New sleeper turns into a bad dream

Tuesday 25th June 2019

IMG_6371There’s something seriously amiss with Caledonian Sleeper’s train service.

I’ve blogged about the new Mark 5 coaches a couple of times recently (here and here) highlighting the teething problems I encountered, in particular no water in the en-suite shower in my supposedly swanky new ‘Club’ room on two of the three journeys as well as a number of other niggles.

These included an emergency stop and losing all the electrics when heading south around Preston in the early hours of Tuesday 4th June. The sharpness of the braking followed by an eerie silence and two or three attempts to reboot the train’s control systems over the next ten minutes was enough to wake most of us up and a consequential disturbed night.

We got going again on that occasion and thankfully arrived into Euston with no further incidents. Not that trip anyway, but a much more serious fault necessitating another emergency stop happened a week later on Tuesday 11th June as the Lowlander service headed north to Glasgow and Edinburgh coming to a sudden halt in Stafford. This resulted in serious damage to the train’s wheels such the train couldn’t continue and coaches had to be summoned in the early hours to take passengers on to Glasgow and Edinburgh by road. Not a particularly edifying or attractive proposition when you’re probably already dressed for bed and maybe even nodding off.

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Every night since that incident two weeks ago Caledonian Sleeper have been cancelling one of the journeys, either northbound or southbound between either Glasgow or Edinburgh and London. Alternative options for booked passengers offered by Caledonian Sleeper are either taking a daytime Virgin Trains journey or a replacement overnight coach on the motorway; neither option being particularly acceptable when it’s likely you’ve already made onward travel plans or have other commitments necessitating overnight travel.

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An overnight coach on the motorway is hardly an acceptable alternative when you might have paid £230 for a new en-suite single room or even £335 for a double room, albeit Caledonian Sleeper are giving full refunds, but it’s likely many passengers would prefer flying as an alternative with a night in a hotel, I know I would, but that doesn’t seem to be on offer as a alternative.

Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 10.42.26.pngCaledonian Sleeper have been making much of the luxury offered by their new deluxe sleeper coaches, offering a “timeless experience”; it’s just a pity “timeless” is turning out to be “trainless”. The problem being expectations have been seriously raised with Caledonian Sleeper hyping up their new ‘hotel-on-wheels’ at five star prices – it’s £395 for a Club double room on the Highlander between London and Fort William/Aberdeen/Inverness for a single night journey (and no Railcard discounts are available), that’s just shy of £800 for a return journey or ‘two nights stay’ – and for that you expect five star service, not ‘replacement road transport’.

Even if everything is running smoothly you’d think paying £395 for a night’s sleep, albeit coupled with a 570 mile journey, would include more than just one complimentary hot drink with a measly breakfast. I was taken aback to find a few coffee granules, a cup of hot water and UHT milk sachets came at a charge of £2.70 on top of that £395 fare – what an absolute rip-off. You even get unlimited complimentary coffee in the cheapest Travelodge deal.

With the ongoing teething problems it obviously made sense for Caledonian Sleeper to pull the planned introduction of Mark 5 coaches on to the Highlander service which had been scheduled for the beginning of this month (and which was already well delayed from the planned 2018 launch). It’s now been pushed back to “early July”, (update… Wednesday 26th June – just announced now put back to September) but for some time passengers have been booking their journeys assuming new en-suite rooms at the significantly enhanced prices as advertised on the glossy Caledonian Sleeper website only to later receive a refund on the difference between new and old pricing as disappointed passengers are told it’s the old coaches for them, for now.

Mind you that’s better than having the disaster that is the new rolling stock at the moment, but even those trusty old coaches are showing signs of age and lack of investment making it feel like very poor value for money as well as unreliable.

On my LEJOG trip with Geoff and Vicki last week our Inverness train had standard toilets out of action while the accessible toilet next to the lounge coach had no water making it unhygienic and unacceptable. At about 6pm prior to the train leaving Euston a text was received advising there’d be no lounge car that evening thereby meaning no refreshments available, but when we got wind from other sources that may not be the case, I rang Caledonian Sleeper to query it only to be told the email had been sent out in error and there would be a lounge coach after all. There was no explanation when I asked why a corrected email hadn’t been sent leaving a feeling of shambolic incompetence.

Even worse the Fort William section of the train that evening developed an engine fault in the West Highlands meaning passengers arrived into Fort William over three and a half hours late after 13:30.

