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27 March 2006

Shhh! Save our sleepers

Sleeper trains are a beautiful way to travel but the service is fast fading. We must act now, urges

By Andrew Martin

Last summer, newspapers announced that we were to lose all our railway sleeper services: all three of them, that is. Even by silly-season standards these stories were half-baked, but they proved quite useful.

The service to the West Country – the Night Riviera – genuinely was in danger. The franchise was being auctioned, and applicants had been asked to supply special costings for the sleeper, implying that it was considered not worth subsidising. The press coverage led to the raising of an 8,000-signature petition – the largest railway passenger protest ever. Late last year, First Group retained its Great Western franchise and announced that it had found an acceptable budget for the service. The two Caledonian Sleepers to Scotland, on the other hand, never were in danger and the operator – again, First – is refurbishing the sleeping berths.

Roughly ten times more people fly between Scotland and London than use rail, and yet sleeper trains in particular are a beautiful concept, combining all the comforts of domesticity without its overwhelming drawback: the fixity of location.

The main sleeper traffic was always London to Scotland, and a late-Victorian traveller could get there from Euston, St Pancras or King’s Cross. The Midland Railway from St Pancras had the most scenic route (irrelevant, I admit, except in a full moon) as well as the best catering: in 1890, mock-turtle soup, halibut with sauce fines herbes, roast beef and new potatoes, fruit tart, cheese and coffee would have set you back eight shillings and sixpence.

The surviving Scottish sleepers just would run from brutal Euston. The first leaves at 9.15pm for Edinburgh, where it subdivides into services for Inverness, Aberdeen and Fort William. The other departs two hours later, splitting at Carstairs for Edinburgh and Glasgow. Anyone boarding these “Caledonian Sleepers” in the coming weeks may get one of the refurbished carriages, and one of the improvements is “more control over light levels” – in other words, blinds that work. The one in my unrefurbished berth was broken, so I asked to change berths, a request which was politely granted.

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Then again, it bloody well should have been. Whereas the cheapest, standard-class sleeper return costs about £90, I’d paid the full first-class return fare to Inverness of £230 – the price of misanthropy, because I was determined on sole occupancy of a berth, which a first-class ticket guarantees. The berth itself reminded me of cells I’d viewed while touring a young offenders’ institution: the lights were fluorescent and everything was pale blue, suggesting long research to find the coldest and least welcoming colour possible. This will be addressed in the refurbishment: the new berths will be “a more heathery colour”.

I walked along to the lounge car, which was kitted out with weedy-looking tables and chairs, none fixed to the floor. They looked strangely arbitrary, as if they had been borrowed from a garden centre the day before, but the refurbishment will bring new furniture, including leather sofas of the same make as those seen in the Big Brother house.

It felt quite glamorous to eat pork cas-serole with soda bread while rattling through Watford Junction. The food was microwaved, of course, but then we are down to one proper railway kitchen in the whole country – on the GNER trains. It was bedtime, however, that brought the real reward of travelling on a sleeper: the in-house cinema, I mean. One minute you’re racing directly alongside a juggernaut; the next, a signal box goes swooping past. I slept moderately well. We stopped at Carlisle for what seemed like for ever with nothing whatsoever happening, and the 3am shunting at Edinburgh seemed very neurotic, consisting of tremendous jolts followed by long, meditative pauses.

The attendant knocked on the door half an hour before arrival in rainswept Inverness. From my bunk, I watched the dawn break as I ate my first-class breakfast, the main feature of which was a hot roll wrapped in cellophane. It was quite nice, but when I’d finished it, I began worrying about what exactly had been in the roll. The refurbishment will bring improved breakfasts, and proper china and silver teapots for first class.

These little touches of style could make all the difference. At Paddington, Night Riviera passengers are lobbying for fresh flowers in the buffet car and showers on the train. They want First Great Western to really embrace the service, rather than running it out of dour duty and on the cheap. At the moment, both sleepers are extra-full on foggy days, when people can’t take the internal flights. For all our sakes, the frequent flyers must be converted permanently, and yet while the ScotRail sleeper is publicised, the Night Riviera has to rely on word of mouth . . .

The other day, I read a message on a website, posted by a man who had once worked in the booking office at Plymouth. “For a time,” he wrote, “we displayed a model of the sleeper train and bookings went up by 20 per cent. When it was taken away, they fell by the same amount.”

I suggest a competition for rail- way modellers. Replicate our sleeper trains in flattering miniature. The prize? Your work permanently exhi-bited at Euston and Paddington.