A new dawn for Scots Sleepers

Caledonian Sleeper (CS) is Britain’s newest franchise, having been created to take over the operation of the Anglo-Scottish sleepers in March.

While there have been teething troubles with the traction, the CS operation, which
was won by Serco, has set about improving the quality of service for passengers ahead
of a transformation in 2018 when new rolling stock is delivered.

Managing Director Peter Strachan speaks highly of his staff and their desire to learn and improve the quality of service offered. They have had challenges thrown at them. Their first weekend featured trains diverted via the East Coast Main Line due to engineering work. There have also been failures - but Strachan says passenger figures have risen by 10% already. 

Strachan discusses the rise: “There are a number of factors. There is a growing general awareness of the sleeper, and people may be taking advantage of the ability to the book up to 12 months ahead of travel.”

He speaks about the destinations, as CS is focused on all the stations it serves. The company has moved its headquarters to Inverness, with staff following. Strachan says of the Highland capital market: “Inverness has been incredibly strong. We have seen a lot of boardings there and consumption in
lounge cars too.

“There has been a real take-up too in Fort William, to the point where we are looking at increasing capacity if we can. There are certainly days when it is fully booked.” He adds that the West Highland route is busiest in summer. 

But talk of strong performance pleases Strachan: “There is a general resurgence in travel to Scotland.”

This is something that has been growing since summer 2014. “We have seen green shoots since the Commonwealth Games.” CS only began operating on March 31, but it was awarded the franchise in May 2014, and so has been analysing trends and figures ever since, and how it could improve the service offered to passengers.

There is a wide variety of passengers - it isn’t just one market using the sleepers. “We are 50:50 leisure and business,” he says. Strachan points out that there are even commuters on the service, travelling from the Highlands to work in London and then travelling back home at the weekend.

Of course the staff play a major part in the service. He says: “The staff, the people we have who came over from ScotRail, are very, very engaged.

“We ran sessions for them looking at uniforms, and the food and drink we offered.” He says the staff bought into what they were planning, and how it has been executed. He said: “We had an Aberdeen host tweeting how much she liked the uniform. There is a level of engagement I have not seen before.”

The big change comes in 2018 when the present Mk 2 and Mk 3 rolling stock is replaced by the Mk 5 fleet being built by CAF in Beasain, Spain. A mock-up of these all-new vehicles is due this autumn, ahead of their delivery for testing in 2017. They will enter traffic in 2018. The plan is that the coaches will transform the iconic CS service into an outstanding hospitality service that is “emblematic of the best of Scotland.”

Seventy-five carriages will be built by CAF and they are being leased by the specialist rail asset financing arm of Lombard, part of The Royal Bank of Scotland, supported by additional funding from the Scottish Government. CAF will continue to support the new fleet with a contract to supply and manage spares while the coaches will be maintained by Alstom.

The new coaches will offer four innovative ways to travel in comfort on the Sleeper service - cradle seats, pod flatbeds, berths and en suite berths, and will include a brasserie-style club car for dining. Edinburgh-based designer Ian Smith is responsible for creating a contemporary style for the new coaches.

“The mock-up will show all the types of accommodation, rather than being a full vehicle. It is really important to show what they will look like. They are being first class in the way they are working, as is Ian Smith and the design team. 

“When people see these things, they will be impressed,” asserts Strachan.

The cradle seats recline and have footrests. The pod flatbeds will fully recline, from a seat into a bed, and offer a privacy screen and reading light. The berths ensure privacy and personal security, as well as all the facilities modern travellers need. En suite berths are also available, with toilet and shower facilities.

They are replacing carriages dating from the 1970s and 1980s. “We know it is an older vehicle so we have offered new menus, new drinks menus and improved linen and bedding,” says Strachan. “Passengers have
commented on how much nicer the beds are; how much nicer the linen is. 

“Then there is the food. It has gone down really well and the passengers like the fact that it comes from local sources. The feedback has been good.” CS seeks to promote Scottish cuisine. Menus are also themed and changed regularly. 

“We have had theme nights. We had a whisky night recently and that was well received. There has also been an Aberdeen chocolate event.”

Another key area is the passenger lounges at stations. This forms an important part of the whole customer experience for CS: “Inverness has been a huge success. There has been good footfall and we’ve had good feedback about the showers. They’re similar to airline showers and have been compared to the ones on business class flights.”

That comparison is exactly what Strachan wants: “That is the standard we are setting.”

He says CS is also looking at improving the offer for passengers at stations where it doesn’t have lounges. These include Stirling, Perth and Dundee. “Could we replicate there what we have at Inverness? We are looking at Leuchars too, and that would be permanent as there is strong demand from nearby St Andrews.

“I’d also like our own lounge at London Euston .” 

Traction and crews are provided by GB Railfreight in a £100 million 15-year deal. This is a first of its kind for GBRf, which was previously only involved in freight. Its ‘can do’ approach impresses Strachan. 

“GBRf is doing pretty well. The failures are no secret, but GBRf’s team has met the challenge.

“After those early issues, the trains have settled down and we have had some really good weeks.” He recalls an issue with Winchburgh Tunnel, which was closed for 44 days as part of the Edinburgh to Glasgow Improvement Programme, and involved a diversion. The Inverness portion of the Highland Sleeper was detached at Carlisle, but it was a challenge GBRf embraced. “There is genuine care and passion for this,” he says. “I am encouraged by GBRf.”

It’s been a challenging but successful first five months for CS. The franchise was granted by Transport Scotland, which demanded a higher emphasis on quality, and Strachan wants to ensure standards never drop. But where does he see the franchise going and how will it develop? 

“We will continue on the path we are on. We refresh the food seasonally and tweak the menu. We will have the mock-up that will build excitement and attract feedback for the new coaches, and we will look at different ways of managing capacity.

“In the future we will be rolling out new ‘totems’. These are interactive station signs and passengers can use them for information at stations we serve.

“And 2018 will bring a huge difference with
the new trains. The next thing to do is decide how we introduce them.”

Strachan reflects on his role: “It is great fun. Running it is far more fun than planning to run it. I get huge satisfaction from asking people how it is going.” The feedback has been good, CS has worked through the problems, and the excitement for the CAF fleet is growing. CS is on its way to being an iconic part of the Scotland brand.

  • This feature was published in the Scottish supplement of RAIL 783 (September 16 - 29 2015)

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  • FrankH - 07/03/2016 15:26

    It's to be hoped by 2018 when the new stock arrives the class 92's problems have been resolved. They've not been used enough by any operator and storage does them no favours at all.

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  • FrankH - 16/07/2016 00:59

    “And 2018 will bring a huge difference with the new trains" Hopefully better than today, the Inverness portion only goes to Perth then empty stock to Inverness motorail sidings. The Aberdeen portion is cancelled but runs as empty stock to Aberdeen Clayhills, Fort William portion is cancelled and goes to Polmadie.

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