For a service selling a good night's sleep, the interesting list of defects published this week is unlikely to promote sweet dreams: “Smoke detectors disconnected, toilets inoperable, lighting and heating systems not working.” No, not my home, but one of my favourite forms of transport: the civilised, time-saving and stress-free Caledonian Sleeper that links London with the cities, coast and countryside of Scotland.
The overnight sleeper is the best idea the Victorians ever had, covering 400 miles between the Scottish and English capitals in the blink of an eye. Earlier this year, the franchise connecting Euston with Edinburgh and Watford with Fort William was assigned to Serco. The new operator promises brand new rolling stock to usher Anglo-Scottish passengers into the 21st century. But, according to the RMT union, the existing 30- to 40-year-old carriages are on their last legs. That Sleeper snag summary continues: “Pungent smell from toilets and an issue with batteries under some coaches also giving off a strong smell.” And it asserts that “wheel flats” have led to some trains being cancelled, with passengers consigned to buses.
Peter Strachan, managing director of the Caledonian Sleeper, insists: “All the issues that have been raised by the RMT have either been resolved or are in the process of being resolved through a robust and detailed repair and maintenance plan.” Nevertheless, union members working on the trains have voted to strike. No sleepers will run from 22 to 26 December.
The gold standard
Happily, an alternative awaits for travellers hoping to sleep their way between England and Scotland. It is a night bus of the kind, I venture, you have never experienced. It is a double-deck maroon and gold coach kitted with bunk beds in the manner of a mobile youth hostel. It belongs to Megabus Gold, the upmarket branch of the blue-and-yellow Megabus, and it is a transport of modest delight offering absurdly low fares considering that each vehicle costs £450,000.
Trains trump buses (and planes), but there are limits. I needed to book an overnight midweek trip from Edinburgh to London a month ahead. The Caledonian Sleeper wanted £115. Megabus Gold asked for just £29.50, so I signed up.
Edinburgh bus station has a certain East Berlinesque bleakness beneath glaring fluorescent lights. But I spent almost no time there. The bus was due to leave at 10.45pm. I turned up a quarter of an hour ahead, and the driver said: “We've got everyone now, so we'll call Control and see if we can leave early.” That doesn't happen on trains.
Before departure, the other driver made sure everyone was safely tucked in by netting. Then we were off, sweeping through the Borders to Cumbria, then lilting through English counties in the manner of an old-style Royal Mail sorting office: Lancs, Cheshire, Staffs, Warks, Northants, Bucks, Beds … which is roughly where I woke up in mine, the corrugations of the M1 not being entirely conducive to deep slumbers.
Joining the capital's rush hour while lying in bed was strange, but the bus rolled into Victoria Coach Station half-an-hour ahead of schedule, and we passengers rolled out of our beds, blinking, into the metropolitan murk. The Megabus trip proved less silky smooth than the train – but it was just as quick as the Caledonian Sleeper.
Train to plane: a pain
“Confusion, frustration, disruption, discomfort and anxiety” – not Christmas Day at home, but the Office of Rail Regulation's assessment of the effects of the monumental snarl-up by Network Rail last December. In 2014, over-running engineering work on the Great Western and East Coast main lines wrecked hundreds of thousands of travellers' plans. This year, it's the turn of passengers on the London-Gatwick line. From Christmas Eve to 4 January, Purley will be replaced by a large hole in the ground, while many trains are replaced by buses. Good luck, everyone.
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