There was then a hiatus for Friday night’s southbound journey from Fort William when it was announced the train was cancelled due to “staff having insufficient rest” following the late arrival that morning so “guests” (Caledonian Sleeper’s corporate spin is still insisting on calling us all ‘guests’ despite clearly not being able to run a hotel) were told on social media they’d have to travel by coach (“replacement road transport”) over to Edinburgh, arriving in the middle of the night, with a transfer on to the train from there.

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A further tweet advised arrangements had been made for refreshments to be available at the Jury’s Inn in Edinburgh where “guests” could also wait before boarding the train, but twitter was awash with disgruntled passengers saying coach drivers dropped them off at Edinburgh Waverley station with no mention of hotel refreshments.

Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 10.20.21.pngScreen Shot 2019-06-25 at 10.20.35.pngAgain, it gives the impression of total incompetence.

Meanwhile it wasn’t much better on the southbound service on Friday night either with new coaches on the Lowlander service coming to a halt at Acton Bridge just south of Crewe with passengers having to make their way down to London once Virgin Trains and West Midlands Trains got going in the morning.

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Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 11.07.16.pngThese latest disasters on Friday came just twenty hour hours after there was confidence on Thursday wheel problems on the damaged train from 11th June would finally be fixed for the weekend …

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…. with Caledonian Sleeper tweeting things “are due to return to normal”.

It’s turned out not to be the case with the Glasgow bound journey cancelled last night yet again.

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This raises the question of why other sets of new coaches are not being introduced into service. Somewhere sidings must be full of new coaches bearing in mind the new trains were due into service on both the Lowlander and Highlander services from 2nd June. This implies there are still issues with the new trains yet to be resolved beyond problems with wheels damaged on 11th June.

I can’t help thinking Serco – the company running the Caledonian Sleeper franchise – are completely out of their outsourcing depth running this specialist type of train service. It’s all very well hyping up running a luxury ‘hotel on wheels’ but is it practical? Is the business model charging exhorbitant five star prices, raising expectations for a high standard of service, achievable on an overnight train between London and Scotland? Sadly Caledonian Sleeper is rapidly gaining a reputation worse than Fawlty Towers.

Serco must be losing a fortune over the present shenanigans (although I’m sure there’ll be some contingent liability passed on to the Spanish manufacturer CAF too) but it shouldn’t be forgotten the sleeper service attracts massive public subsidy to keep it going. OK, there are far fewer passengers impacted than in the GTR or Northern Rail fiasco last May but proportionately the disruption per journey is far worse. A 25% failure rate on the Lowlander service at the moment.

Yet taking a look at the Caledonian Sleeper website it’s as though nothing is wrong and it’s all sweetness and light. Where’s the contrite apology from the managing director at what has become a complete shambles of a service? Not a word, just the same continued hype. Quite extraordinary head-in-the-sand PR.

I feel sorry for the stressed out staff on the trains and in customer service, sorry, “Guest Service Centre” where “Guest Ambassadors” work. Word of advice Serco. Ditch the ridiculous corporate hype and get back to basics of delivering a proper service. And you really have got to do much better at letting passengers know what’s happening more in advance than you’re doing; it’s not like catching a commuter train home; canacelling an overnight sleeper means huge distruption to people’s travel plans possibly including ruined holidays.

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Unsurprisingly Caledonian Sleeper’s reputation is currently being trashed every day on Twitter.

Tuesday 25th June, midday update: as I publish this blog, there’s no word from Caledonian Sleeper whether tonight’s Lowlander service will run as normal or which of the four portions (Glasgow/Edinburgh – northbound/southbound) will once again be cancelled. A quite extraordinary way to run a train service, let alone a sleeper service.

Roger French

A day in Stranraer and The Rhins

Thursday 6th June 2019

IMG_9889.jpgIt may not rank as high as the West Highland Line, the Kyle of Lochalsh Line or the Far North Line in the great Scottish Scenic Rail Lines stakes but ScotRail have rightly designated the line down to Stranraer as a Scenic Rail Journey and very justifiably so too.

Screen Shot 2019-06-06 at 09.51.10.pngWhile I was in Glasgow on Monday in between consecutive night sleeper train travels I took the opportunity to take another ride down to Stranraer and remind myself why I ranked it thirteenth in My Hundred Best Train Journeys when compiling that list at the end of last year.

IMG_9883.jpgIt’s not that Stranraer itself is a must-visit destination, sadly the town is well past its prime now the Belfast ferry has moved further up the coast, leaving desolation where lorries and cars once formed their orderly queues before boarding.

