UK Sleeping Car Trains Under Threat

Published 26th March 2012

Britain’s overnight sleeping car trains are under a funding threat putting their long term future in

LONDON - In the UK, many people’s favourite rail journey is on a sleeper either through the Scottish mountains or across Devon and Cornwall on the Penzance Sleeper.

These trains literally transport passengers to and from the teeming metropolis at Euston, well over 500 miles to Fort William, Inverness and Aberdeen on the same train which splits into three sections. There is still a sleeper linking London, Glasgow and Edinburgh, a journey of around 400 miles and the shortest is between London Paddington and Penzance at around 300 miles.

Sleeper services carry limited accommodation as a compartment only has two beds made up of an upper and lower berth in standard class. First class, or solo is where one passenger has sole occupancy of the compartment.

A choice of continental breakfast or a hot breakfast is included for first class and complimentary hot drinks available to others. Overnight seating accommodation is also offered for budget conscious passengers.

1980's Trains need refurbishing or replacing?

One of the issues is that the sleeping cars date from the early 1980s and the seating coaches, a decade earlier. This means they are due for refurbishment or replacement.

Devolution Douvet Debate

The train service in Scotland is specified by Transport Scotland, and their ‘Rail 2014’ consultation document, published last November 2011 caused angst amongst the rail fraternity. The 2014 date is significant because this is when the Scotrail franchise is due for renewal.

The report said:

There are currently two rail sleeper services operating between Scotland and London. We are considering, in Section 11, a number of options for the future provision of sleeper services, for instance: removing or increasing financial support; and reducing the provision, either through

removing the Highland or Lowland service, or by running the Lowland services to and from Edinburgh only.

Westminster’s Offer

This consultation was followed a few weeks later by the Autumn Statement by the Chancellor who said that £50 million would be made available to ‘replace the Caledonian Sleeper fleet’, conditional on the Scottish Government matching the investment.

Their immediate decision was to say that they would invest a minimum of £50million to upgrade the Anglo-Scottish sleeper services.

Their Minister for Housing and Transport Keith Brown reminded everyone that the Scottish Assembly already provided ‘significant’ government support for the trains and reiterated their plan to ensure a continuing and improving service for passengers beyond 2014’.

In a recent twist, Transport Scotland said that the £50m had been reallocated to other transport schemes. Clarification on the Caledonian Sleeper future will need to be made in time for the refranchising in under two years’ time.

Train Numbers

Ridership in 2010-11 was 274,000, an increase of 31% in the previous five years. The official paperwork suggests that Scottish sleepers cost £21 million a year or around £75 per passenger. These figures exclude track access charges.

These Clearly, ‘replacement’ is not really an option and major refurbishment is the most likely outcome. This could provide some premium berths with en suite facilities but the reduction in the number of berths would make the service even more uneconomic.

The Scottish Sleepers call at 36 stations in Scotland and uses 66 vehicles a day. They are the longest passenger trains in the UK and can only use several platforms at Euston as a result. Each sleeper occupies a platform during the morning peak which with the current amount of trains using Euston restricts services.

The Great Western Sleeper

This, as with the Scottish sleepers also uses 30 year old stock but it’s future is more secure after being in doubt a few years ago. Following a campaign combined with political and consumer pressure meant the service was reprieved and become more popular but is still a loss making enterprise.

It also occupies platform 1 at Paddington in the morning peak constraining capacity there.

The future?

Sleepers will continue for a few years at least. Once HS2 is up and running and the Great Western is electrified, then the need for sleepers may diminish. This is because faster journeys will be available so as in Europe, sleeper use will probably decrease.

Platform occupancy in the morning rush hour at Euston and Paddington is another problem. So, why not use Waterloo International? This is easily accessible from Scotland via Kensington Olympia and from the Great Western via Acton. Waterloo International also has sufficient long platforms available and would provide a use for the station which has remained unused for running trains since November 2007.

New carriages will cost over £2m each and will need en-suite facilities unlike today’s stock. So given that probably at least 80 carriages will be required, someone is looking at investing £160m in the project. It could be that a new franchise is created just operating the sleepers using Waterloo International.

In the meanwhile, as daylight increases, the thrill of travelling by sleeper increases so use them or lose them or just dream-on about the future!

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