Foul play on the sleeper to Fort William

Even the sheep turned nasty, demanding free champagne with their complimentary dinner
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The Independent Culture
DON'T TALK to me about train journeys from hell. There's no point - you wouldn't get a word in edgeways. I collect nightmare train journeys as other people collect beer-mats and while my sympathy genuinely goes out to the woman who took 18 hours and five changes to get from Macclesfield to Eastbourne last week (though why anyone should chose to make such a recherche journey I can't say), compared to my litany of disasters she was joy-riding.

I see ScotRail came out pretty well in the latest rail league tables for punctuality and reliability. Never mind punctuality and reliability, what about availability? It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a harassed mother with a family railcard to book four sleepers to Fort William. I know because I have been trying to do this for three weeks ever since the fisherman who lives down the road from our holiday house on an island in Loch Linnhe telephoned to say that our roof was blowing off.

When we started building the house seven years ago, you could jump on the sleeper to Fort William as easily, probably more easily than jumping on a number 11 bus. Now the Aberdeen, Fort William and Inverness sleepers have all been lumped together into one long train which, like the many- headed Hydra, divides somewhere west of Edinburgh in the small hours of the morning leaving just one solitary sleeping car to trundle away to the West Highlands.

It doesn't even have a luggage van anymore. Bicycles, backpacks, cat- basket - they all have to go into your sleeper with you. None of this matters because taking the sleeper to Fort William has to be one of the most exhilarating experiences on earth. The discomfort of climbing over two mountain bikes to get to the basin to brush your teeth palls into insignificance when you gaze out of the window at Monassie Gorge or the snow-capped peaks of Aonach Mr.

There is an alternative if the Fort William sleeper is full. You can get the Virgin West Coast sleeper to Glasgow and continue your journey by bus or local train. You can, but if I were you, I wouldn't. I did it one summer and bear the scars to this day. We were coming back from the island. We had taken the post-bus to the ferry, the ferry to Oban, the Sprinter to Glasgow and having fortified ourselves with fish suppers at The Blue Lagoon, we were now, at 10.30pm, ready to board the train at Glasgow Central.

There it stood at platform one, doors invitingly open, buffet car already full of late-night tipplers.

Then came the announcement. The sleeper had been cancelled. We would all be put up at the Station Hotel and flown to London in the morning. Why had it been cancelled? No one seemed to know. There was dark talk of foul play in a siding at Watford Gap. There was darker talk that there simply weren't enough passengers to justify running a whole sleeper to Euston.

All told we numbered around 20 and immediately polarised into two groups, sheep and goats. The sheep said they'd go to the hotel, the goats said they wouldn't. It was now midnight. The hotel would include complimentary dinner, breakfast and use of the gym. The Virgin spokesman coaxed the goats. "What about women?" someone shouted. The goats stood firm. One of them had telephoned the Watford Gap siding and discovered there was no foul play. Virgin just didn't want to run the train. Tempers rose, the kids in the party were curled up on the platform asleep.

Even the sheep were turning nasty, demanding free champagne with their complimentary dinner and free facials in the morning. Never mind facials, what about fulfilling their statutory obligations and getting us to London on the sleeper? shouted the goats.

In the end we compromised. Virgin would take us to London but not on that particular train. No, it wouldn't exactly be a sleeper but they would give us free tea and coffee and half-bottles of wine to make up for any inconvenience. At 2.45am a very old, very shabby train shambled slowly up to platform one. You could see the driver wiping the grime from the windscreen. You could write your name in the dust on the tables. We were issued with blankets, the heating wasn't working, and shortly before 3am we inched our way slowly south out of Glasgow Central.

"I wish you'd all stop knocking Virgin," said a man I know who designs greenhouses. "I took the Virgin cross-country from Haslemere to Leamington Spa the other day and it was brilliant - dead on time, trolley service," Heslemere to Leamington Spa? Macclesfield to Eastbourne? No wonder the Virgin West Coast Line isn't up to scratch. They have just got too much on their plate.