Despite many threats to cancel or restrict services over the years, two sleeper trains remain in Britain. Recent refurbishments to both suggest that these marvellous rail journeys are here to stay.
The best-known overnight train service in Britain is the Caledonian Sleeper, an overnight service between Euston station and Scotland. Despite frequent flights between London and both Glasgow and Edinburgh, this article by the Independent.co.uk explains why many business and leisure travellers still prefer to go by rail. Comfortable beds, reliable schedules and time to relax are all reasons for avoiding the airport, and taking to the tracks.
The second overnight train service is called the Night Riviera, running between London Paddington and Penzance, Cornwall. Operated by the train company Great Western Railway (GWR), it was recently chosen as one of 10 romantic sleeper trains that still survive by the Telegraph.co.uk.
This is a route our family knows well since we frequently use it after visiting my in-laws in Cornwall. The train provides an excellent link to Heathrow airport via Paddington, and the slow, bumpy journey also provides a welcome few hours to decompress and reflect in “no man’s land”, after our tearful goodbyes.
Sad farewells aside, there’s something wonderfully luxurious about taking a night train, which is an affordable choice when using a Britrail Pass.
The amenity kits provided by GWR are high quality. On our recent journey, a small green box on each bunk contained a cotton facecloth (“flannel”, if you’re local), plus locally sourced soap and lip balm infused with essential oils.
Although the cabins are compact (each cabin houses two people, but some rooms can be joined to create a suite), each bunk is comfortable. One caution is that although children under 5 travel free, trying to squeeze into a bunk with your 4-year-old is impossible, unless you are elfin-size. It’s recommended that everyone, even children, get their own bunk. (Yes, I speak from experience).
The newly refurbished bunks on the Night Riviera are clean and modern, compared to the ageing 1980’s purple units they are gradually replacing. Lighting and temperature controls are located at arm’s reach; the ladder for the top bunk is a neat swing-out, rather than a bulky clip-on. The sink, when not in use, is covered to transform into a handy table.
The train from Cornwall arrives in Paddington before the crack of dawn, but passengers are permitted to stay on board, asleep until about 7 o’ clock. A knock on the cabin door by the train attendant signals wake-up time.
The knock is accompanied by a breakfast, ordered the night before: tea or coffee with a bacon sandwich.
One of the most magical aspects of the journey is this quiet arrival at Paddington when nearly everyone else in London is still in bed. The sound of a single set of heels clacking on the concrete and pigeons fluttering is about all you’ll hear compared to later in the day when the din of thousands of commuters becomes a dull roar.
Even the temperature and smell of the station is different when there is no one around – and the light is magical. London at its strangest.
GWR sleeper passengers are given access to the First Class lounge, which serves coffee, tea, fruit and light snacks. The lounge also has a place to store luggage, or use your laptop. For those connecting to Heathrow, the Heathrow Express or the Heathrow Connect is only a few platforms away.
Any family adventure in Europe or Great Britain should include at least one night on a sleeper train. Besides being an efficient and affordable way to move between cities, the night train is a magical, atmospheric experience that children will never forget.
Helen Earley is a Halifax-based travel writer.
She travelled using the Britrail flexipass with assistance from ACP Rail International.