Caledonian Sleeper: How Covid and climate change could boost passenger numbers on Scotland's overnight trains – Alastair Dalton

Scotland’s overnight trains could one day travel to Gdansk, Genoa and Granada, writes Alastair Dalton.

Friday, 2nd October 2020, 7:00 am
The new Caledonian Sleeper fleet was launched with a "Dream Big" advertising campaign
The new Caledonian Sleeper fleet was launched with a "Dream Big" advertising campaign

I’ve been covering some “think big” transport schemes lately, which has got me thinking about what more could be achieved with what we already have.

At the turn of the century, the idea of another bridge over the Forth or restoring a railway to the Borders seemed fanciful notions.

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But they were built, and have become significant parts of Scotland’s road and rail networks.

We’re now part way through completing the dualling of the A9 between Perth and Inverness, the biggest transport project in the country’s history, no less.

Ambition

However, I’ve been even more struck by the surprising scale of ambition of two other schemes, past and present, which have recently been reported by The Scotsman.

In the first, I’d never imagined that options for bypassing the landslip-prone Rest and Be Thankful mountain pass in Argyll would stretch to various bridges or tunnels across the Clyde, the most extraordinary of which would involve a route through the island of Bute, with crossings to the mainland on either side.

A new Caledonian Sleeper train near the Forth Bridge. Picture: Peter Devlin

Going back a century, I equally marvelled at the plans for a network of railway lines across the north-west Highlands, Skye and Lewis proposed during the heyday of rail expansion, as chronicled in Edinburgh author Andrew Drummond’s new book, A Quite Impossible Proposal.

Those grand schemes inspired me to muse about how Scotland’s existing transport system could be expanded to its full potential.

Setbacks

Where better to start than the Caledonian Sleeper, much-loved despite suffering a seemingly never ending series of setbacks since its much-anticipated brand new fleet arrived 18 months ago.

Double beds with ensuite showers are a feature of the new fleet.

I hear the service is much improved – my last trip was in December when the shower still wasn’t working – but it is alas back in the doldrums.

Planned strikes from this weekend over staff rest areas threaten to bring everything to a halt, while losses have increased by almost half to £4.5 million because of the new carriages’ woes.

Against the grain

However, let’s be optimistic. This could be the New Age of the Sleeper, and the chance for the much talked-up “Scotland on wheels” operation to rise to its full potential in this doubly uncertain era of Covid and Brexit.

The new carriages have suffered a series of faults but Scottish ministers want them to be "emblematic of Scotland. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

Curious train operators from across Europe have been beating a path to Scotland to see Caledonian Sleeper operator Serco’s new creation, which arrived decidely against the grain of shrinking overnight services on the continent.

This could be the cue for the trains to fly the flag for Scotland abroad, the realisation at last of the failed plan for direct sleeper trains to Paris and Brussels following the opening of the Channel Tunnel.

Cocooned

A new fleet were even built for the purpose, and an elegant waiting room created at Glasgow Central station that was still there until a decade ago.

Taking the Sleeper to Europe would be greener than flying, avoid any hold-ups at international borders and provide perfect coronavirus-proof public transport by passengers being conveyed cocooned in their own separate cabins, food and drink brought to the door.

There are already proposals to extend the Caledonian Sleeper to the northern tip of Scotland – the so-called “Midnight Train to Georgemas”. But shouldn’t that also be to Genoa, Granada or even Gdansk?

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