An AvGeek, converted: Caledonian Sleeper train from Inverness to London
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Whilst planes and flying have been my passion since being a kid, I’ve never been overly into trains. Yes, the Eurostar can make sense to Brussels or Paris and is a more stress-free journey. And whilst I did some regular commuting on the train from London to Birmingham a few years ago, if you’d ask me what type of a train it was, I’d have replied a red one.
I had always been intrigued about sleeper trains, though, with a romantic picture of a lush restaurant car, cosy cabins and the rocking carriage putting me to sleep as the engine pulls us towards our destination.
So when it came to getting back to London after a recent trip to the U.S. that started and finished in Inverness, I jumped at the opportunity to try the Caledonian Sleeper service from the Scottish Highlands back to London. Unlike typical trains that run between London and Edinburgh or Glasgow, this service was scheduled to take 12 hours. That meant I would be able to have a nice meal in the restaurant carriage before trying to get a good night sleep in my cabin — or so the romantic picture I had painted in my head told me.
Caledonian Sleeper completed the rollout of its new trains in October 2019, which saw the Highlands services getting the modern carriages that had been introduced on Edinburgh and Glasgow services earlier in the year. The website isn’t entirely straightforward, though options available on the service range from standard seats to a double bedroom.
Tempting as it was to book the double bedroom, the £395 price tag put me off, so I went for a Flexible Club Solo Room, which cost me £215. Prices range from £53 for a standard seat to £145 for a Classic Room, which does not have an en-suite toilet or share, to the Club Room from £180 with en-suite toiler and shower.
Inverness Station & lounge
Having flown into Inverness Airport (INV), I got to Inverness station just after 6 p.m. for the scheduled 7:35 p.m. departure.
The station was very quiet, which didn’t surprise me for a Sunday evening. There were a handful of departures leaving that evening, including my service to London Euston. I found some station staff to ask when the train would arrive and when boarding would start, though was told that the 7 p.m. boarding might be slightly delayed.
Staff also advised me that I could use the lounge, which was outside of the station and across the road. When I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised by a modern, well-maintained waiting room, which also had three showers available for passengers.
It was stocked with biscuits, crisps as well as a coffee machine, teas and water. Passengers booked in Double and Club rooms can use the lounge, and the friendly lounge agent told me he’d advise us when it was time to head back to the station for boarding.
Though the lounge agent flagged that things were running behind schedule, I left the lounge at 7 p.m. to head back to the station.
It was a pretty chilly evening and passengers were standing on the platform waiting for the train doors to be opened. There were no staff or announcements, but the train was there and it looked prepared and light up.
I managed to get a peek into the carriage that had the standard seats as well as the restaurant cars and one of the bedrooms from the outside.
Whilst the carriages looked all modern and recently refurbished, the actual engine pulling the train looked somewhat out of place in terms of age compared to the rest of the train.
As 7:35 p.m., our scheduled departure time, came and went, staff didn’t communicate any updates on the status of the train. Some of the passengers were getting understandably annoyed — not least because there had reportedly been some reliability issues.
A few minutes later, the local manager appeared and told us that there was a technical issue being worked on and suggested we head to the heated waiting room in the station or the bar inside the station.
Just after 8 p.m., he gave a few of us the update that there were two issues: one with heating and one with toilets, and that engineers were on board to fix it. He suggested that the restaurant cart might not be able to be in service as the heating issue could be related to the kitchen or that particular carriage.
Shortly after, I saw a few more Caledonian staff appear with printed lists, and after a brief conversation between them, they disappeared into an office. They then asked for passengers who were booked in two specific carriages to make themselves known. It transpired that they could not fix the heating in those two carriages so they were being taken out of service with impacted passengers being given the choice of a hotel room for the night and travel the next day on a normal train service or an overnight coach service down to London.
Luckily, my carriage was not impacted and shortly after, we started boarding.
I found my room after walking down a very narrow hallway on the train. The key card worked fine to get into the room, though locking the room was a struggle and an attendant explained to me that one has to try five or so times to lock it and then it works.
The room was compact and distinctly non-romantic, but it was functional with lots of clever things such as a pullout table, various charging points, temperature controls and light switches.
Given I had booked the cabin as a single cabin, the top bunk had been secured in a folded away position, possibly to stop double occupancy when it hasn’t been booked.
The bathroom was set up in a space-maximising way with a lid above the toilet, which turned the room into a small shower, or a toilet when lifted up. As expected, the shower wasn’t the most powerful out there, but it did the job in the morning and there were no issues with temperature control or how to work it.
The bed was narrow, but I slept surprisingly well. Included in the Club Room is a small amenity kit, which includes shampoo, gels as well as ear plugs and an eyemask.
Despite my meal prior to getting on the train and not least because it was only 9 p.m. by the time I had settled in my cabin, I went to the restaurant cart which, whilst nicely done, was probably the most modern of the whole train.
The menu wasn’t extensive, but it had a good mix of dishes on it and whilst small, my lamb was tasty.
Given the restaurant cart had very little charm and a couple had joined my table as there were no other seats available, I headed back to my room at 9:30 p.m. to read before going to bed.
It was only then that I discovered a breakfast room service order form, which had to have been left outside the door within 45 minutes of departure. Because I missed the window, it should have been made clearer to passengers.
The form did state that breakfast was also available in the restaurant carriage and included in the price with my room until 7 a.m.. Given the service was running an hour late, though, I assumed they would adjust the service times.
Strangely, they didn’t adjust the times, so when I asked at 7:30 a.m. whether I could still order some breakfast in the restaurant carriage, I was told that the only thing they could give me was a coffee. It was odd that they would rigidly stick to those timings when the train was running an hour late.
I was also surprised to find in the morning that the train was moving in the opposite direction from the night before. A search showed that it switches directions at one of the night stops, which I slept through completely.
We arrived into London an hour late — and it’s worth noting that given such delay, passengers were eligible to claim half to the ticket price back. This varies between train operators in the U.K., but any delay of more than 30 minutes usually triggers some sort of refund or compensation.
There were lots of things that weren’t great — the late boarding due to technical issues with no communication, the somewhat modern canteen feel of the restaurant and the strange breakfast timing.
Still, I have to admit, I loved it. It wasn’t a cheap journey, but given it saves a night in a hotel and allows to arrive reasonably refreshed and showered in London, it’s not bad value for money. I found the rocking of the carriage strangely therapeutic and calming and loved tucking myself into the small bed under the nice big comfy duvet.
I suspect the shorter journeys to Glasgow and Edinburgh are much more sleep-oriented, but whether for those or a longer trip to the Highlands, I’ll jump on the train again given the option.
All photos by Christian Kramer/The Points Guy.
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