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It is hard to say precisely when on Monday the promise of revived romance aboard Britain’s oldest night train came closest to derailing.
Perhaps it was at 11pm when, with no train to be seen, the first class lounge at Euston station shut its doors. Passengers who had been planning to board the newly relaunched Caledonian Sleeper at 10pm for haggis and a nightcap plodded instead on to Euston’s cold and emptying concourse. Perhaps it came at about 11.30pm, in Upper Crust, the only station café still open.
The senior communications officer from Serco, the outsourcing giant that runs the service, found himself positioned beside the tills, repeatedly tapping the payment machine with his credit card as passengers lined up for a consolation cup of tea and/or baguette. Or perhaps it came at about midnight, when Upper Crust shut too, and our shiny new train to Scotland was still stuck at a rail depot in Wembley.
“If the old train were sitting at the next platform ready to go, we’d all get on it,” said Michael Steed, a tax consultant from Kent who had meetings in Edinburgh the next morning. By 1am, all 16 gleaming carriages of the sleeper had finally rolled in at platform 15 and passengers were invited to board. The singular mix of weary resignation and wry humour that clings like wet leaves to the UK’s rail network turned fleetingly to hope.
Now, we were stepping into a new chapter for British sleeper trains, three hours after the doors were due to open, a year after the planned launch of the new carriages — and 145 years after rail travellers first snored their way between Scotland and England.
The Caledonian Sleeper heading for the Forth Rail Bridge © Peter Devlin With the help of a £60m subsidy from Scotland’s government, Serco has spent £150m replacing 75 ageing, utilitarian carriages that have served passengers for almost 40 years.
Construction and testing delays at the Spanish manufacturer saw the launch being repeatedly postponed, but last week they entered service on Lowlander trains, which run between London and Glasgow or Edinburgh. Highlander trains to Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William are due to get the new carriages next month. The best cabins include double beds, en-suite bathrooms and mattresses from the supplier to the Queen.
The Scottish government wants to offer business passengers and tourists a smoother, plusher and more sophisticated welcome, while also evoking a golden age of rail travel best romanticised by Agatha Christie (but without the silk lampshades or murders).
But anyone launching a costly project with a big marketing budget on Britain’s railways is perhaps inviting trouble. The problems for Serco’s grand launch had started the night before. The bagpipes were out for the ceremonial first run of the trains on Sunday evening. Rupert Soames, Serco’s CEO and grandson of Winston Churchill, climbed aboard in Glasgow with Scottish MPs. But a signal failure at Carstairs resulted in an almost three-hour delay in London.
The northbound services were also late, and there were reports of mixed-up bookings and a butter shortage. “I’ve just chatted to Network Rail and they were mortified that it happened on our launch night,” Ryan Flaherty, who manages the service for Serco, told me by phone on Monday morning.
This article first appeared on www.ft.com
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