A new dawn for the Caledonian Sleeper

Strachan says Serco is therefore investigating issues surrounding Aberdeen. “It is a very spectacular run. You’ve got Forth Bridge, you’ve got Tay Bridge, the Montrose Basin is an interesting bit of geography, and (on the way) Leuchars for St Andrews. If you like golf, there’s Carnoustie. And I think Dundee is up-and-coming. The redevelopment of the waterfront… I think Dundee will be a great destination.”

Aberdeen is traditionally about the oil industry. Is that the market for the trains? Do they even serve the right area?

“One of the bits of work we’re doing at the moment is trying to understand what the Aberdeen market is doing. You can surmise that given the challenges in the oil-gas sector, that currently the general business travel market may well be depressed. We’ve seen some signs of that. But I want to work with the team and with agencies who will visit Aberdeen, just to understand a bit more.”

A lot of businesses related to that industry are based in Dyce, half a dozen miles north of Aberdeen. Is it worth extending the CS trains there?

“Possibly,” replies Strachan. “Oil flies, it has to fly to get on and off the rigs, and it struck me the last time I was at Dyce - it’s relatively straightforward to get to the Dyce-Bristol helicopter to Dyce Airport and then make that connection to go elsewhere. To get back into the city by train and think about the Sleeper, it might just be too much of a challenge, the way it is at the moment. So I want to understand what is motivating people to do things.”

It’s not just destinations within Scotland that Strachan has been considering. He was at Holyrood on March 10, talking to the cross-party rail group chaired by MSP John Mason, and was asked about new destinations for the Sleepers.

“This is a franchise, this is not an open access operation. We have convinced the Scottish government to co-operate with what we’re operating. But we should always, strategically, have a look.

“If I think back to previous work that’s been done, the West Midlands is an interesting proposition. The challenge proposed to the West Midlands is: can you depart and arrive in both directions at a time that is sensible, and still do what you want to do from a Euston point of view? I think some of us are old enough to remember South West to Scotland trains.”

Could they make a comeback?

“Interestingly, Brian Souter and Martin Griffiths, who are extremely shrewd businessmen, are just pulling Megabus overnight off Cardiff and Scotland, which I thought was quite interesting because there was quite a strong Scottish-Wales link. But if Brian and Martin reckon they can’t make money off South Wales to Scotland, I’d be hesitating to beat them to their word.”

What is the competition for the Sleepers?

“What we have to remember with the Sleeper is… it’s a journey, but it’s overnight. So probably going head-to-head with either air or daytime services is only one bit of the argument. What we’re competing against is people who fly and stay overnight, or do the reverse. Hence why we’re trying to transform it into more of a hospitality thing.”

When Serco won the CS deal, it said that the franchise would offer “an outstanding hospitality service”. What does the company mean by that?

“If you benchmark the best of the welcome, the best food and drink, and translate that onto a service that not only gives you that but also takes you from Scotland or vice versa, that’s what we’re looking for.”

And it’s not just the holidaymaker market that CS is after. Says Strachan: “From a business travel point of view, I think that the business travel market is ever more discerning and less tolerant than people might have been even ten or 15 years ago.”

Nor does he want passengers to think CS is about only the luxury end. “We are still very interested in the overnight market. There’s definitely a market there - with an entry price of just over £23, that’s highly competitive with anything else, and a new train. I think there is a diverse market there that you should ignore at your peril. Let’s not just push it all the way through to the luxury.”

There was some controversy regarding Serco’s CS website that launched in January. This was the first time a new franchise had begun booking tickets before it began operating trains, but there were complaints regarding purchasing supplements and what’s actually available (The Fare Dealer, RAIL 770). Reportedly, the Association of Train Operating Companies has intervened.

Strachan explains: “This was a clear requirement from Transport Scotland, which was around creating excitement and making sure that we didn’t have a booking gap. Because you can just imagine what that would have been like - First running it up to March 31 and we take over on April 1, one website goes off and one website comes on. I think that would be quite challenging, as this is not a normal franchise transition. Also, one of our key commitments was to offer 12-month advance booking, which has never been done before, apart from during the Olympics.”

On this last point, Strachan believes that this is absolutely the right thing to do.

“Particularly the leisure market, and events-driven, people are making their travel choices a long time in advance. If you are going head-to-head with the airlines, not being able to offer something beyond the three-month horizon, you’re already disappointed.”

But are people buying tickets?

“Gosh, yes. It’s very interesting. One of our group board members said: ‘are the bookings in line with expectations?’ I don’t know, because we’ve never done this before, we’ve never put a 12-month booking window out there. We can see what’s happening, but as soon as we launched it we got really strong take-up.”

What about ATOC concerns?

Strachan replies: “They’ve not put those to us directly, if that’s the case.”

He admits that there have been problems, but adds: “By and large, 95% of the feedback we’ve had is very strong. People say they can’t fall into the trap (as they do at the moment) of booking something, and they think they’ve booked a berth when they’ve actually booked a seat - it’s really clear. And the thing we’ve just introduced - we can move your berth, we opened up that last week. It’s like theatre-style booking, so you pick your seat and you can pick your berth.”

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