I’m in the ‘Club Car’ for breakfast and I’ve brought a spy thriller book to read, but there’s no chance of me reading a single sentence.
Not with scenery as spectacular as this.
I’m at a particularly nailbiting moment in the tome, too, but the breathtaking Scottish wilderness rolling past the north-bound Caledonian Sleeper I’m on keeps my eyes glued to the window.
The notion of ‘world’s greatest train journey’ comes to mind as cloud-crowned mountains loom all around. Cliched. Yes. But this part of the journey along the West Highland Line, north of Glasgow – which includes Britain’s highest and remotest railway station – Corrour – is most certainly a contender. This is, mark my very words, a far cry from my commuter service from Denmark Hill to London Victoria.
The Scottish odyssey begins on a dank February Friday night at London Euston. I’m giddy with excitement – I’m a huge fan of train travel and the Caledonian Sleeper is, by reputation, one of the best railway journeys Britain has to offer.
Ted Thornhill takes the Caledonian Sleeper from London Euston to Fort William. Pictured above is one of the highlights of the trip – the scenery where the train crosses the Allt Kinglass Viaduct (in the distance) on the West Highland Line in Scotland
The Caledonian Sleeper is an absolute whopper – 16 carriages in total, the same as a Eurostar
My travel companions – my five-year-old daughter and partner, plus friends Tony and Caroline and their six and seven-year-old daughters – are similarly excited (despite not having my history of train anorakism).
The train departs at 9.15pm – but we make our way to the departure platform at the boarding time of 8.30pm to allow for the obligatory group selfies and to get settled in.
The Caledonian Sleeper is an absolute whopper – 16 carriages in total, the same as a Eurostar. And there are two services, the Lowland, which serves Glasgow and Edinburgh and departs at 11.50pm, and ours, the Highland, which splits at Edinburgh Waverley station (an unadvertised stop), with one portion travelling north to Aberdeen, the other to Inverness, and ours via Glasgow Queen Street to Fort William, the ‘outdoor capital of the UK’.
Train nerd? Note that from Euston the locomotive is an electric Class 92 with a top speed of 140kph (87mph). North of Edinburgh the formation is hauled by a refurbished Class 73 diesel loco with similar performance.
We’re greeted on the platform by a cheery host and then we clamber on with far more luggage than we’d ever take on a plane journey.
The downside is that it’s a slight struggle to marshall it all in our compartment.
My partner, daughter and I have two ‘Classic’ rooms, with a bunk bed in each and an interconnecting door that opens to form a dinky suite.
Yes, it requires a certain amount of co-ordination that submariners will be all too familiar with to move around in, but I think it’s terrific. And my daughter is ecstatic.
Ted and his family occupy two ‘Classic’ rooms (above) with a bunk bed in each and an interconnecting door that opens to form a dinky suite
Ted says of his room (above): ‘Yes, it requires a certain amount of co-ordination that submariners will be all too familiar with to move around in, but I think it’s terrific’
The beds, with their Glencraft mattresses, we later discover are incredibly comfortable and there are some handy extras and features – we each have a little sleep pack containing an eye mask, ear plugs and soap; at the foot end of the bed are plug points and USB ports, plus a switch for a light by the window and a nifty little holder to put your phone in while it’s charging; at the pillow end are two bottles of water in a cubby hole, along with a panel containing a USB point, a dimmer switch for the main light, a reading light and a knob for temperature control.
There’s also a thick pad that runs the length of the lower bunks you can comfortably lean against in a sitting position – clever – and a sink and mirror.
Pay more for a Double or Club room and you have the added luxury of a toilet and shower.
Once our cases and bags have been stowed under the beds, with the train edging out of Euston, we make our way – my little one clutching her welcome bag containing a magazine and puzzles – to the ‘Club Car’ lounge car for drinks and food.
Pictured above is a double room, which features a toilet and shower. Caledonian doubles cost from £345 for solo and £410 for shared occupancy
This image shows a Classic room that has wheelchair access. The Caledonian Sleeper runs every night, apart from Saturday
The Club Car, above, has a thoughtful layout, writes Ted, that caters for multiple passenger formations, with a window view for all
This carriage is superb, with restful Scandi-chic decor in a mushroom-y palette punctuated by bold blues and a thoughtful layout that caters for multiple passenger formations, with a window view for all. There are tables for two, for four, banquette arrangements for even larger groups and stools at a counter angled towards the windows for solo travellers.
The menu, meanwhile, is comprehensive. The standard? Pretty good – a match for the Business Premier catering by Raymond Blanc on the Eurostar. The value? Very good.
Menu items include pizza (£12.50); haggis, neeps and tatties (£13.75); cauliflower and red lentil dahl (£13.75); a cheeseboard (£14.50); a ‘traditional Scottish clootie dumpling’ (£10.75); various sandwiches (£5.25) and snacks; red and white wine, and a spirit selection that features a 12-year-old Auchentoshan whisky (£11) and an award-winning gin made in Perth (the Scottish Perth, £9.50).
I opt for a macaroni cheese (£12.50) that is creamy and comforting and we enjoy white wines that are nicely structured and refreshing – Lolo Albarino from Spain (£6 a glass) and Footsteps Sauvignon Blanc from Chile (£6 a glass).