IMG_9887 (1).jpgIt’s also not that the first part of the journey south from Glasgow is particularly scenic either. It’s not.

It’s not that the trains are spectacular either; they’re unrefurbished Class 156s similar to those that could be found on the top rated scenic lines in the West Highlands and Far North prior to those being revamped and improved. But they do offer tables and great window views, so I’m not complaining.

IMG_9894.jpgThe line’s scenic reputation comes from the eighty minute ride south of Ayr on the single track section through the lovely stations at Maybole, Girvan, and Barhill.

IMG_9896.jpgIt’s not that there are lochs. Nor mountains. Nor huge spectacular valleys.

IMG_9898.jpgIt’s just mile after mile of stunning Scottish countryside with rolling hills, rivers and plenty of lush green landscape.

IMG_9892.jpgThe Stranraer timetable is not particularly attractive either. It’s an approximate two-hourly frequency but only three journeys start in Glasgow (six hours apart at 0808, 1413 and 1813) with most of the other journeys starting in Kilmarnock. Even those Glasgow journeys are bettered by taking a later train on the more direct route to Ayr, saving twenty minutes, and having a handy 6 minute connection in Ayr to the earlier leaving Stranraer train that went the slower route via Kilmarnock.

As my sleeper arrived late into Glasgow at 0815 on Monday morning I had no option but to catch the 0830 to Ayr and connect there with the Stranraer train that had left Glasgow earlier at 0808 via Kilmarnock.

Sadly though, Monday morning was not a good start to the week for ScotRail with a number of incidents including cows on the line to Ayr necessitating slow cautionary progress resulting in a 16 minute late arrival in Ayr thereby missing the Stranraer train which hadn’t been held for the sake of leaving ten minutes later if it had waited for us.

IMG_9815.jpgStill, on the upside I had a bit of time to look at the major work now in progress to renovate and make safe the hotel above Ayr station which began as an emergency measure a few months ago when the building was suddenly declared dangerous necessitating the complete closure of the station and rail lines in the area at great inconvenience.

IMG_9813.jpgIt turned out eight of us bound for Stranraer were left stranded in Ayr and in view of the two hour wait until the next train staff summoned an eight seater taxi which arrived in twenty minutes and we set off for the eighty minute drive down to Stranraer, which aside from the wait, took about the same journey time as the train.

IMG_9816.jpgI’d travelled this route before on Stagecoach’s route 60/360 and it’s a great scenic ride with some lovely coastal views contrasting with the more inland route taken by the train, so it made for an interesting and welcome variation.

I’d never ventured west of Stranraer before and decided to put that right on this visit and explore the hammer head shape every geography student is familiar with when drawing the coastline of Great Britain.

screen-shot-2019-05-31-at-15.41.57This headland peninsular is officially called The Rhins but apparently the locals don’t call it that. It protrudes out towards Belfast in the south western corner of Dumfries and Galloway.

IMG_E9821.jpgLuckily when I was in Dumfries earlier this year I took a photograph of a bus map displayed in bus shelters in the town as in the frustrating absence of finding a bus map online to refer to, this proved invaluable in working out which bus routes to travel on to explore both ends and both sides of The Rhins. Update is I found the online map after publishing this post thanks to a helpful reader – see below for more explanation.

IMG_0360.jpgThe timing worked perfectly to travel on the 1155 one-return-journey four-day-a-week departure on the McCullochs Coaches operated circular route 412 from Stranraer to Leswalt, Envie and Galdenoch (see map above).

IMG_9825.jpgThis was a lovely thirty-five minute run with just me and one other passenger who alighted in Leswalt leaving just me to enjoy the trip round. The route was slightly curtailed due to a road closure but it was still an enjoyable and quiet rural ride.

IMG_9827.jpgThe Fiat minibus has an interesting staggered 2+1 seat layout ….

IMG_9826.jpg…. and a livery which seems to be the base colours for the ‘south west of Scotland transport partnership’ brand as I saw another bus wearing similar colours and sporting a logo to that effect on route 500 to Dumfries operated by Stagecoach.

IMG_9886.jpgWhen I’d investigated the SWesttrans.org.uk website previously it just linked to a collection of minutes and agendas of Partnership Board Meetings. Most odd. However, I’m pleased to update following publishing this report someone has kindly pointed out the link to “Service Information” on the website which has a further link to Dumfries & Galloway timetables as well as a link under “Sustainable Travel” to the bus map referred to above. Why do authorities make it so hard to find these things?!

