It has become a tradition with Railcam that Model Rail Scotland is too good an opportunity for the senior admins to get together for a catch-up. With Railcam being a national site it’s fair to assume that the admins are as scattered as the cameras. This being the case 7 of us traveled on the Caledonian Sleeper to reach our colleagues, friends and fellow admins.
Not being one to miss an opportunity I contacted Caledonian Sleeper and asked if they could assist or had any objections to a feature article for our supporters.
I am always delighted when dealing with PR departments of TOCS. They tend to be very nice, chatty, accommodating and proud of both their own brand as well as the railway in general. Of course, they agreed but sadly things didn’t go quite to plan….
We had been offered early access to the set of mark 5 CAF built sleeper coaches and duly arrived half an hour ahead of check in to do a walk through with the cameras and notebooks. So far so good! While others waited patiently behind the barriers we were ushered through and greeted by duty manager Colin Jackson.
Colin is just what you would expect, a fine ambassador for the Serco owned sleeper. Chatty, friendly and welcoming before sharing the bad news. The new stock has been beset with so many issues since last year’s introduction and it is very sad to say that some of those issues are still on-going.
At this stage, the computers weren’t communicating and the whole 1/4 mile train had to be shut down and rebooted a number of times. Nobody was sure what the problem was but, after conversations with some of the on-board staff, this isn’t unusual with water and electrical failures still commonplace.
Quite clearly Jamie and I were both unable and unwilling to board the train while staff worked on solving the issues. That would have been completely unfair and so instead I had a half-mile walk up and down the platform and shared a Facebook Live instead.
By the time we got back to Colin, it was clear that this was potentially turning into a situation where the service may well be canceled altogether. He wasn’t sure what was happening with it being unclear if the issue was stock or locomotive related. All he could say was that people were desperately working to solve the problem.
Now not all of the Caledonian Sleeper problems are down to the stock. Initial teething problems, brake issues and failures gave the “All-New Hotel on Rails” a bad start. Those times seem to have passed for the main part and the more recent problems were with the GBRF operated class 92 locomotives and Network Rail delays.
Caledonian Sleeper operates both the Highland and Lowland services with each train being made up of 16 coaches when departing Euston. The Highland service departs first, splitting into 3 at Edinburgh before continuing on to Inverness, Aberdeen and Fort William. The Lowland service serves Glasgow and Edinburgh. The new stock is PRM compliant and has space for a number of wheelchair users.
By now we had been joined by passengers expecting to be boarded and sat enjoying a nightcap in the lounge car. Far from a late-night tipple, we were all stood waiting behind the barriers. There were a few grumbles as always but Colin did regular visits through the group to explain as best he could.
My professional qualifications are in Hotel Management and if Caledonian Sleeper wishes to market themselves as a hotel on rails they need to up their game. You just can not leave customers and guests as they should now be referred to, stood on a cold platform for over an hour! Get your hosts off the warm train and down with those guests offering a warm drink at the very least. Communication and service are key in the hotel industry and never would you expect to be locked outside of a hotel feeling second rate.
The sleeper is an expensive way to travel. If you have berths booked, especially the higher-end ones now available, the cost will exceed the flight alternative. Make this an experience that those guests wish to repeat because it’s a taste of the old-fashioned luxury experience.
After an hour of standing around with Colin doing his best, the lights flickered on the train and optimism returned! Were we about to get the nod to board? Another ten minutes and we were off down the platform finding our coaches and hosts to book in with.
We all had the classic berth. Very small, narrow bunk-beds and quite claustrophobic if you struggle in confined spaces. If you are sharing a berth, you will struggle to pass each other on the way to the sink so bear that in mind when booking.
The club and double berths offer more room I believe but sadly we weren’t able to have a look due to the earlier problems. It’s certainly worth considering an upgrade but this will always come down to value for money.
The berths are very modern. USB and sockets are plentiful. Reading lights and complimentary water and night pack containing an eye mask, ear-plugs, and soap. It’s an improvement on the old dated stock but I just can’t allow myself to call it a hotel in the classic berth.
We gathered in the Lounge-car for our late night and long-awaited tipple. One side of the car is given over to booths for 2, 4 or 5 travelers while the opposite side has stools and a crocodile tooth bench for single guests. A small menu is available if required and a host, the lovely Nancy in our case, will collect and deliver your orders to your seat. I believe there is an at-seat service available in the seated coaches also.
The Lounge-car is very brightly lit and the seatbacks are rather high which for me didn’t quite work for a relaxed atmosphere. When I wandered down the train at 2 am the lighting was dimmed and it was much better.
While we sadly couldn’t do our run-through, I did have a brief opportunity to take some phone shots when I covered the Aberdeen Azuma launch. This is as much as I can offer at present but the seated coaches do look reasonably comfortable for the journey and over-head lockable storage is available for your valuables.
We departed Euston around half an hour late but at least we were on our way. Everyone then wandered off to their berths for what we hoped would be a comfortable night’s sleep before waking in Glasgow refreshed and raring to go.
That may have been the plan but… I certainly couldn’t get to sleep. Maybe I’m not used to being confined in a 2ft 6 bunk? maybe it was the claustrophobic feeling and unfamiliarity? I put it down to one of those things and headed off to chat with Nancy in the Lounge-car who kindly offered me a coffee and a chat about her experience as a sleeper host over the years.
After calling at Preston around 4.20 am I decided to move back to the berth and leave the staff to set up for breakfast. This is not included in classic but can be ordered if desired. We did get a coffee and biscuits delivered though which did me just fine.
We arrived into Glasgow on time and we gathered on the platform until our number was complete. It wasn’t until this point that we discussed our sleeper experience as a group. None of us had slept well if at all. The only thing we could put it down to was the ride of the mark 5 coaches. Many of the team have made this journey before but not on the new stock.
When sleeping on a train you expect a few bumps and bangs along with that unusual feeling of movement but this was quite telling. I’ve had discussions with other writers and it would appear that the general consensus within the industry press is that while the investment and standard of the new stock are welcome, the ride just isn’t as good. Do let us have your feedback if you have an opinion you wish to share.
I do try to travel on a service a few times before making up my mind and so if Caledonian Sleeper wishes to invite me back anytime I’ll gladly give an update.
Overall? It’s not a hotel on wheels… yet. It’s not cheap but if you can upgrade to a larger berth then do so. Cleanliness is excellent. Facilities excellent, staff fantastic, punctuality is mixed due to departure and waiting issue but we did arrive on time, comfort average. Overall I’ll give the service a 7/10 which would be around an over-priced 3 star hotel with room for improvement in some areas.
Our thanks of course to the Caledonian sleeper team for accommodating us and being open to all we asked.
My apologies for the delay in publishing this but Sadly I have been unwell and am behind in my reporting.