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The Caledonian Sleeper: A night on the rails

The Caledonian sleeper train

There’s something romantic about a sleeper train. Being rocked to sleep then woken by your butler knocking on the door with a steaming cup of tea. Ok, well maybe there was in the 1930s, but is there still any romance to a night on the rails today? I’ve taken a few sleeper trains on my travels – stacked in a three-tier bunk across India and propped up on a seat through Australia’s vast Nullarbor Plain – but had never done one in the UK. Because of the country’s small size, there are only two sleeper train routes, as otherwise you’d be arriving as soon as you got your PJs on. Along with the Night Riviera Sleeper to Cornwall, the Caledonian Sleeper runs from London Euston to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Fort William and other Scottish destinations.

There are two different Caledonian Sleeper routes. The Highland Caledonian Sleeper leaves London at 9.15pm then splits en route to arrive into Dundee the next morning at 6.08am, Aberdeen at 7.34am, Inverness at 8.38am or Fort William at 9.55am. Or there’s the later Lowland Caledonian Sleeper which leaves London at 11.50pm and splits at in two at Carstairs to arrive into Glasgow at 7.18am and Edinburgh at 7.19am. You can book tickets up to a year ahead and if you book early and avoid weekends you can get a bed in a two-person cabin for £75 one way (with a discount available if you have a railcard).

Caledonian Sleeper train corridor and budget cabin

The compact sleeper corridor and standard class cabin

Despite my last-minute Scotland trip planning, I managed to get a bargain ticket for the London–Edinburgh sleeper. London Euston around midnight is not the most glamorous start to a trip, and I was kept company in the station café by a family of mice hoovering up leftover cake crumbs. But things got better on board the train. With beds stretching widthways across a normal-sized train carriage, there’s a narrow corridor leading to the berths – so it’s a good idea to leave the giant suitcases at home. In first-class you get a cabin to yourself, with an adjoining door if you are travelling with someone else. But back in standard class, it’s two to a cabin, and if you’re travelling alone you’re usually allocated someone of the same sex to share with.

My cabin partner was a chatty Aussie on a tour round Europe, and fortunately not a snorer. The cabin was tiny, but designed to pack in as much as possible. Each bunk had a fold-down table, shelf for your luggage and reading light, and each cabin had it’s own sink. There were toilets at the end of the corridor, though if need to in the middle of the night, make a note of your cabin number or you might end up trying to open someone else’s door (luckily it was locked or I may have ended up snuggling up to a random stranger!).

Edinburgh Castle views

Early morning views from Edinburgh Castle

But did I sleep on the sleeper? Well sort of. The beds were pretty comfortable and the noise was soothing rather than annoying. The only thing that was a bit disconcerting was when the train braked or went around a corner I did slide around a bit in my top bunk which woke me up. Breakfast isn’t included in standard class, but you can order tea or coffee and shortbread delivered by the cabin steward around 6.30am. We arrived into Edinburgh on time, and you have until 8am to wake up and leave your cabin. As I came out of the station the sun was coming out and I was at the front of the queue for Edinburgh Castle bright and early with a full day to explore the city (though it did catch up with me and I was in bed that night about 9pm).

So would I travel on the sleeper again? Definitely. It was more of an experience than a normal daytime train and if you book early there’s not much difference in price. Next time I’d go for the longer journey to Fort William though, so you get chance to have dinner in the dining car, a whisky or two in the lounge’s leather armchairs and wake up to the real wild Highland scenery (after an extra two hours’ sleep).

Have you ever travelled on the Caledonian Sleeper or any good overnight trains across the world?

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The Caledonian Sleeper: A night on the rails – On the Luce travel blog

Mark's Adventures (@mwtrips)

Friday 20th of January 2017

My Night Riviera trip is also blogged at http://mwtrips.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-cornish-riviera.html if you want to preview that! As Roddy says, it's a bit too quick so I left London too late to have dinner aboard. Again, though, great to wake in the morning somewhere different.

Lucy

Saturday 21st of January 2017

Ooh I'd love to do the Night Riviera Sleeper sometime!

Mark

Friday 2nd of December 2016

I did the Highland Sleeper in First Class a while ago. Great experience, blogged at http://mwtrips.blogspot.com/2011/05/the-coincidence-of-gift-of-time-out.html if you're interested. Mark

Lucy

Tuesday 6th of December 2016

Thanks for getting in touch and great to hear you enjoyed the trip, will check out your review!

Katherine Nolden

Wednesday 30th of December 2015

I took the sleep train from Paris to Venice and it was great! My friend and I ended up being in the same car as two guys from the states and we stayed up and watched a movie. it was wonderful! Waking up to Italy and going over the water to enter Venice was breathtaking!

Lucy

Wednesday 30th of December 2015

Sounds like a great experience – train travel is definitely my favourite way to get around!