The Bridge of Orchy is a stop on the West Highland Line that comes after the Allt Kinglass Viaduct
Remote: Corrour, on the edge of vast Rannoch Moor, has no public road access
Corrour, above, claims the record for highest UK railway station thanks to being 1,338ft (408m) above sea level
At Corrour one of the coffee-wielding hosts points out to Ted a small bridge near the station (right) where Ewan McGregor’s character in Trainspotting screams ‘it’s s***e being Scottish’
The line south of Fort William runs along the eastern flank of the immense Loch Treig (above). ‘We stare in awe at waterfalls gushing down from the vertiginous peaks lining the opposite shore, struggling to comprehend the sheer scale of the geology,’ writes Ted
MailOnline Travel’s Ted, beaming in his sleeper room
The service isn’t Pullman-polished, but efficient and friendly enough – and there’s a wonderful atmosphere, with banter being exchanged between tables as the train leaves the capital behind.
Everyone is clearly thrilled.
We head to bed just south of the first stop – Crewe – and sleep for me is a start-stop affair.
I’m finding the compartment cosy and snug, but the excitement levels are too high for drifting off quickly.
Plus, I discover that lying down seems to mean feeling every bump and jolt all the more – and the quietness of the room amplifies the clickety-clack of the wheels.
But this also adds to the thrill, reinforcing the sense of adventure.
I wake up just after the train has been divided in the Scottish capital, with the Class 73’s engine booming around tunnels and city lights creating a disco effect in the compartment. I’ve left the blind open, keen to see where we are when I sit up and not to miss out on any epic landscapes.
I drift off and wake up in the wilds, the weather moody.
After Glasgow the train skirts the shores of Loch Lomond, passes through Crianlarich, where the Oban line branches off, then trundles through Upper Tyndrum before crossing the Allt Kinglass Viaduct.
I arrive in the lounge for breakfast with my unopened thriller shortly before this landmark, staring at the approach over my porridge and coffee in disbelief.
There are two Caledonian Sleeper services from Euston, the Lowland, which serves Glasgow and Edinburgh, and the Highland, which splits at Edinburgh Waverley station (an unadvertised stop), with one portion travelling north to Aberdeen, the other to Inverness, and another via Glasgow Queen Street to Fort William (above)
Ted’s daughter is pictured here snug and sound asleep on the southbound service from Fort William to Euston
LEFT: Ted’s southbound chicken dinner. RIGHT: The breakfast set up as the southbound service whizzes towards London
Train nerd? To and from Euston the Caledonian Sleeper is hauled by an electric Class 92 with a top speed of 140kph (87mph)
The line here forms a horseshoe curve around a glen at the foot of a trio of momentous peaks – 3,524ft- (1,074m) tall Beinn Dorain, Beinn a’Chaisteil (2,897ft/883m) and Beinn Odhar (2,948ft/898m).
The nine-span, 576ft-long structure can be seen on the far side of the curve from some distance, and at first it seems improbable that the train is going to meander all the way around to it, the bridge looking as if it’s on another line altogether.
After this comes the Bridge of Orchy station and Rannoch Moor, where the line is laid across a vast peat bog.
Rannoch station itself is remote – but is connected to the Highlands by a B road.
Corrour, however, to the north, has no public road access and claims the record for highest UK railway station thanks to being 1,338ft (408m) above sea level.
One of the coffee-wielding hosts points out a small bridge near the station where Ewan McGregor’s character in Trainspotting screams ‘it’s s***e being Scottish’.
Next, the line runs along the eastern flank of the immense Loch Treig. We stare in awe at waterfalls gushing down from the vertiginous peaks lining the opposite shore, struggling to comprehend the sheer scale of the geology.
Then it’s an encore of awe shortly before arriving at Fort William just before 10am, with the train skirting the River Spean as it dramatically gushes through Monessie Gorge.
The epic scenery is sadly enveloped in darkness on the 550-odd-mile return journey, prefaced by a coffee in the pleasant Fort William Caledonian Sleeper lounge, with the daylight portion arriving south of Milton Keynes.
But as we tuck into porridge, I muse that day or night, this sleeper service is a dream trip.
Ted and his family are hosted by Caledonian Sleeper, which operates services between London and Scotland every night, apart from Saturday.
There are two Caledonian Sleeper services from Euston, the Lowland, which serves Glasgow and Edinburgh, and the Highland, which splits at Edinburgh Waverley station (an unadvertised stop), with one portion travelling north to Aberdeen, the other to Inverness, and another via Glasgow Queen Street to Fort William
Non-sleeper comfort seats are available from £50, Classic Rooms from £175 for solo or £205 for shared occupancy, Club Rooms from £235 for solo and £290 for shared occupancy, and Caledonian Doubles from £345 for solo and £410 for shared occupancy. Accessible Rooms are priced separately.
PROS: Comfortable beds with handy features, including ports and reading lights, friendly service, good value food, spectacular scenery – this is the best way to travel to Scotland from England.
CONS: The Classic Rooms are cosy, but a tight squeeze, with no toilet.
Rating out of five (including scenery): *****