Back in Stranraer I switched to one of Stagecoach’s routes in the area, the 407, which runs all the way down to the southern end of The Rhines at Drummore.

IMG_9879.jpgThis eight journey a day route is shared with McCullochs Coaches who operate two school journeys and Wigtownshire Community Transport who operate a journey at 1700. We took nine passengers as far as Sandhead which is half way along the 44 minute journey (see map above) but the second half was just me on board although we brought two back from Drummore and another half dozen from Sandhead on the return.

IMG_9881.jpgStagecoach also operate route 408 up to Kirkolm to the north of The Rhines but sadly the 1410 departure didn’t arrive, or more possibly the driver of the 407 when he got back to Stranraer st 1402 didn’t change the blind. There’s one other route, the 387 to Portpatrick on the west coast which is shared between Stagecoach, DGC Buses and Wigtown Community Transport and a convoluted town route in Stranraer, the 365, which Stagecoach also operate.

Another quirky bus feature of Stranraer is the Ulsterbus garage a long way from its normal Northern Ireland territory but historically here for the Glasgow to Belfast service via the ferry, which as highlighted already, has moved further north.

IMG_9820.jpgHaving enjoyed the scenic rides up and down the ‘hammer head’ I decided to head back to Glasgow on the 1500 ScotRail departure from Stranraer; the scenery as far as Ayr was as gorgeous as ever and I thoroughly enjoyed the journey.

IMG_9891.jpgFrustratingly this train arrives Ayr at exactly the same time a fast train leaves for Glasgow making a connection impossible so I continued to Kilmarnock (photographed below) where there’s a more convenient three minute connection across adjacent platforms to a train passing through from Carlisle and which gets into Glasgow at 1737, whereas if the connection had been possible in Ayr it would have meant an earlier 1710 arrival into Glasgow.

IMG_9906If ScotRail are serious about promoting the scenic delights of the Stranraer line I would strongly recommend reviewing those tight and missed connections and promoting the timetable better – for example whereas the Ayr trains which offer either tight or missed connections are shown in the Stranraer leaflet; the Kilmarnock connections aren’t.

Back in Glasgow I was impressed that Caledonian Sleeper was ready and waiting to board passengers at 2200, the promised time, and it wasn’t long before I was in bed and only vaguely aware we were on our way at the scheduled departure at 2340 back to London Euston. Everything went well until around 0300 when we made a wakening emergency stop in the Preston area. It turned out we’d lost power but after five minutes or so everything had been successfully rebooted and we were on our way again arriving into Euston slightly ahead of schedule .IMG_9944.jpgAnnoyingly my shower didn’t work (again) along with the toilet flush packing up during the night and only a trickle of water from the basin tap in the morning. I experienced the same plumbing problems on my inaugural journey at the beginning of last month which indicates snagging issues are still very much to the fore on the new sleeper carriages.

In fact chatting to staff, they confirmed all is not going well, with continuing porblems and staff consequently taking flack from disgruntled passengers who’ve paid a handsome price for these en-suite extras. Sadly some staff are apparently having to go off sick due to the level of stress. It’s obviously a trying time for a Serco and Caledonian Sleeper and although disappointing, it’s a sensible decision to postpone converting the Highlander route to the new coaches until these problems are ironed out. I hear 7th July is the latest date envisgaed for their introduction.

Someone must be seriously losing out financially due to these delays and problems as the uptake in revenue to justify the new coaches must be well below budget as well as compensation being paid out for failing to deliver. Let’s hope all is resolved soon.

Roger French

PS: yes that timetable case in Stranraer, captured in a photo above, was a bit disheveled…!

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Sleeping Beauty (not quite yet)

Monday 3rd June 2019

IMG_9765.jpgIt was meant to be the grand launch night, last night.

Serco owned Caledonian Sleeper had planned to begin running their much delayed smart new Mark 5 trains on the Lowland route between London’s Euston station and Edinburgh and Glasgow from Sunday 2nd June so I bought a ticket to Glasgow a few months ago and planned an interesting day’s travels in Scotland before planning to return the following night (tonight) back to Euston.

Then Caledonian Sleeper announced the Highlander to Inverness/Aberdeen/Fort William would also launch with new coaches from the same date, 2nd June, which was really good news and with hindsight I wished I’d got a ticket on one of those journeys – Fort William on a Mark 5, just imagine.

