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First Group v Serco. Sleepers compared

Saturday 15th May 2021

Night Riviera and Caledonian Sleeper both conjure up romantic images of wonderful train travel through the night whisking you from one end of the country to another. Britain’s sleeper trains certainly do that, taking you from London’s Paddington just before midnight and waking up in Penzance for breakfast at 8am or leaving Euston soon after 9pm and be in Aberdeen, Inverness or Fort William around 8am, 9am or 10am having left Euston at 9.15pm or arriving in Edinburgh or Glasgow soon after 7am having left Euston at nearly midnight.

Perhaps not so romantic sounding are the corporates behind these operations – First Group and Serco. But that’s branding for you.

The Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William sleeper leaves Euston as one train but splits in Edinburgh at about 4am, while the Edinburgh and Glasgow similarly leaves Euston as one train and splits at Carstairs at about 6.15am. The reverse arrangement applies in the southbound direction. London bound departure times vary with Fort William at around 8pm, Inverness 9pm, Aberdeen 10pm and Edinburgh and Glasgow after 11.40pm with Penzance at around 9.45pm.

It’s a six night a week service with no trains running overnight on Saturday to Sunday morning.

All three trains are heavily subsidised, requiring multiple crews and complicated driver arrangements. Electric locomotives are switched for diesels during the complex shunting arrangement in Edinburgh for northbound trains and vice versa on the southbound journey.

Separate figures aren’t available for the Night Riviera but in 2018/19 revenue from fares on Caledonian Sleeper was £25 million with franchise payments of £22 million. Serco’s costs were said to be £67 million. Unlike Test & Trace, Caledonian Sleeper is not turning out to be much of a money spinner for them.

My trips this week and last to Cornwall and Aberdeen presented a good opportunity to compare and contrast how the services compare on quality, price and value for money.

The Night Riviera is operated by GWR, part of First Group while the Caledonian Sleeper has been run by the outsourcing company Serco since 2015. Before that it was part of the First Group run ScotRail franchise.

GWR gave its trains a full refurbishment in 2017/18. Out went the rather dated decor and video screens in the cabins which had offered a restricted range of programmes and in came a swish new look with more comfortable beds as well as the all-so-necessary-these-days usb and plug sockets. A policy change also meant no longer would passengers not travelling together share a cabin, with all cabins configured for solo occupancy, or if two people are travelling together, a top bunk is lowered into place to facilitate cabin sharing. Locks operated with a keycard were also incorporated into the berth cabin doors.

There’s a sink under a moveable top which lifts up in each cabin giving both hot and cold water. There’s also a slimline wardrobe with a few hangers to hang some clothes.

There’s an accessible berth and toilet and there are two standard size toilets at the end of each carriage.

Another carriage provides seated accommodation, but the nicest part of the train is undoubtedly the refurbished lounge car and buffet counter which provides a variety of seating arrangements and really does look the business.

I never sleep particularly well on sleeper trains finding the beds comfortable to lie on but far too narrow but I recognise space is at a premium and there’s not much that can be done about that. On my trip to Penzance I moved into the lounge car soon after we stopped at Bodmin Parkway and enjoyed the scenery for the rest of the journey being the only passenger using the coach along with three of the four members of staff on board in between their duties.

Cabins sell out on the Night Riviera quite quickly. The standard price for a single journey from Paddington to Penzance is £135 for a berth or £71.90 for a seat. If you book early enough there are advance purchase cabin fares available for as little as £84. That’s not bad for a journey at the height of the summer season and currently available on Tuesday 27th July for example. With a Railcard you can get a seat on the train that night for just £28.95 at the moment (“Only 3 left”). These prices are all the more reasonable when compared to the standard class walk up daytime fares of £151.50 (any time) and £99.10 (off-peak). An off peak return is £164.70. Advance purchase singles for the last week in July are currently available for £70.90 or £46.75 with a Railcard.

The Night Riviera travels at a sedate pace and includes a prolonged stop of about an hour in Exeter at 3am and for forty minutes in Plymouth at 5.15am. If you’re keen you can get off at Plymouth and catch a standard train which leaves ahead of the sleeper arriving into Penzance about twenty minutes earlier at 07:38.

When I travelled last week there was no breakfast being offered but hot drinks were available from the buffet and also brought to your cabin. The staff were as friendly as usual and make you feel very welcome. The first class lounge at Paddington is open and available for you to wait in until boarding commences which when I travelled was about 10.30pm so plenty of time before the train departs at 11.45pm.

