Ben Nevis sits cloaked in cloud the color of charcoal as the Caledonian Sleeper jolts out of Fort William station. It’s one of those Scottish nights when you’re not sure if dusk fell or was pushed by the abominable weather.

The train gathers speed, leaving the warm glow of the town center behind, as it rattles through dreary housing estates and into the rolling hills of the Highlands. A hush falls over the dining cart as faces press against steamy windows and eyes flicker at passing scenery.

The melancholic landscapes – their bleak indifference still evident in the fading light – contrasts wildly with the warmth and cheer on the Caledonian Sleeper, the name given to the overnight sleeper train service connecting London and Scotland. I’d hopped aboard under the pretence of finding out if this is Britain’s best train journey. Really, I’m on vacation with my wife. We’re traveling first-class as a treat.

As the train settles into a gentle rhythm, the dining cart comes to life. A youngish couple interact playfully with their inquisitive kids, two lovers share private jokes over wine and a group of rugged, twenty-something-year-old men, who’ve spent the last four days stomping through sodden landscapes, head-to-toe in Gore-Tex, chat about their trip.

They tell us how they trekked to Fort William from the UK’s highest railway station, Corrour, which this train will soon pass through. "The hardship got to me," confesses one, who introduces himself as Oliver. "Even at high elevations we were walking through bogs. It was tough going."

Nursing bottles of beer the four men look contemplatively out of the windows as, in a matter of minutes, the train unravels the landscapes they took days to conquer.

The Caledonian Sleeper rumbles along a section of track in Scotland with wide green fields located on either side of the track
The famous train actually plies two different routes, one from London to Fort William and the other to Edinburgh © Construction Photography / Avalon / Getty Images

Oblivious to the scenery and the men’s adventure – and anything else on the train, in fact – is the woman sat opposite me, who merrily shovels macaroni cheese into her mouth while glued to her iPad.

We go full Scottish with our dinner: haggis, neeps and tatties, washed down with Laphroaig 10 year. The good stuff. The whiskey, I figure, will send us into a deep slumber when we retire to our cabin. That proves wishful thinking. Lying in bed that night, listening to the rat-a-tat-tat of the railway, I muse that a more apt moniker for the train might be the Caledonian Insomnia. It’s at that point my wife starts snoring.

There are a few things you need to know before traveling on the Caledonian Sleeper. One, it’s not a single train. There are two services: The Highlander, which links London with Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William, with a few stops in between; and The Lowlander, which connects the English capital with Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Both the 16-car sleepers depart London late at night and both stop at some ungodly hour, somewhere in Scotland, to be dissected: The Highlander is split into three and the Lowlander two. These severed services then go on to their respective destinations with the reverse happening on the return leg.

Deep-sleeping passengers don’t notice any of this, but I’m not a deep sleeper and on the outbound leg had been roused from my slumber as the carriages and their human cargo were shunted around. My wife hadn’t stirred.

The interior of a double cabin on the Caledonian Sleeper, with sink and large double bed visible
The Caledonian Sleeper underwent a £150 million revamp in 2019 © Caledonian Sleeper

Competition from low-cost airlines and high-speed railways had driven many overnighters into the buffers, but sleeper trains are now making a comeback in Europe. Britain is blessed with two such services: the Caledonian Sleeper and the Night Riviera, which rattles between London and Penzance, Cornwall. In what many see as a vote of confidence in Britain’s overnighters, both services have been given overhauls of late, with £150 million being ploughed into the Caledonian Sleeper in 2019 alone.

The train’s refurbished hotel-style en suite cabins feature double beds. But it's not just the high-end rooms that received attention – both the Classic Rooms and Club Rooms (both sporting bunk beds) were given the once over, while the reclining chairs in seating class (the cheapest tickets) were completely redesigned, now boasting personal lockers, reading lights and charging points. It’s these touches that the company running the service hoped would elevate the Caledonian’s reputation among rail enthusiasts to one of the best train rides in Britain, and perhaps even Europe (though Norway will likely have something to say about that).

In a country where grumbling about the railways is a national sport – and commuter services are synonymous with overcrowding and poor value for money – the Caledonian Sleeper clings defiantly to the Golden Age of rail travel. It’s an old romantic, an anachronism.

Mercifully, I manage to catch a few ZZZs in the end, nodding off somewhere around Cumbria. To say I arrive in London feeling refreshed, though, is pushing it.

We are sent into the day with breakfast in bed – Scottish smoked salmon and eggs – which we scoff before joining the morning commuters in the English capital. They have the same bleak indifference of the Highlands only with none of the romance.

I sigh. Perhaps next time it’ll be a one-way ticket for me.

An aerial shot of Euston train station in London at night with two trains leaving the station
The Caledonian Sleeper leaves from London's Euston train station most evenings © pisaphotography / Shutterstock

How to do it yourself

Here's everything you need to know to have your very own night train journey across Britain. However, bear in mind that during COVID-19 there are restrictions on travel. Check the latest guidance before departure, and always follow local health advice.

How do I get tickets?

Tickets can be purchased a year in advance from the Caledonian Sleeper website. They sell out way in advance during holidays and busy periods so book far ahead to avoid disappointment.

How often do trains go?

The Caledonian Sleeper Highlander Service to Fort William departs London Euston at 21:15 every weeknight and at 20:59 on Sunday. The Lowlander Service to Edinburgh leaves London Euston every weeknight at 23:50 and at 23:30 on Sunday. There’s no service on Saturday.

The southbound Highlander starts in Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William, while the Lowlander sets off from Glasgow and Edinburgh. Timetables for each station are available online.

How much does it cost?

From £40 for a reclining seat; £180 for a bunk in a two-bed sleeper; £300 if you go for a superior en suite cabin with Priority Club Car access. All prices are one-way.

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Article first published July 2019, and last updated November 2020.

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This article was first published July 2019 and updated November 2020

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