But in the lottery that is trying to travel on Serco’s new Sleeper coaches Caledonian Sleeper brought forward the Lowlander launch with no public notice to Sunday 28th April even though bookings on their website were still for the old carriages right through until 2nd June.

As readers will know I managed to book a ticket during that first week on 3rd May and wrote about the experience in an earlier blog.

I looked into changing my tickets for 2nd/3rd June from Glasgow to a Highlander destination but decided to stick with another trip to Glasgow. This was just as well as a fortnight ago continuing teething problems with the new coaches led Caledonian Sleeper to postpone the launch of the upgraded Highlander route to ‘some time later in the summer’ with refunds now being offered to those who’d booked the super new ensuite rooms and now relegated back to old style berths.

Meanwhile I rolled up at Euston for my second new Mark 5 Sleeper experience last night ready for an earlier departure at 2134 – a couple of hours earlier than the normal 2350 departure time as we were heading up the East Coast Main Line due to ‘improvement works’ shutting the West Coast Main Line.

The Highlander was similarly affected with an earlier departure at 2028 than its usual 2115 set off time.

It’s not that the ECML is inherently longer or slower it’s that we have to still leave from Euston due to our 16 coach length needing long platforms that Kings Cross can’t offer so trains have to spend the first hour of the journey shunting up to Wembley sidings (or to give it’s official name – Wembley European Freight Operations Centre – known as ‘WMBYFET’ in the trade which incongruously even earns a place in the station listings – not that you can alight there!).

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Having arrived at WMBYFET, and after a fairly lengthy pause, the train retraces its tracks back towards Euston again but branches off at Primrose Hill to reach the Overground’s North London Line at Camden Road and then an hour after leaving Euston you find yourself taking the curve on to the East Coast line at Copenhagen Junction just in front of Kings Cross station.

Except last night it all went pear shaped.

The omens were not good when I noticed the Highlander showing ‘Delayed’ but it did leave only 16 minutes late at 2144 which is in the ‘easy to make up’ bracket on such a slackly timed route.

We’d been reminded of our earlier departure by tweet and passengers arrived at Platform 15 ready for the promised 2100 access to rooms.

Except nothing happened at 2100 and the new style check in lecterns remained empty.

IMG_9764.jpgAfter a while a member of staff with a clipboard came and advised us he was waiting for the Train Manager to authorise boarding but we weren’t given any reason for the delay among much mobile phone call making by this key staff member.

To everyone’s relief at 2115 the necessary authorisation was given, the train doors were unlocked and check in began.

That late start put paid to a timely departure as check in was still underway at 2134 and not finished until 2145.

IMG_9773.jpgBack on board while passengers were settling in and grabbing a seat in the new and expanded lounge coach with its new and expensive (but obviously ‘locally sourced’) menu I was wondering why after a further hour had passed we were still sat in Platform 15 going nowhere.

I wandered down to the lounge car but the staff there explained they were too busy serving to even think about a reason why we hadn’t yet moved and nor did a member of staff in my carriage busily collecting up breakfast menus (still not updated for the new look Mark 5 menus) know of any reason for the delay.

I’m not sure whether the individual intercom/help buttons in each berth facilitate a general PA announcement throughout the train but none came and I decided not to disturb our obviously busy Train Manager with such a trivial enquiry as to why an hour after our scheduled departure we’d gone nowhere.

I checked the Caledonian Sleeper twitter feed but no news there either.

Just at that moment a whistle blew, the doors beeped and closed and I was relieved I hadn’t chosen that moment to wander back on to the platform as we were off.

With the benefit of hindsight I’m wondering why we were off as the 2044 departing Highlander had reached the Wembley sidings complex ten minutes later at 2055 but all was not well due to overhead power problems.

Indeed that train wasn’t on the move again for around three hours after a rescue engine had to be dispatched and there were also apparently further problems with one of the locos.

So it’s a mystery why we left when we did as presumably someone had a plan for how we wound circumnavigate the dud power cables. In the event we stopped further south than Wembley at Kilburn Park after just ten minutes into our journey at 2245 and sat there for the next two hours watching the occasional Virgin and LNWR train pass by, until finally at 0030 the Highlander passed us having been rescued and making its way south again and over to Camden Road, and we finally got going at 0051.

I’m sure it was a nightmare to sort out but it does seem to me there must have been poor communications between the ‘industry partners’ about what to do for the best and then communicate on to passengers in a timely fashion.

