking out of the window at the stunning scenery as we climbed into the Highlands. We briefly stopped at Stirling and Perth to allow passengers to alight, but many of the advertised set down points were passed through without stopping as no-one wished to alight.
As we passed through Pitlochry and Blair Atholl, we were pretty much back on time and we continued to climb as we approached the highest point on Britain’s mainline rail network. Druimuachdar summit sits at 1,484ft above sea level and to reach it northbound trains face an almost continuous 18mile climb at a 1 in 70 gradient, leading to many being ‘double headed’ with a pair of locomotives, such as our brace of class 73s, providing power up the incline.
After Druimuachdar summit there are just a handful of stations left on our journey before we arrive into Inverness. The next stop is at Dalwhinnie, one of the coldest villages in the UK, not in terms of the welcome (which I’m sure is lovely), but in terms of the climate. Holding the UK record low temperatures for June, September and October, it is the coldest place in the UK that sits below 500m with an average temperature of just 6.6ᵒC.
Continuing north, Newtonmore is our next stop, a village that can claim to be the closest to the geographical centre of Scotland. I was initially a bit sceptical about this fact as at this point, we weren’t that far from Inverness but looking at a map reminded me just how much of Scotland lies north of the country’s most northerly city.
Officially three stations were left on our journey before Inverness, however it turned out we would only stop at one, the next up the line at Kingussie. Kingussie has two claims to fame, the first that the nearby Ardverikie Estate was the filming location for TV show Monarch of the Glen, and the second that its shinty team, Kingussie Camanachd, is the world’s most successful sporting team of all time with 20 consecutive league wins and a period of four years unbeaten in the early 1990s.
Just after Kingussie I pressed the ‘Host Call’ button to ask about what time breakfast would be served. After quite a while of the shrill call noise, a host from another coach answered (not sure if essentially the call gets passed on if not answered) and seemingly struggled to understand what I was asking and said they’d send my host to me. Clearly the conversation had been misunderstood as 10 minutes later there was a knock on my door and my host handed me my breakfast bag whilst complaining that its usually served 40 minutes before arrival.
Due to Covid, breakfast was scaled down and consisted of a muffin (American style not English), an overcooked bacon roll and an orange juice, supplemented by a Tunnocks Caramel wafer and canned cold coffee that I brought with me.
Whilst I understand that changes have had to be made to minimise contact etc in terms of Covid, I do feel that a lot of the roll back of catering has been more of a cost saving measure than due to Health & Safety. For example, Caledonian Sleeper aren’t currently providing hot drinks with breakfast. Why is this? LNER are able to make a hot drink, put it in a bag and then hand you the bag, why are Caledonian Sleeper not able to do this?
The town of Aviemore was the next advertised stop, however whilst I was eating my breakfast, we passed through here along with Carrbridge without stopping. From Carrbridge it was about 40 minutes until Inverness and so after packing up my overnight gear I settled down to enjoy my last moments onboard one of the UK’s most amazing train services.
Continuing our decent from the heights of the Cairngorms, the railway takes an almost 270ᵒ loop to traverse Culloden Moor and avoid the historic Culloden battlefield. From here we get our first views of the stunning Moray Firth before finally reaching the more industrial suburbs of Inverness. Millburn Junction is where the Aberdeen – Inverness line joins the Highland Mainline on the approach into Inverness.
Having departed from Euston’s platform 1, we arrived into Inverness’ platform 1 11 hours and 16 minutes later, following a journey of almost 600 miles. Caledonian Sleeper use the branding ‘The Journey of a Nighttime’ as a play on words and this journey was certainly unique. Whilst the service and food weren’t great, the fairy-tale of waking up to the Scottish Highlands passing the window just can’t be beaten. I’ll definitely be back on the sleeper in future and hopefully the service will match the views on those occasions.
Lounge 3* Seat/Facilities 4* Food 2* Service 2* Punctuality 5* Overall Rating 16/25 (read about my rating system here!)