Scotland’s Caledonian Sleeper operators tossed out of bed
The Scottish government has stepped in to run the troubled overnight services from Scotland. It is lights out on Serco, the second and final franchise operators of the overnight rail service between Scotland and London. The troubled Caledonian Sleeper, which connects more than a dozen principal destinations in Scotland with London, has failed to live up to expectations, and been repeatedly criticised in the Scottish parliament. The service, although popular with many regular users, has been beset with problems and the government has finally decided its time to change the sheets and take on the so-called hotel on rails all by itself.
As of the end of June, it will be Scottish ministers tucking in slumbering passengers on the Caledonian Sleeper. Despite (or perhaps, according to critics, because of) a multi-million pound regeneration, including brand new rolling stock in 2019. The complicated collection of trains that form the Caledonian Sleeper services have failed repeatedly to give government officials at Holyrood a restful night. They’ve decided to pull the plug and take the services into public ownership from the end of June. The decision follows on from a similar fate handed down to Abellio, who ran ScotRail, the waking hours passenger operator in Scotland.
A gently rocking night
Today is has been announced that the Scottish Government have decided to appoint a public body to manage and operate Caledonian Sleeper, known as Scottish Rail Holdings (SRH). This follows the announcement on 5 October 2022 of the Scottish Government’s decision to terminate Serco’s Franchise Agreement on 25 June 2023. The announcement, made by the Scottish Transport Secretary Jenny Gilruth MSP in the Scottish Parliament, has been hailed as a victory by critics, campaigners and the unions, all of whom have lobbied for the service to be brought into public ownership. However, despite already having taken charge of the ScotRail passenger franchise, the government in Holyrood has said it will form yet another “arms length” company to run the sleepers.
Caledonian Sleeper is the brand name for what is actually a collection of trains that connect a large number of communities in Scotland with destinations around London. Northbound, three trains depart every night (except Saturday) from Euston. After a call at Watford, slumbering passengers (or those not frequenting the all-night club car) can generally expect a gently rocking night until a stop at Carlisle, and then a series of marshalling manoeuvres in Scotland to distribute coaches to forty-three destinations including Glasgow, Edinburgh, Fort William, Aberdeen and Inverness.
Unexpected round trip
The Caledonian Sleeper service has been frequently in the news, not often for good reasons. Long-running disputes with the unions have been compounded by traction failures and protected teething problems with the expensively procured new rolling stock, which proved too hot in summer and too cold in winter and, on one occasion, delivered a Glasgow boarding passenger to an arrival ten hours later – in Glasgow, when his presence on the failed train went unnoticed. Also, an Edinburgh train overran the platforms and became the subject of an accident investigation in 2019.
Announcing her decision to the Scottish Parliament, the transport secretary Jenny Gilruth said the announcement followed on from her removal of the franchise last October from the current operators Serco. “From 25 June this year, the Caledonian Sleeper service will be provided by an arm’s-length company of the Scottish Government, in line with our duty as operator of last resort”, she said. For their part, operators Serco said services will continue to operate as normal. “Guests will be able to experience the excellent service that our dedicated onboard teams are recognised for delivering”, they said in a statement on their website. The only other surviving sleeper service in the UK is the “Cornish Riviera” between London and the south west of England, terminating at Penzance.