In contrast to mainland Europe, the UK is committed to investing in its overnight train services, with older trains being refurbished and new rolling stock acquired.

While taking the night train has always had a romantic allure, over in mainland Europe overnight trains are in decline. Most have been axed altogether. As well as Germany’s Deutsche Bahn (DB), we find that France’s SNCF has also cut all its key services, including the hotel-standard Elipsos, which operated between Paris, Barcelona and Madrid.

Thankfully, Thello (operated by Italy’s Trenitalia rather than SNCF) remains in operation, linking Paris and southern France with cities in northern Italy. But Thello’s rolling stock is not up to the latest standards (although a number of premium cabins with shower and toilet are now offered).

A good example of the UK’s renovation of older sleeping cars can be seen at GWR (Great Western Railway), whose Night Riviera service has been given a new lease of life. A total of ten sleeper coaches operate this service between London Paddington and Penzance, with five coaches operating the service in each direction.

Night Riviera departs Paddington just before midnight, arriving into Penzance the following morning at 0755. In the return direction it departs Penzance 2145 Monday to Friday and 2115 on Sundays for an early morning arrival into Paddington, with passengers allowed to stay on board until 0700. There are numerous en route stops at points not served by air travel.

GWR is refurbishing these coaches to a high standard, bringing them in line with the needs of today’s travellers. So alongside more comfortable bedding, there are other touches such as wifi, keycard door locks and improved lighting. Adding to the appeal are lounges at Paddington with others to follow this year at Truro and Penzance. While some travellers will miss the en suite toilets and showers, these facilities are available at the Paddington lounge.

Serving Scotland, the Caledonian Sleeper has taken a different tack. Rather than refurbishing its British Rail-era rolling stock, Serco (which holds the franchise) has spent £100 million on a fleet of 75 state-of-the-art coaches the like of which have never been seen in the UK. Part of this has been funded by a £60 million grant from the Scottish government. Hopes are that it will bolster tourism to Scotland, especially from high-spending overseas visitors.

The first batch of the new sleeper coaches (which are built by CAF of Spain) has now arrived in Glasgow, where they will be fitted out prior to entering Lowlander service (see below) in October 2018.

Caledonian Sleeper departs from London Euston in either the mid- or late-evening depending on the route. This gives either an early- or mid-morning arrival in Scotland and the same applies in the reverse direction.

Lowlander services (which will be the first with new stock) operate to Edinburgh and Glasgow. Highlander services run to Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William.

The big advantages of the Caledonian Sleeper are the savings on time (compared to daytime travel) and accommodation costs (especially in London), plus the fact that the Highlander services call at many towns and rural communities not served by air travel. As such, the Highlander services especially appeal to Scottish parliamentarians, rural Scots with business in the Big Smoke, plus leisure travellers; Lowlanders are for inter-city business and leisure.

These CAF sleepers offer hotel-standard interiors, and it will be the first time such luxuries have been found in the UK. That said, only the more expensive accommodation (Club rooms and upwards) will come with en-suite showers and toilets. Other features will include wifi and charging panels. As with the Penzance sleeper, lounge use is available at a number of stations.

Peter Strachan, chairman of Serco Caledonian Scot, says, “We believe the new Caledonian Sleeper trains will truly set a new standard in overnight travel and we have worked closely with Transport Scotland on their developments since taking over the franchise in 2015.”

Austria’s OBB to the rescue

Two years ago Business Traveller reported that Germany’s Deutsche Bahn (DB) would be axeing all its overnight sleeper trains because they
were loss-making.

Our feature elicited much comment from readers who were sad to see the trains being withdrawn. It seemed the wrong decision in light of the green agenda, the fact that DB’s international trains served so many business routes and, last but not least, at that time DB was operating the most modern and comfortable overnight trains.

However, a saviour emerged late in 2016 in the shape of OBB (the Austrian Federal Railways). OBB absorbed the most important services from DB, and also acquired the DB rolling stock. Services were rebranded Nightjet.

It now means OBB is easily Europe’s largest operator of international sleeper trains with a network radiating from Austria and Switzerland to Germany, Italy, Budapest and Slovenia.