The lounge was also open at Penzance on arrival and has shower facilities available. I also saw a smart new departure lounge on the London bound platform at Truro for passengers boarding in the evening.

I rate the Night Riviera service highly. GWR have done a great job on the train refurbishment. The standard of service is excellent and the fares good value. The only problem is getting hold of a berth as they do get booked up early, especially at popular times of the year.

When Serco took over the Scottish sleeper services in 2015 with a 15 year franchise they ordered a fleet of new trains from Spanish manufacturer CAF promising a radical new approach offering much higher quality standards including en-suite facilities with toilet and shower and even cabins with double beds rather than bunks. There would also be swish new lounge cars with improved catering and as befits an outsourcing company inspired makeover, passengers would become known as “guests”.

The new trains were reported as costing £100 million with £60 million coming from the Scottish Government.

The new strategy might have looked good on paper – improve the quality, attract a more discerning customer and increase prices and therefore margins – but in practice, for this “guest” it’s been a dismal failure.

The new trains were excessively late before being introduced, and then were beset with teething problems causing dissatisfaction among customers and stress for on board staff which inevitably meant loss of business and industrial relations difficulties.

This is all a great shame as initially I was delighted and excited to hear of Serco’s plans and really looked forward to enjoying the new facilities. As long term readers will know from previous blogs, every time I’ve travelled it’s included shortcomings and disappointments and last Monday night’s journey from Edinburgh to Euston was yet another poor experience.

I’d booked what’s called a Club Room which has the luxury of the en-suite toilet and shower but twenty four hours before departure received a text and email from Serco’s Caledonian Sleeper apologising in advance that “hot water may not be available in your en-suite shower or wash basin”.

I’ve yet to make a journey and had hot water. The “issue” the email refers to is clearly a fundamental problem as it’s now two years since the trains were introduced into service. You’d think the problem would have been fixed by now. The staff seemed well used to explaining the shortcoming.

I expected fares to increase when the new trains were introduced to reflect the improved facilities and Serco’s bid to attract the so called “high end tourist market” but the exorbitant prices don’t in any way reflect the quality of product provided. Looking at prices for a journey next Wednesday from Euston to Glasgow offers prices of £335 for the Caledonian Double, £260 for the Club Room, £205 for the Classic (with no en-suite) and £68 for a reclining seat. You do get better value if travelling with a partner with the Double Room costing £400 and the Club Room £310 (where a bunk would be available) and the Classic is £245.

Full price

A Railcard knocks around a third off these prices, although not the Caledonian Double.

With Railcard

When you can get an air fare from London to Glasgow for £50 or less (taking about an hour for the flight) that’s a lot of extra money to pay for a bed and night’s disturbed sleep. It’s luxury hotel price territory and that may have seemed like a sound business proposition when the new trains were being spec’d, it looks totally unreasonable now, especially when you don’t even get hot water.

The Club Room bed feels the same size as on the Night Riviera and the sink doesn’t have the convenience of a cover on which to put things, although there is a pull out shelf, although it annoyingly gets in the way when you want to use either the bed or toilet/shower.

It’s handy to have an en-suite toilet but whether it’s worth an extra £55 (the difference between a Club and Classic room) is another matter.

One minor improvement I noticed on this journey was the provision of two plastic hangers on one of the four hooks provided. But these seemed cheap and basic bearing in mind the prices being charged.

Prices for “guests” travelling between London and Aberdeen/Inverness/Fort William are even higher. However it’s pertinent to note the rooms do get booked up. I took a look for a trip from London to Inverness in the next week or so and found day after day with rooms all showing as “sold out”. The first time I could find all four options available was Tuesday 8th June.

The staff on my journey were as cheerful as ever, the boarding at Edinburgh began at 11pm for the 11.41pm departure and prior to that I made use of LNER’s first class lounge. Breakfast was offered of a bacon roll or granola and tea or coffee to be brought to your room – hardly luxury standards. The lounge car was closed due to Covid restrictions which was a shame, although in the event, we made good timing on our journey south and arrived into Euston at 6.20am almost an hour earlier than the scheduled time of 7.15am which was a welcome positive end to an otherwise disappointing sleeper experience.

