Shortly after nine this evening, Britain's most remarkable train will shudder its way out of Euston station in London. It's a struggle to get moving because the 9.15pm overnight train to Scotland is the UK's longest, stretching almost a quarter of a mile, and comprised of rolling stock four decades old. And the fear is that the day is not far off when it ceases to leave at all.
The train's first three stops – Watford Junction, Crewe and Preston – hardly hint at the wonders to come. At the next stop, Edinburgh, no passengers join or leave. But with much shunting and clunking, the Highland Sleeper divides into three, with portions despatched to Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William, each with its own buffet car. The passengers are varied: business people working in Aberdeen's oil industry; civil servants shuttling between London and Inverness, the administrative centre of northern Scotland; and tourists heading for adventure in the West Highlands and Islands.
The payload is the most fortunate in Britain, aesthetically and financially. When dawn breaks, some will awake to find themselves on the line that clings to Scotland's East Coast, other will be high in the Grampians, with great swoops to come on the run down to the Moray Firth. The luckiest will awake to find themselves amid the beautiful desolation of Rannoch Moor, where the West Highland Line is the only form of transport through the wilderness.
Every passenger benefits from massive subsidies. For a bed, breakfast and 500 miles of Britain's most civilised travel, some will have paid as little as £19 – a fraction of the real cost. Each departure of the Highland Sleeper and its Lowland counterpart, serving Edinburgh and Glasgow, earns a subsidy of £17,000, dwarfing the amount raised in fares.
At the time of rail privatisation, intense political pressure ensured the continuation of Caledonian Sleeper services. Overnight links from London to Scotland formed part of the franchise specification. But as spending cuts take effect, the last departure of the 21.15 from Euston could arrive on April Fool's Day, 2014.
That's because in less than three years, both First ScotRail's contract for rail passenger services and the funding arrangements for Network Rail in Scotland expire. Transport Scotland has just published a consultation document on future strategy. At its heart is a "focus on delivering customer outcomes at a lower subsidy cost", which could see northern Scotland disconnected from London.
Passenger demand on the nation's 1,750 miles of railway has risen by a quarter in the past seven years, to 78 million – but the average subsidy to each of those passengers is almost £9, while the typical fare paid is £3.30. In the latest financial year, almost £300m of the annual subvention of £659m went to First ScotRail for running trains, including £21m for the Caledonian Sleepers.
The options being considered include "removing the Highland or Lowland service, or by running the Lowland services to and from Edinburgh only". The latter would anger the business community in Glasgow, who have already seen their flight options to Heathrow cut with the withdrawal of BMI. Another option is to divert the Fort William service to Oban, the hub for the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry service to the Western Isles. Transport Scotland is also considering offering the overnight services as a separate franchise, to encourage new entrants and investment.
The day services connecting Aberdeen and Inverness with London King's Cross are also under threat, to be replaced by an "Edinburgh hub" – with everything north of the capital under Scottish control. Some MSPs were infuriated when, during the extreme weather in England last winter, cancellations of East Coast Trains wrecked the journey plans of hundreds of Scots.
The government is likely to consider closing some stations and removing facilities such as toilets from others. Sixteen Scottish stations handle fewer than 10 passengers a week. Some commuter stations in Glasgow face closure, with 11 "less than one mile from another rail station offering similar services," according to the consultation document. Overall, though, the closures will be balanced with an equal number of new stations. Individual routes could also be targeted. Even in the busy Central Belt, on a typical train between Motherwell and Cumbernauld, nine out of 10 seats are empty.
Best of British sleeper trains...
In the days of British Rail, overnight rail travellers could choose from a wide range of services. North-west England was connected to London with sleeper trains from Liverpool, Manchester and Barrow-in-Furness. Bristol enjoyed an overnight link with Scotland. Following privatisation, the only English destinations for the slumbering traveller are Carlisle (served by the Lowland Sleeper) and Plymouth plus stations in Cornwall on the Night Riviera to Penzance.
Scottish travellers have far more choice, with sleepers stopping at such stations as Garelochhead, Crianlarich and Bridge of Orchy.
...and the greatest journeys on earth
These days you can choose from any of 30 daily flights each way between the former and current Russian capitals, or high-speed trains that cover the 400 rail miles in four hours. But one consequence of capitalism is that the traveller can choose from seven competing overnight trains, taking a civilised eight hours and offering indulgences fit for a tsar.
Despite the encroachment of low-cost airlines, Indian Railways remains the world's biggest transport undertaking – and dining, then being lilted to sleep on an overnight train between the two great cities, is an excellent way to acquaint yourself with the country.
The railroads built America, but its people have largely turned their backs on trains. Nevertheless the massively subsidised Amtrak organisation still runs some overnight services, such as this 18-hour marathon, the Capitol Limited. With a mid-afternoon departure from Washington and a 9am arrival in Chicago, the journey allows plenty of daylight for sightseeing.