Subscriber OnlyUK

Drinking wine the trick to surviving an overnight rail ‘sleeper’ service from Scotland to London

Nationalisation of Britain’s railways back on the agenda, but a good night’s sleep is not

An overnight sleeper train conjures up notions of Alfred Hitchcock and Agatha Christie, North by Northwest and Murder on the Orient Express. Yet they are just that: notions, grounded more in romanticism than reality. Modern sleeper trains in Britain are a bit more prosaic.

Recently, I found myself in Glasgow late at night following an interview. After weighing the cost of a hotel plus an early morning train back to London, I decided instead to combine the two by taking the Caledonian Sleeper. It would take almost eight hours, arriving in London Euston at close to 7am.

The adverts made it seem so alluring. The woman in the billboard looked unnaturally refreshed as she woke up in the opposite end of Britain from where she had started. It seemed as if she had slept on a cloud, wrapped in a unicorn’s wings.

Don’t be fooled, a wise friend had warned me. Nobody ever sleeps on a sleeper train — it’s too uncomfortable, bouncing around all night. He advised that, immediately upon boarding, my best bet was to swiftly down red wine in the Club Car as a tranquilliser before going to bed. Then hope for the best.


Passengers were allowed to board just over an hour before the train departed. With the wise man’s advice ringing in my ears, I slung my bag into my Lilliputian cabin and made swiftly for the car with the bar.

Overnight sleeper trains were common in Britain from the mid-1800s and had their heyday in the first half of the 19th century, before motorway travel, faster day trains and, later, budget airlines took their toll. The Caledonian Sleeper routes between London and Scotland are one of only two overnight rail services left in Britain, the other being the London to Cornwall route known, rather intriguingly, as the Night Riviera.

Passengers on the Caledonian Sleeper are guests of the Scottish government — the service was nationalised last year after seven years of a successful stint run by private company, Serco. It was successful in terms of modernisation and investment — the service was upgraded with £150 million spent on new carriages in 2019. But Serco still lost £77 million in its time.

These days the losses belong to taxpayers. Three decades after the privatisation of British Rail under former prime minister John Major, renationalisation of the railways is back in vogue. The Welsh Labour government took Transport for Wales into public ownership in early 2021. The Scottish National Party administration in Edinburgh took over Scotrail in 2022.

Even under the Conservatives, nationalisation is also a trend in England. Prime minister Rishi Sunak took the Transpennine Express back into public ownership last year. The Tories also nationalised Southeastern in 2021, Northern Rail in 2020 and LNER, which runs the crucial east coast mainline service between London and Edinburgh, in 2018. Liz Truss, the story goes, also came within days of nationalising the universally ridiculed Avanti West Coast service 18 months ago.

Heavy losses due to the pandemic, industrial strife and woeful service are to blame for the government interventions. There is more in the post. In coming weeks once its election manifesto is finalised, Labour will publish its policy for Britain’s railways. It has already indicated that nationalisation of much of the network will form the bedrock of its approach.

Back on my overnight Glasgow-to-London jaunt on the Caledonian, the Club Car was initially thronged with people, who all appeared to have the same idea: sink booze to sleep. There were mostly couples, apart from myself and a lone elderly man seated next to me on a stool. I noticed him carefully, delicately, filling out what appeared to be a personal diary.

“I am on the Caledonian Express …,” I saw him begin to write in tiny, perfect lettering. I didn’t peer at his diary any more after that and felt bad that I had done so already. Nor did I ask the old man why he was travelling alone. Maybe he used to travel with someone.

The giggly couple on my other side, meanwhile, complained they had booked a double cabin, but instead had received a twin with bunk beds. Very tiny bunks, which would only fit only one person in each. Staff gave them a £50 food voucher to make up for it. Scant compensation for a journey that would be far less romantic than they’d presumably planned.

The noisy “sleeper” train bumped and jolted its way overnight to London. Rest in my cabin, which was no bigger than a large closet, was painfully elusive. I arrived in Euston in plenty of time for breakfast but yearning for a proper bed.