Following the above tweet at 2244 as we were departing, after the first hour’s delay, no more news came until 0115…

IMG_E9780.jpgIn the event, unlike the Highlander, we had the benefit of a lot of slack in our schedule and made up much of the delay. As we approached Edinburgh our expected arrival into Glasgow was given as a respectable 0730 – not too much delayed from our scheduled 0718.

Unfortunately we got held up again outside Edinburgh and then had to wait for staff to come and split the train as we continued on to Glasgow and further slow progress around Motherwell finally arriving into Glasgow Central just now at 0829 this morning – around an hour late – having had to wait for a platform as a late departing Virgin train left.

Not bad considering the three hours and more we were delayed earlier at Euston and Kilburn subsequently spoilt by slow progress since Edinburgh. But the fact we made up a lot of the delay is even more reason to give much more definitive reassurance to passengers (sorry, guests) on board about the delay – rather than nothing being said and a couple of tweets sometime later.

Finally for this post a few observations about the new Mark 5 coaches further to my report on 3rd May:

The keycard worked this time but only because I remembered how to programme it. There were no instructions accompanying or in the plain white envelope. I also asked a member of staff in the lounge car but he had no knowledge. I’m not sure how guests are supposed to know the ‘two tap’ secret – I asked another guest if they had instructions and she said her keycard too was just in a plain envelope.

IMG_E9771.jpgThe side destination panels were wrongly showing our train would be calling at stations on the West Coast Main Line – bit of a basic error that one!IMG_9777.jpgIMG_9778.jpg

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The en-suite toilet flush is very noisy for your next door neighbour.

The intercom/help line is also very noisy – I heard my neighbours ringing tone and conversation very clearly.

The ‘bar stools’ in the lounge car are not very comfortable – more like perch stools.

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On the plus side, my shower worked a treat this time and with nice hot water too.

And you just can’t beat waking up to a sunrise over the east coast as you travel towards Edinburgh…

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… it’s a good job last night wasn’t the grand launch night. There may still be teething problems but I’m sure these will soon settle down and the service will become a Sleeping Beauty and be much admired – if not quite yet.

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Roger French

PS: I’m sure there’s a good reason but I do wonder why trains can’t ‘turn’ at Kilburn Park whenever using the ECML instead of continuing to Wembley; also seemed to me no reason to add all that extra time into the schedule. We could have left almost at the normal time last night … because we effectively did!

PPS: As we approached Glasgow just now there was an onboard announcement made apologising for the delay (’caused by a broken down train in the Wembley area last night’) but this was inaudible in the cabins.

New trains in 2019 Part 3: Sleepers

Thursday 2nd May 2019

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The long awaited Caledonian Sleeper CAF built Mark 5 coaches began running on the Lowland route last Sunday night. I booked myself a ticket and travelled from Euston to Glasgow last night/this morning to see whether the salivating I’d been reading on social media from high profile commentators blessed with their Sunday night complimentary launch journey tickets is justified.

I write ‘long awaited Caledonian Sleeper Mark 5 coaches’ as these are of course another new train set running hopelessly late.

In fact I booked myself a ticket back on 23rd September last year for the inagural journey to Glasgow originally scheduled and advertised for 29th October 2018. In the event Serco, who run the Caledonian Sleeper franchise, decided that was too ambitious an introduction date (as has subsequently proved) so refunded everyone who’d booked and put the official introduction back to Sunday 2nd June 2019. I rebooked my berth for that date and was looking forward to trying out the new facilities in a few weeks time.

Then a couple of weeks ago came news from a Tweet by a reporter on The Scotsman newspaper that the new Sleeper coaches would begin running on the Lowland route to Glasgow and Edinburgh from Sunday 28th April. Well, good for The Scotsman, as Serco’s Caledonian Sleeper’s own communications were distinctly unhelpful with emails and ‘Customer Ambassadors’ (as they’re called) at the Company’s Call Centre still denying any introduction was happening when contacted all last week claiming it was still 2nd June – despite knowing this was completely untrue as all the arrangements were in hand to invite media and sympathetic commentators on board the first journey as well as the inevitable bagpipe player to parade up and down Euston’s Platform 15 as passengers (sorry, guests) boarded.

Meanwhile the Caledonian Sleeper website (and indeed even now, after the introduction of the new trains) still offered only old style berths rather than the super duper (higher priced) en-suite single and double bed innovations they’re so proud of.