Roddy

Tuesday 15th of October 2013

Hi Luce. The book is good. Hope you make the Riviera, it's great, but a little too quick, although on the way back it arrives in Paddington at 5am so they let you sleep on whilst at Paddington station until c7am. All sleeper passengers are also allowed to use the 1st class lounge on Platform 1 (complimentary wine, tea and snacks) and showers on platform 11.

The Fort William sleeper is by far the best in UK in my opinion, especially in the summer months (lighter nights). Here are a few tips for that one if you make it:

- Its a long train (16 carriages to find your bunk) but they let boarding early, so do go early (c 45 mins), dump your stuff quickly and then get straight to the buffet for a table (it gets busy).

- The meals are good value c£6 for haggis, neeps and tatties, or similar and £9 for a full bottle of red to go with it, but you do need to bag that table quickly and get your order in.

- Its really worth getting up at c7am (so maybe don't finish the bottle!! but it hard not to take it back to the cabin and finish whilst reading in your bunk - YOU WILL) and going to the buffet car in the morning to sit and gaze as the train climbs right up into the west highlands. Ditto on the return (in daylight hours), get to the buffet quick (plenty daylight in summer). Again, a nice meal on board is just the job.

- In summer, the sleeper connects with the Hogwarts Steam train Fort William to Mallaig (book in advance), runs across the viaduct in Harry Potter, but even if you don't jump onto the Steam train, the trains pull up next to each other at Fort William so you get the atmosphere.

Take an extra night and catch the City link bus from Fort William to Oban (travels down the coast). Stay at the SYHA (SYHA Youth Hostel) on the sea front - views over the islands. Buy fresh haddock on Oban pier (D Watt fishmonger), so fresh, and cook it in the SYHA, enjoy over a glass of white looking out to the Western isles as the Mull Ferry steams by.

Just a few thoughts to get the best out of that sleeper, but any traveling is good traveling!

Regards, Roddy

Lucy Dodsworth

Thursday 17th of October 2013

That's great, thanks. I have been meaning to see more of Scotland for a while so that might be a good plan for next summer.

Roddy

Saturday 12th of October 2013

Done the Thessaloniki to Istanbul, as well as the Fort William 4 times (that;s the best) but, last week I met Emily Barr (author of the new Thriller - the Sleeper, about the Penzance sleeper service). I penned a short poem on the way back....try this for those who done the Night Riviera...

The Night Riviera By Roddy Malone She pulls out of Paddington and into the night, gathering speed and away from the light, crossing the points which are switched to align, with green lights ahead she joins the main line. With a clickedy clack on long steel track, from Coach A at the front to Coach H at the back, her throttle wide open and singing a rhyme, she’s on a tight schedule so must keep to time.

In the Buffet is Chef making a toastie or two, with a fresh pot of tea for me and for you, after dinner we chatter a Merlot away, with fellow night sleepers who enlighten our stay. Having finished our supper it’s time to retire, to our cosy compartment and sleeping attire, we unpack our clothes and hang them away, under ink starry skies while she westers her way.

White and a-fresh, our duvets tucked back, so we slip into our bunks for a snooze in the sack, as a night wind gusts on our small window pane, we snuggle down on this marvellous train. Zzzz as dawn breaks outside low and behold, Devon’s beauty is here, Exeter’s spires unfold, with green fields abound, rolling into a chain, and enchanting streams, flush with fresh rain.

She thunders on, this West Bound Express, storming Dawlish cliffs, a cruel sea of unrest, an hour or so later, Plymouth City towers, as she crosses the Tamar in the slumbering hours. Cornwall presents, with a Saltash start, Devon’s cities behind, now the last county part, to Liskard, Bodmin and St Austell she powers, via Par, Truro and Redruth’s sweet flowers.

A dreamy time later she’s into Camborne, whistling passengers awake with a toot of her horn, a cow looks up, chewing its grass feast, gazing in awe, at First Great Western’s Night Beast. Not long to go now as Hayle’s platform appears, then St Erth’s short halt with St Ives so near, we wash & we dress with a friendly door Post, our attendant with coffee, a fresh Kenyan Roast.

As we sit on our beds feeling fully relaxed, travelling no better way with our bodies untaxed, aboard the Riviera coasting down to the sea, we slide into Penzance on time and with glee. We slam the door shut of our Night Sleeper car, looking forward to breakfast in a local bar, with its log fire alight, flames witching a-weave, we sip a hot brew, as we sit and believe.

Just the white ferry to go by the blue Celtic sea, onto the Scilly Isles aboard the Sicillonian 3, off to St Mary’s it’s great to see, the Night Sleeper and White Ship meet by the sea, ….for you and for me… The Night Riviera - Roddy Malone.

Lucy Dodsworth

Monday 14th of October 2013

Thanks so much for sharing your great poem Roddy. I would love to do the journey on The Night Riviera Sleeper – I've just ordered the new Emily Barr book too so if I can't travel by train then at least I can read about it for a while!