Sleeper trains in Europe have long been associated with mystery, thanks to Agatha Christie setting her most surprising tale of murder aboard the Orient Express. Waiting at London's Euston Station on a chilly Tuesday evening, I'm confronted with a mystery that's decidedly less dramatic: where is my train?
I'm booked on the Caledonian Sleeper from London to Glasgow, and I'm looking forward to experiencing its brand-new carriages which have recently begun running on the Lowland service. We're supposed to be boarding at 10.30pm for an 11.50pm departure, a civilised practice which allows one to get settled aboard. But when we reach this time, "delayed" is still displayed on concourse screens.
It's a small inconvenience, but one that's cushioned by access to the Virgin Trains lounge at Euston, which is open to sleeper train passengers until 11pm on a weeknight. Upstairs from the throng milling about the concourse, it's a pleasant space with complimentary hot beverages and comfortable seating.
Suddenly a platform number appears on the board, and a surge of passengers lines up to be checked in. This Lowland service is actually two trains that will split in the middle of the night, with one half heading to Glasgow and the other to Edinburgh. Earlier in the evening, the Highland version of the Caledonian Sleeper left Euston, to be similarly split en route into trains to Fort William, Aberdeen and Inverness.
Aside from the Night Riviera between London and Penzance, the Caledonian Sleeper is the last surviving sleeper train in Britain. The future of night trains in Europe is clouded as high-speed alternatives and rising costs lead to the suspension of such services. So sleeper train fans were overjoyed when the Scottish government and the train's private operator announced its 40-year-old carriages would be replaced by new rolling stock, built in Spain and comprising en suite rooms with Wi-Fi and wheelchair access.
The new carriages began rolling on the Lowland routes in April, although teething problems have caused delays and cancellations, and the postponement of the new carriages operating on Highland routes and earlier this week (July 23), staff voted for strike action over working conditions. But now we're boarding I'm dead keen to see the new facilities and test them out
I briefly drop my backpack into my assigned room then head to the lounge bar before all the seats are taken. Starting a sleeper train journey with supper and a drink in the social atmosphere of the bar car makes all the difference to a sleeper journey, in my opinion, no matter how late the hour.
The Club Car, as it's known on the updated train, is a combined bar and dining car with tables along one side, and smaller ledges with stools for solo travellers on the other. I slip into one end of a table for four, happy to share. Because the train has departed late the staff are rushed off their feet with orders, but when handed a menu I'm impressed with the range and quality on offer.
The Caledonian Sleeper makes a point of filling its menu with ingredients from the north, so it's easy to feel a Scottish vibe even as we're navigating the London suburbs. Among the choices are smoked salmon, Highland venison, smoked haddock risotto, and the inevitable haggis, neeps and tatties. I go with celeriac truffle soup followed by macaroni cheese made with cheeses from the Isle of Arran and the Orkney Islands.
The drinks menu has an impressive array of whiskies – nine in total – with detailed tasting notes. While sipping my choice, an Auchentoshan malt, I'm joined by fellow passenger Gareth, who says he's a painter. Once I establish that he paints portraits, not houses, we have a lively conversation about his interesting profession and Australia's Archibald Prize. It's all very cosy and friendly as the lounge car fills up with conversational diners, and there's a buzz in the air as we trundle through the darkness.
It's past 1am by the time I return to my compartment, which is a club room. This accommodation type has one or two bunk beds with an en suite bathroom. The other two sleeping options in the new carriages are the cheaper classic room, without the bathroom; and the more expensive Caledonian double, which has a double bed. The club room and double come with extra perks absent from the classic, such as breakfast and access to station lounges.
Unlocking the door with the key card, I finally have a proper look at the decor and fittings. They're excellent. There's a hint of tartan and tweed in the carpet and wall panelling and practical features such as a pull-out timber table, power points, USB charging slots and a wash basin. Inside a separate alcove is a shower and toilet. As I'm travelling solo the upper bunk is stowed away, providing plenty of head space. I'm happy in my little room – it has all the things you'd expect from a classic sleeper train, updated for the 21st century.
I fill out the breakfast card – something I should have done earlier – and hang it outside the door. Club room passengers can choose to eat the first meal of the day in the lounge bar, but as it's three carriages away I'll be happier eating in my room. Before retiring for the night I notice a problem with the water in the carriage, a mere trickle from my wash basin's tap. But somewhere in the night, perhaps when we uncouple from the Edinburgh train, this problem is solved and the water pressure normalises.
Due to the late departure of the train and my prolonged chatty supper, I don't get to bed until 2.30am. With a scheduled 7.22am arrival at Glasgow, that doesn't leave a lot of time for sleep, but the bed is comfortable and I manage a few hours.
After my morning shower, the attendant knocks on my door and delivers breakfast. I was curious about what the Highland breakfast might be, so ticked that option on the card. It turns out to be your basic full Scottish, a protein-rich hot meal in a ceramic dish on a tray, accompanied by a pot of tea.
The train arrives on schedule at Glasgow Central, having made up time on the way. We're allowed to stay aboard until 8am, so I take time over my packing and reluctantly leave my compact room, after a memorable overnight journey that seemed to take no time at all … but delivered me to another country.
Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Visit Britain.
Qantas flies to London via Singapore. See qantas.com
The Caledonian Sleeper departs nightly except Saturday, in both directions between London and Scotland. Rooms from £140 one way, see sleeper.scot
Radisson Blu Edwardian Grafton offers accommodation within walking distance of London's Euston Station from £167 a night. Z Hotel Glasgow has compact but comfortable rooms near Glasgow Central Station from £35 a night. See radissonblu-edwardian.com; thezhotels.com