I decided not to wait until my 2nd June booking and buy a ticket for last night’s departure from Euston to Glasgow at 2353. Ideally I wanted to travel to Edinburgh but following the Scotsman’s announcement all tickets on that leg mysteriously sold out (well, all the tickets for old style berths had – you couldn’t book the new berths), so I booked to Glasgow instead.

Despite the lengthy period of pre service testing – and all the more so with introductory delays for new trains now the norm, it seems from media reports on Tuesday that not quite everything went to plan on the first journeys.

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My journey began auspiciously; arriving Euston around 2220 to find check-in progressing but “due to technical issues boarding hasn’t commenced”.

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I appreciate it’s all new for everyone including staff but I was a bit disconcerted to not be reassured my berth was one of the en-suite ‘Club’ rooms. It seems these are mixed up among non en-suite ‘Classic’ rooms rather than having one coach devoted entirely to one type of berth. I later found out that’s because it would mean too large a requirement for water tanks for one coach so the limited number of showers are spread throughout the train with a few in each coach, although all four double bed Club berths are together with the two fully accessible berths alongside two accessible toilets in the coach adjacent to the lounge coach.

That all makes sense and I now understand why reception host Ryan, still getting the hang of it all, was only 80% sure I was down for a Club berth.

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It turns out Ryan’s optimism was well placed as Berth N5 did indeed turn out to be a coveted Club berth with en-suite toilet and shower. I reckon it was pure luck I got allocated this as it had been impossible to specify when I booked, so my lucky call.

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Aside from the en-suite area, which is cupboard like in size, half the depth of the berth, with the neighbouring berth having its en-suite cupboard in the other ‘half’, the berth appears to be to a similar size as previously, but has had a much welcome makeover and now sport all important usb and plug sockets, better lighting and controls and a much nicer sink and tap unit.

IMG_6458.jpgThe en-suite itself is a wet room arrangement with a lid over the toilet seat which crucially also keeps the toilet roll dry when the shower is switched on. Instructions are provided about putting the shower mat outside in the berth so your wet feet don’t get the berth floor wet, and it also explains you can shower either sitting or standing.

IMG_6401.jpgWhat it doesn’t tell you is it’s best to use the toilet before taking a shower otherwise the floor will be very wet as not all the water will disappear through the drain in the floor.

IMG_6409.jpgThere’s a bag hanging on the door with the shower mat, a decent size towel and a spare toilet roll. Just a point of detail I found was the toilet roll was so large it was tricky to tear off more than one individual sheet at a time when pulling on it!

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Caledonian Sleeper also provide the usual soaps etc as before and the bed was a great improvement with a comfortable mattress and lovely warm duvet. Naturally the bed width is slimline – I didn’t get to look in at the new double bed berths, and wonder how they fare for a couple. I reckon it will be quite intimate.

There’s also a natty snd cleverly designed small table which pulls out from under the sink.

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The corridors are to their usual width; there’s not much can be fine here of course, but I noticed when the breakfast menus are hanging on the handles it’s easy to knock them all off as you stagger along as the train sways!

IMG_6406.jpgThere’s a great improvement on the design and layout of the lounge car/dining area.

IMG_6380.jpgIt seats around thirty in various combinations including space for a wheelchair user if needed as shown above on the bottom right with two tip up seats.

Again there are usb and plug sockets but not quite so essential with berths now well equipped. In the old days you had to get in early to use one of the few plug sockets available; now battery top up is such a relaxing pleasure on board.

IMG_6381.jpgThe kitchen’s had a complete revamp with ovens and even a toaster alongside the microwaves which were the staple of the old arrangement.

IMG_6382.jpgFinally on facilities, there’s the much improved seating area with reclining seats and overhead lockable lockers.

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Here’s a summary of my overnight travel experience last night and this morning:

IMG_6375.jpgWe boarded at 2240, technical problems resolved. There weren’t any ‘welcome hosts’ on the platform beyond the check-in lecterns but clear digital signs by carriage doors direct you to the right place, I wandered past fourteen of the sixteen carriages to reach my coach which was fifteenth )second from the front) and soon found my berth.

IMG_6376.jpgBerth doors are all unlocked and the hotel style credit card sized key is inside the room with instructions how to activate it so that you can leave your berth and lock it. Sadly mine didn’t work and refused to activate; it wouldn’t even work for a Caledonian Sleeper team member who I met a bit later. Never mind; inevitable teething problems.

