BY ROB CROSSAN
“Trains, like time and tide, stop for no one,” wrote Jules Verne in Around the World in Eighty Days, his joyous adventure novel of 1872. I’m inclined to agree with Verne as I hurtle through undulating hills, brooding forests, and squat crofter’s cottages tucked into the corners of olive-green and tobacco-brown fields. Trains, at least the very best ones, feel as much part of the landscape as the amber hues of sunlight bleaching Scotland’s early-morning winter sky.
It’s 8am and we’re running at least an hour late on Britain’s longest train: 16 carriages that contain things seen nowhere else on the UK rail network – such as single malt whiskies, comfortable sofas, double beds, and Eggs Royale on fresh muffins. These have all been drunk, sat in, slept on, and consumed since I left Euston at just past 9pm yesterday.
But the rarest sighting of all is the expression on the faces of my well-heeled fellow passengers. Abandoning motorways and budget flights to be here, all along the train are people who look positively happy.
The Caledonian Sleeper has had a rough time over the last year, though nowhere near as rough as it’s sometimes been for fanatical fans of sleeper trains such as myself, who put up with what was on offer before.
Out of sheer, blind loyalty to the romance of sleeping on a train – fuelled by a teenage adoration of novels by James Buchan and Paul Theroux – when I became a professional travel journalist, the very first idea I pitched (and was commissioned to write) was for a story on the Caledonian – then, as now, one of just a tiny handful of sleeper trains left in the UK.
When I embarked upon a disastrous, short-lived marriage to a concert promoter from Alabama in my early thirties, it was the Caledonian Sleeper that I chose for my stag night. And as often as I possibly could in the decade between divorce and the present day, I have ridden the Caledonian.
I’ve illicitly smoked cigarettes, had sex, thrown up, devoured haggis, sipped single malts, cried relationship break-up tears into my pillow, and tripped up Michael Palin in these carriages over the years. It’s fair to say I contributed to those 40-year-old carriages looking every bit their age by the middle of the last decade. By that time, hand basins in the cabins were clearly doubling up as urinals, sofas in the club car carried a Jackson Pollockesque splatter of stains, and the staff’s hospitality skills were inspired by a Begbie-from-Trainspotting school of etiquette.
Such memories were swept away with last year’s revamp, which delivered the UK’s first-ever sleeper cabin with double beds, brand new lounge cars, food cooked in ovens rather than microwaves, and an atmosphere more redolent of a modish brasserie in Lothian than a greasy spoon in Lerwick.
The rollout was, to put it mildly, chaotic. Stories of leaking cabins, no drinking water, trains overshooting platforms, mutinous staff, and epic delays were a heather-and-tartan-strewn field day for the press, and genuinely heartbreaking to sleeper lovers who, like anxious parents at Sports Day, were willing their beloved to succeed.
But this carriage-based Culloden of bad PR is finally abating – partly because the Caledonian Sleeper is, to its admirers, an intoxicating and ebullient lover whose beauty and poise is such that it’s impossible to stay angry with her for long.
There is simply no better travel experience on the planet than being woken up in a bunk-bed cabin at dawn with a comfortingly appalling coffee, a bacon roll, and a copy of The Scotsman, and then rolling up the blind to see the Highlands rushing past your window.
Conversations the night before in the club car are always joyous experiences. Everyone on board has a fealty to the train, so the badinage has the same nods, ticks, and reference points that, I imagine, endear the gentry to one another at White’s or the Turf Club.
Stories of grouse-shooting disasters, enfeebled aunts in Dornoch, ski trips to Aviemore, romantic trysts on Loch Ness – nobody who travels the sleeper is in a hurry to get anywhere, and the barman keeps serving until the last passenger stumbles back to their cabin. The nights of impromptu bunk-bed passions that have followed a dram in the bar would sate the sexual appetites of an army of lusty Jacobites!
But, despite the improved food and drink, if you spot me on the Caledonian Sleeper, I’ll almost certainly be staring out of the window, particularly on an early morn as we curve through the edges of the Cairngorms.
I see brick- and buff-coloured heather, golden grass, and woods where rustling movement turns out to be pheasants among the leaves. I see smoke coil from chimneys of whisky distilleries, miasmas of mist hanging above a green quilt of glens, spruce forests, and fields dabbed with Tipp-Exwhite smudges of sheep. We trundle past narrow, forgotten stations: Dunkeld and Birnam, Blair Atholl, Kingussie, Newtonmore – names to make you pinch yourself, such are their essences of rough tweed, oatmeal, and venison.
It’s after 10am when we arrive in Inverness, a town of stout granite buildings that hunch up against the wide curve of the River Ness. Passersby seem oblivious to the bleary-eyed passengers who emerge from the station.
For a moment, I admire the statue of a soldier that stands on the station forecourt. Made of Portland stone, it was erected in 1893 to mark the centenary of the Cameron Highlanders and later became a war memorial for campaigns in Egypt and Sudan. The statue is an appropriate full stop to mark the end of a train journey that, despite innumerable attempts to cancel it by successive governments that bemoaned its maintenance costs, remains ever popular.
“Anything is possible in a train,” wrote Paul Theroux in The Tao of Travel. “A great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night’s sleep, and strangers’ monologues framed like Russian short stories.” But when it comes to the peculiarly Scottish hush of the Caledonian Sleeper, one finds something more reassuring. Something that, in an age of budget flights, frayed tempers, overcrowded departure lounges, and jammed motorways, puts one in an unusual mind-set – travelling for the journey as much as the destination.
High-speed train lines continue to sprout across Europe as the need for speed, to compete against the airlines, increases. Yet, somewhere, amid the bird’s nest of tracks that weave around Scotland, the Caledonian Sleeper rolls serenely by, its whistle echoing into the fields, valleys, and mountains beyond.
The Caledonian Sleeper runs every night but Saturday, north and south between Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Fort William, Glasgow, Inverness and London Euston. Prices for Comfort Seats start from £45; Classic Rooms from £140 solo or £170 shared; Club Rooms from £205 solo and £250 shared; and Caledonian Doubles from £335 solo and £400 shared. Visit sleeper.scot to book your tickets.