Interviews

26.10.17

A complete step change for sleeper travel

Ahead of the roll-out of new Caledonian Sleeper rolling stock next year, the company’s chairman, Peter Strachan, tells RTM’s Josh Mines about how the trains will transform long-distance travel in the UK.

For most passengers, taking the train is something that has one simple purpose: getting from one place to the other. It’s the job of the operator to ensure that journey is as simple and painless as possible, but as millions of commuters can attest to every day, busy routes and cramped trains mean that often, taking the train is merely a necessity rather than an enjoyable experience.

In the UK, however, Caledonian Sleeper has different ideas for long-distance travel between Scotland and London. The company is currently in the process of testing its brand-new rolling stock that, as chairman Peter Strachan told me, represents a “complete step change” not just for the state of the carriages, but for long-distance travel in the UK more generally.

Putting the sleeper through its paces

Throughout summer and autumn, the new rolling stock moved from Beasain in north Spain, where manufacturer CAF put the carriages together, to Velim, the company’s test track site in the Czech Republic.

When we spoke, Strachan had just arrived back in the UK after taking the first few journeys up and down the test track, and by the sound of it, the initial results are mainly positive – especially with regards to how quiet the trains are, something which is, for obvious reasons, a core element to a successful sleeper train.

“The test takes three main blocks,” he told me. “Static testing is done in the factory in Beasain. We do everything that you can do, including some of the electrical testing and things you can do without being on route.

“The testing in Velim is the first phase of dynamic testing; it’s all the things to do with movement, so the braking, ride quality, noise, and how the vehicle behaves in running conditions. It’s a bit like taking a car on a rolling road, you go round and round and it’s fairly standard.

“Once this phase is complete, testing will begin in the UK, going up and down the West Coast Main Line,” Strachan continued.

“That is just to make sure of all the things you have to test in a UK environment which can’t be replicated on a test track in the Czech Republic, and then things start to fall into place.

“We will then be starting to look at things like automatic door control, GPS positioning and so on, and just looking at responding in UK test conditions.”

Transforming travel in the UK

It makes sense that the testing for the trains is meticulous and calculated. The fleet renewal is the first the TOC has undertaken in years, and represents Caledonian trying to offer passengers between Scotland and London a real alternative to flying. 

“This is a complete step change and transformation in the guest experience of the sleeper,” the chairman said. “The current trains are over 40 years old, and though they have done very well, they are now getting tired.

“But when we see the new vehicles in service, some of the features like an en-suite bathroom or a shower room with a toilet in the club room are there for the very first time in a UK service train – it is a much better, quieter and more comfortable vehicle.”

A hotel on wheels?

The roll-out of the new trains will start from next year, and certainly represents an enormous step forward for Caledonian Sleeper passengers.

New kitchen equipment such as holding ovens, dishwashers, microwaves, refrigerators and coffee machines will put better-quality, more diverse food on the menu for customers, while the introduction of en-suite toilets in some of the rooms have led some reviewers to describe the train as “a hotel on wheels.”

But Strachan was quick to point out that the sleeper should not be seen as a luxury, but rather as a regular service like any other. “It’s not the Orient Express,” he argued.

“It is very much a service train. But for that special occasion, if people are going away for a special anniversary, we do have the double bed suite as well.

“We want the train to appeal to all budgets and all categories of traveller; I don’t want to just pitch it at the luxury end.

“But I think the hotel analogy is a good one. One of the big advantages is that you are saving the cost of the hotel at the other end of your journey.  Many people fly the night before and stay in a hotel or use a day train. So you’re actually getting good value as you’re getting a bed and your travel.”

Ditching the plane for the train

Given the size of this change, a key question that will be answered in the coming months when the trains are put on track is whether this fleet overhaul can encourage more people to travel on the sleeper service. According to Strachan, the company is very optimistic that the new trains can have a big impact.

“We [Serco] have done very well since we took over, and if you look at our last two years of operation our loadings are up 26% from the previous year,” he said. “That’s a very big change in boardings. “There are lots of reasons for that, but principally the service offered and food and drink are attracting people back to the sleeper.

“The new rolling stock will make a big difference. There are a lot of people continuing to fly between London and Scotland who will see the difference with Caledonian Sleeper and take the train.”

Only time will tell whether more people will see the sleeper as a viable alternative to air travel in the future, but there’s no doubt that Caledonian’s new trains will refresh, reinvigorate and modernise services for passengers for years to come.

Comments

Mandrew Fwilt   26/10/2017 at 20:53

Could the cascading of the Mk3s and Mk2s mean they are used on the Marks Tey - Sudbury line? Greater Anglia are going to introduce British Rail Class 745 trains and Class 755 trains. This is totally relevant. Love, Mandrew Fwilt

J, Leicester   27/10/2017 at 08:59

Since they want to compete with domestic flights, it begs the question: I wonder who will be the first to join the Mile Post club in the Double Bed suite? Seriously though, it looks like an incredible train. If only so much thought and attention was put into other modern unit interiors.

Jonathan Land   27/10/2017 at 18:52

Are there any plans to reintroduce a vehicle carrying service, especially motorcycles?

Andrew Gwilt   30/10/2017 at 19:55

Mandrew Fwilt you said it. Not me. Unknown troll.

Mark Hare   06/11/2017 at 11:46

Looking forward to trying out these new sleepers. I've used the existing service many times and always found it very comfortable and the best way to travel to Scotland, particularly nice to wake up in the morning and look out of the window to see the sun coming up over the spectacular Highland scenery on the way to Inverness. The trains are often full and you'll most likely struggle to get a bed on Friday and Sunday nights in high season unless you book far in advance so it will be interesting to see what will happen if Caledonian achieve their objective of encouraging more people to use the sleepers!

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