More positively one of my favourite train journeys ore Serco was taking the Euston to Fort William sleeper in February and waking up to enjoy the fantastic scenery through the snow covered West Highlands as the sun is rising sitting in the old lounge coach in the now withdrawn trains. One year there were just three of us on the train and we spotted lots of deer and stags as we headed north. It was truly wonderful.

I was reminded of that lovely journey arriving back in Euston on Tuesday morning and walking past one of Serco’s Caledonian Sleeper branded huge electronic totem style departure screens which they’ve installed at every station served. Mostly only ever displaying the one journey that calls there. Still at least Euston’s has two departures to display and captured a lovely West Highland image of the former much loved carriages!

But that memory aside, now it’s the Night Riviera for me. It’s such a shame the Caledonian Sleeper consistently fails to live up to expectations. Sorry Serco, First Group have got it sorted. You haven’t.

Roger French

BusAndTrainUser View All

I used to run a bus company but in retirement am a full time passenger travelling all over Britain enjoying its splendid scenic delights by bus and train. Currently social distancing at home.

15 thoughts on “First Group v Serco. Sleepers compared Leave a comment

  1. When you arrived early into Euston, were you under pressure to vacate your cabin earlier than 7.30am, or were you allowed to remain until then?

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  2. At one time I was a regular user of the (unrefurbished) West of England sleeper, but haven’t used the new Scottish sleepers. However, I do remember traveling to Aberdeen about ten years ago (on our way to Shetland). My wife and I got a “bargain berth” for £19 each (i.e. total cost for travel from Euston to Aberdeen in a sleeping compartment). From memory, “Bargain Berths” were available from a dedicated website and sold in tranches of £19 / £29 / £39 / £49. Depending on far ahead you booked and how flexible you were with dates, they were exactly as described on the can. At the new prices you quote Roger, I doubt that I will be using the Scottish sleeper again…

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  3. The question has to be asked as to whether these sleepers can be financially justified. Trying to work out the loss per passenger may be difficult as with rail finding out true costs is almost impossible. The journey time by train from London to Penzance appear to be about 5 hours so not excessive you could leave London at about 5 and be in Penzance just after 10pm/ There must be far better ways to spend
    that money

    Having spent the money on the trains I guess they will have to carry on with them until the rolling stock is retired

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    • Of course the sleepers aren’t financially justified. Bluntly, most trains aren’t financially justified.
      They exist for two reasons: society wants them (just look at the fuss whenever withdrawals are proposed) and politicians like playing trains.

      As for the opacity of rail finances, have you ever tried getting the genuine costs out of any business? Good luck with that!

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  4. would be interesting to see how these compare to the National Express/Megabus (not sure who runs what) overnight services and see whether these are better than the Caledionian sleeper

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  5. Most rail services are subsidised but the subsidy per passenger on these sleeper services seems to be crazy and with faster train service now is that a good use of scarce financial recourse particularly when alternative ways to travel are available
    It may be a nice to have but is that a good justification for it ?

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  6. Clacton Breeze Open Top Bus

    Clacton Breeze service starts from 29th May 2021. It is actually the 134 bus service which switches to an open top bus in the summer

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  7. Caledonian Sleeper is run by SERCO, say no more!! As a retired coach driver who has done many European overnight trips, overnight travel is not great experience for the passenger.

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  8. It’s worth noting from a commercial perspective how Stagecoach introduced and withdrew sleeper Megabus Gold services. I guess the concept is commercially bankrupt within the UK. At least we avoided wasting any more money on Eurostar Nighstar sleepers…..albeit having built the trains!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Waking up in the Highlands after going to bed in central London is an experience which just about justifies the high prices!.
    The West Highland Sleeper service to Fort William does provide a valuable boost to the local economy. .

    Liked by 1 person

  10. The failure by Serco to operate its brand-new trains correctly and provide even basic facilities (i.e. hot running water) after two years is shocking. If we were living in normal times and the passengers included politicians, Scottish gentry and American tourists, the failures would have received a much higher profile and Serco would have been stripped of its franchise.

    It’s good to know that GW is continuing to provide a good service with BR Mk III coaches. Those sections of the industry and media who consider anything from BR to be inherently old and therefore unreliable should take note.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. With the 04.28 (1R20) GLC-EUS arriving in London at 09.15, and the 19.30 (1S06) home arriving at 00.06, most folk can do a day’s business without overnight travel

    That said the late departure is a comforting back-stop, although the 00.15 Megabus from VCS leaves later & takes the same time, AND does it on a Saturday

    Liked by 1 person

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