Bad weather had scoured northern Scotland all day, and in the smoky golden light of Inverness Rail Station, the platform alongside the Caledonian Sleeper hummed with an air of relief and anticipation. Dense fog and stormy skies, circumstances that would ground an airplane, only add a layer of mystique to a train journey. With a steward in a tweed vest and scarf pointing the way, I boarded carriage L and spilled into my sleeping compartment, my home for the night.
Since February, 1873, there has been a night train carrying passengers between London and Scotland. The Caledonian Sleeper is today the only train making the journey, and has been running almost continuously since 1996, chuntering back and forth between London’s Euston Station and the Scottish Highlands each evening except Saturday, covering the distance over a leisurely 12 hours.
Low-cost airlines were meant to mark the end of the sleeper, and for a time that seemed true – night trains in Spain, Germany and France all saw termination within the past 10 years. But the effect of all those cheap flights exacted its environmental cost in tons of released carbon, which can no longer be ignored.
Flygskam, or “flight shame,” is an anti-flight movement started in Sweden in 2018 that has since taken hold of Europe, turning more and more travellers away from the skies and back onto the rails. Accordingly, tågskryt, a Swedish term for “train brag” was born in 2019.
For my journey, I had brought with me a bottle of chianti and oatcakes from the Orkney Isles, where I’d started my day. But I soon found myself in the club car.
Trains attract perhaps the most diverse passengers of all; you know because you see them living and talking beyond the confines of airline-style chairs. All sorts of people had boarded with me, and most of us made for the club car – a vacationing French family, a businessman who set up camp with his laptop and a quartet of boisterous Scotswomen, who over pink gins and Aperol spritzes created a united front against an absent and intolerable somebody named Eileen. A flushed young couple arrived and ordered a bottle of Champagne with their cheese board. The popping of the cork was like a signal to begin, and the car filled with chatter and laughter. The maître d’ brought the menu, and looking trounced, said there would unfortunately be no haggis available that evening. Being unable to choose haggis – organ meat boiled inside a sheep’s stomach – was a mixed blessing, but out of a sense of Highland solidarity, I chose the next offal thing on the menu, a black pudding skirlie served with chicken breast under a tarragon sauce. It arrived piping hot, and I cut into it with a steel blade the size of a dagger.
The rise of the eco-conscious traveller has pushed several European countries, including Austria and the Netherlands, to enact bans on short-haul flights where a train alternative is available. In France, short-distance flights over distances that can be covered by train in two-and-a-half hours or less are now prohibited. It’s easy to see why: Had I flown, the journey from Inverness to London would have released nearly 200 kilograms of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Instead, the train released only five. If one must brag (or shame, depending on the setting), that’s not a bad place to start.
The Caledonian Sleeper is newly refurbished, and now more akin to a moving hotel than a train, with key-card access, room service, upgraded wi-fi, en-suite showers and double beds with mattresses from the supplier of Buckingham Palace. And the disturbance of late-night carriage shunting is out, with “kissing” Dellner couplers preventing any unwanted bumps in the night.
After supper, I retreated to my cabin for the night. I freshened up in the shower (a tight fit it has to be said, with chillingly cold water, and a self-closing tap that needed to be continually depressed, adding an element of self torture to it all). And then, it was off to sleep.
I awoke at dawn, the blue light rising and lightening from the horizon, revealing slate-roofed farm houses, thickets of plump trees and wet, green fields dotted with sheep. Through the sleeping towns of Tamworth and Atherstone, I drank coffee and counted the few lit windows in sight.
North of London, we stopped a few moments at Rugby. In 1866, on the platform just beyond the window, Charles Dickens drank bad coffee while waiting for a fire in the train he’d been riding to be extinguished. Dickens wrote about the station in his story The Boy at Mugby, which begins, “I am the boy at what is called The Refreshment Room at Mugby Junction, and what’s proudest boast is that it never yet refreshed a mortal being.”
In those latter years of the 19th century, trains were still exotic and mysterious, and contained an essence of the magical. In another story, The Signal-Man, Dickens suggests that a train can move beyond time itself. Arthur Conan Doyle put a disappearing train into his The Story of the Lost Special. Something similar happens, albeit to a person, in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes.
That feeling of removal, that the world is something happening out there, is still alive in the sleeping carriage. It’s a chance to disappear for a night, to slip along the invisible tracks like a strand of necklace lost at dusk only to emerge in the morning looking buffed and polished, and all the more exotic and mysterious for it. Had my fellow bushy-tailed travellers and I undergone such a transformation? As we pulled into Euston Station, and joined the throng of grey-faced commuters starting the workday, I knew we had.
Schedule information about the Caledonian Sleeper can be found at sleeper.scot. Single fares for a room on the overnight route from Inverness to London start at £100 (approximately $170). For advice on the latest COVID information in the U.K., visit travel.gc.ca/destinations/united-kingdom or gov.uk/uk-border-control.
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