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I wondered whether it might be better for activated keys to be handed out at check in as happens in a hotel but appreciate that would mean some equipment at the lecterns which is probably not possible.

IMG_6391.jpgI had a sandwich and drink in the lounge area at about 2300 before it got busy. It was delivered professionally on a plate hiding the fact it was one of those pre-packed sandwiches you find in all supermarkets.

We left Euston spot on time at precisely 2353 and I went to bed, conscious we’d made a stop soon after that at Watford Junction but the next time I stirred to wake up rather than the odd turning over in bed it was about 0530 and we’d passed through Carlisle.

IMG_6408.jpgI decided to give the shower a try at about 0620 but sadly only a minuscule trickle of water came out before it gave up completely. I pressed the ‘Call’ button which makes an embarrassingly loud ringing connection and explained the situation. The steward said she’d come and take a look.

IMG_6410.jpgMeanwhile we reached Carstairs at 0630 and the rear eight coaches bound for Edinburgh were detached and headed east while we continued north to Glasgow soon after 0645 as confirmed by the impressive screens showing route progress at the end of every coach.

IMG_6454.jpgI decided to give up on the shower and headed along to the lounge for breakfast. Spotting a steward I asked if she was the person I spoke to about the shower but it turned out I had been speaking over the intercom to the steward in the Edinburgh portion of the train so fat chance she was going to be able to come by and take a look now!

Breakfast had been ordered the night before but was to the old style menu; luckily I enquired whether toast was now available and was pleased to be served a fresh hot toasted slice and butter within minutes. Apparently new menus are being printed.

IMG_E6456.jpgHeading back to my berth I spotted a member of staff obviously making notes of snagging items so reported my shower and door lock malfunctions and he reassuringly made notes in his book.

I decided to have a quick wash before arriving into Glasgow but there was now no more than a trickle from the tap and the toilet flush had ceased to working. I diagnosed a water shortage.

IMG_6461.jpgWe rolled into Glasgow four minutes ahead of our 0722 scheduled arrival time.

IMG_6463.jpgIt had been an impressive journey and a great improvement on old style Sleeper travelling; and even better I’d paid the old price, which with my Senior Railcard discount was a reasonable £118.80 for the single journey.

Which brings me to pricing. Caledonian Sleeper’s website is offering the new berths from the official 2nd June introduction date, until then its old prices for old berths except you might drop lucky like I did and get an upgrade.

Full price fares from 2nd June to Glasgow begin at £45 for a seat, £140 for a Classic berth (£170 for two sharing with bunk beds), £230 for a Club single en-suite (£280 for two) and £335 for one person in a Club double en-suite rising to £400 for two.

Railcard discounts bring prices for one down to £29.70 (seat), £92.40 (Classic), £151.80 (Club) with no discounts on the Club double.

Comparative full rate prices for Fort William for one are £50 (seat), £210 (Classic), £245 (Club), £395 (Club double). Top whack is two sharing the Club double coming in at £470 and no Railcard discounts. It’ll be interesting to see how many are sold at that price.

Even at these prices there’s a huge subsidy paid by both Scottish and Westminster Governments to keep the Caledonian Sleeper on the tracks. It evokes much passion and is regarded as politically important; never mind that rural bus routes are being decimated and leaving people completely isolated from any public transport for the lack of public funding; here, as long as it needs funds with at least seven figures, if not eight, it’s a vital service to keep going. The fact Serco have just spent £100 million on a fleet of impressive trains for the service just adds to the bizarre nature of our public transport priorities in this country.

Finally a few very minor suggestions….

IMG_6398.jpgReinstate the hangers on the wall mounted coat hooks; they were incredibly useful to hang trousers and other clothes on.

Install liquid soap dispensers by sinks and in the showers as per most budget hotels these days.

Slightly smaller toilet rolls in the en-suite toilets would make for easier use.

Review the supply of water to showers, sinks and toilets.

Remove the contra-vision – it will be so annoying to have views of the beautiful Scottish Highland scenery spoilt.

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Reduce the volume on the call steward intercom.

Connect the intercom to the relevant steward for either Glasgow or Edinburgh portions – even more important for the three way split on the Highland train.

Reintroduce the door-open hooks to enable berth doors to be held open rather than only an auto-close mode.

Consider the implications of issuing door keys at the reception lecterns.

Looking forward to my next trip on the official launch date of 2nd June.

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Roger French