Overnight rail travel in the UK has long been a case of utilitarian convenience. Travelling between London and Scotland for morning meetings has forced business travellers to decide between a sleep-deprivingly early, potentially delayed flight the morning of a meeting, travelling the day before, or taking the sleeper train. But Caledonian Sleeper operator Serco is looking to change that with the first product that feels like business class.
Inside the existing product, the carriages feel like they haven’t changed in the last thirty years, perhaps because that’s how old they are. A narrow bunk and a budget hotel feel don’t scream “the glamour of rail’s heyday”, and luxury hasn’t been on the cards. But with a brand new set of carriages set to start arriving in 2018–19, the Serco-operated Caledonian Sleeper is giving travellers a taste of things to come.
The now-elderly Mark 3 carriages — which ceased production almost twenty years ago and have seen only superficial refreshes since — will be replaced by the new Mark 5 product, which will have all the fixtures and fittings expected by the high-value passengers Serco wants to attract.
That’s what Serco is exhibiting today: prototypes of the next generation of sleeper train.
More than anything else, it feels like the real upgrade from a passenger experience perspective is the overall sense of a premium approach. Gone are the much-repainted original flip-up sink/surface combos, the institutional-white rooms and the expanses of lavender plastic and felt-like industrial carpeting across the cabin. The foot-constraining lower bunk table area has also disappeared.
Here’s the old product, in a video from go-to rail expert Mark Smith, “the man in seat 61”:
The new: modern, more elegant surfaces, broken up with a variety of materials (and with a premium feel to them) in order to avoid the youth hostel chic of the old carriages. A hotel-style sink. Power sockets. And, as an option, a double bed.
The upper and lower bunks remain in the sleeper’s standard class, as does the first class product. Yet a three-person cabin — double bed below, single bunk above — opens the door to families with odd numbers of children, older travellers, less mobile passengers or just couples not wanting to sleep in bunks. Accessible rooms, too, are available, as are en-suite rooms with their own lavatories and showers.
Elsewhere in the train: a new concept lounge car, with comfortable booth style seating and expanded dining options. Wifi Internet will also be available throughout, as will keycard-style entry to each berth. Notably, the sleeper will also include as-yet-unveiled airline business class style pods.
Indeed, apart from the general improvements, the new version of the Caledonian is starting to approach some of the levels of luxury offered in longhaul business class in aviation. Indeed, Guest Experience Director Ryan Flaherty spoke at the Passenger Experience Conference the day before the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg earlier this year, showing just how close the two experiences are getting — very much to the advantage of passengers.