Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Anglo-Scottish Sleepers by David Meara

The Northbound London-Fort William Sleeper approaching the Cruach Snowshed between Rannoch and Corrour stations on the morning of 7 January 2010, running an hour late due to iced points. (Norman McNab, Anglo-Scottish Sleepers, Amberley Publishing)

Paul Theroux’s amusing quotation, from his book The Great Railway Bazaar, sums up the sense of anticipation that a long railway journey encourages. I remember very well that sense of excitement when as a twelve year old boy I boarded the Royal Highlander at Euston Station to travel north to Inverness at the beginning of our summer holidays. It is an excitement that I was keen to recapture when I began writing my book on the Anglo-Scottish sleeper trains about two years ago. I knew that Serco, the new operator of the Caledonian Sleeper, was committed to improving the service, and together with the Scottish Government were investing £100 million into an enhanced experience and brand new rolling stock, and it occurred to me that no attractive and accessible history of the sleeper service existed. Having spotted a gap in the market I decided to do some research and see what I could find.

 

 

Sleeping cars waiting for their passengers on Platform 1 at Euston station. (Author's Collection, Anglo-Scottish Sleepers, Amberley Publishing)

The National Railway Museum was my first port of call, as they hold a big archive of books, leaflets and posters, of all of which I made good use of. Much of the detailed history is to be found in specialist railway magazines and books on the rolling stock of the individual railway companies that existed before nationalisation. There are also a few preserved sleeper carriages, both at the National Railway Museum and elsewhere. I wanted to write a social, rather than a technical history, and the atmosphere and style of the heyday of sleeper travel is best captured in period photographs and the wonderful posters which the ‘Big Four’ companies commissioned, often from well-known artists, to advertise and promote their services. The National Railway Museum holds a comprehensive collection of railway posters, and thanks to the help of Philip I have made good use of these in my book.

I also wanted to describe travelling on each of the Highland Sleeper routes, to Fort William, Inverness and Aberdeen. So I booked myself onto the sleeper and did a round trip, travelling north to Aberdeen, across by train to Inverness, and on by bus to Fort William, from where I took the southbound sleeper back to London Euston. There is nothing on our railway network quite like settling into the sleeper lounge car, with a glass of malt whisky beside you, haggis, neeps and tatties being prepared in the galley, and the glorious expanse of Rannoch Moor unfolding before you in the evening sunshine.

The northbound London to Fort William Sleeper passing through the remote Gorton loop on 1 May 2015 at 8.28 a.m., pulled by a Class 67 locomotive, Cairn Gorm, in the new Serco Midnight Teal livery. (Norman McNab, Anglo-Scottish Sleepers, Amberley Publishing)

But one element was missing, and that was a selection of stories from the many thousands of people who have used the sleeper over the years. Their experiences would bring a book like this to life as well as providing valuable insights into the experience of the sleeper operation.  Happily a letter to ‘The Times’ helped to solve that problem, and thanks to a friendly ‘Times’ columnist I was inundated with all kinds of stories and anecdotes, funny, saucy, romantic and peculiar, which brings the story of the Anglo-Scottish Sleeper service to life, and reveal the great affection people have for the service.  From being the exclusive preserve of the grouse shooting gentry it has evolved over the years into a wonderfully democratic community of travellers, from business people to backpackers, and just occasionally the sportsman off to his Highland estate to escape the rigours of City life. The lounge car remains the social centre of the train, and has been the setting for many convivial gatherings, late night conversations, even an impromptu ceilidh or two. Hopefully the impressive improvements which Serco are introducing will not spoil this special feeling of being both on a working train and on a journey with a real sense of occasion and excitement about it.

David Meara's new book Anglo-Scottish Sleepers is available for purchase now.