Bad weather had scoured northern Scotland all day, and Inverness Rail Station was bathed in a smoked, golden light. But the platform alongside the Caledonian Sleeper hummed with an air of relief and anticipation. Dense fog and stormy skies: circumstances that would ground an airplane only add a layer of mystique to a train journey. As a steward in a tweed vest and scarf pointed the way, I boarded carriage L, and spilled into my sleeping compartment, my home for the night.
Since February 1873, there has been a night train carrying passengers between London and Scotland. The Caledonian Sleeper is today the only train making the journey, and has been running almost continuously since 1996, chuntering back and forth between London’s Euston Station and the Scottish Highlands each evening except Saturdays, covering the distance over a leisurely twelve hours.
I had brought with me a bottle of Chianti, and oatcakes from the Orkney Isles, where I’d started my day. After ferrying to the northern tip of mainland Scotland, and the four-hour train from Thurso to Inverness, the last thing I wanted was the hassle and abuse of an airport. Airlines can be unapologetic hornswogglers, always promising improvements that never arrive, but the Caledonian Sleeper was newly refurbished, and felt more like a moving hotel than a train, with double beds, room service, and en-suite showers. On a night train, passengers are still treated like passengers, not ungrateful customers.
Even given those improvements, little had changed since TS Eliot rode the line one hundred years previous. The spirit of Skimbleshanks, the Railway Cat, from Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, still hung in the air:
Oh it’s very pleasant when you have found your little den
With your name written up on the door
And the berth is very neat with a newly folded sheet
And there’s not a speck of dust on the floor
There is every sort of light—you can make it dark or bright
There’s a handle that you turn to make a breeze.
There’s a funny little basin you’re supposed to wash your face in
And a crank to shut the window if you sneeze.
I sat on the berth, opened the Chianti, and cheered myself as we slipped into the night, my second glass vanishing as the last lights of Inverness disappeared into the gloom. The rest of the trip was taken in darkness. I’d taken the route before, and I knew what lay beyond: the rail line curving sharply around glens, wet rocks shining below shredded overhangs of roots and earth. It was early November, the purple was long off the heather, and the Scottish mountains were russet and gold.
Trains attract the most diverse passengers of all; you know because you see them milling about and talking as though they were at a party. Most of us made for the club car—a vacationing French family, a businessman who set up camp on his laptop, and a quartet of boisterous Scotswomen, who, over pink gins and Aperol spritzes, created a united front against an absent and intolerable somebody named Eileen. A flushed young couple arrived, and ordered a bottle of Champagne with their cheese board. The popping of the cork was like a signal to begin, and the car filled with chatter and laughter. The waiter brought the menu, and, with sadness, said there would, unfortunately, be no haggis available that evening. Being unable to chose haggis—organ meat boiled inside a sheep’s stomach—was a mixed blessing, but out of a sense of Scottish solidarity, I chose the next offal dish on the menu, a black pudding skirlie served with chicken breast and cabbage under a tarragon sauce. It arrived piping hot, and I cut into it with a steel blade the size of a dagger.
After supper, I decided to freshen up. My room’s shower was a tight fit, and had a choice of bathing in waters that would curl the toes of a polar bear. The tap was self closing, and needed to be continually depressed, adding an element of torture to it all. Had I been taking the Coromandel Express from Chennai to Howrah, it would have been a refreshing pick-me-up. As it was, the whole thing put me in mind of the long-handled hand pumps I’d used as a child to draw earth-cold water from our farm well. I wetted myself as much as I could tolerate, then downed another warming glass of Chianti as I towelled off.
As we careened into the witching hour, I pulled the shade and crawled into bed happy and warm. Such creature comfort is one reason to take the train, and caused me to feel a touch of tågskryt, a Swedish term for ‘train brag’. It was certainly better than the guilt of flygskam, or ‘flight shame’, an anti-flight movement started in Sweden that has since taken hold of Europe, turning more and more travellers away from the skies and back onto the rails. Low-cost airlines were meant to mark the end of the sleeper, and for a time that seemed true—night trains in Spain, Germany, and France all saw termination within the last ten years. But the impact of all those cheap flights exacted its environmental cost can no longer be ignored. The rise of the eco-conscious traveller has pushed several European countries, including Austria and the Netherlands, to enact bans on short-haul flights where a train alternative can be made. In France, short-distance flights over distances that can be covered by train in two and a half hours or less, are now prohibited. It’s easy to see why: Had I flown, the journey from Inverness to London would have released nearly 200 kilograms of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As it was, the train released only five. If one must brag (or shame, depending on the setting), that’s not a bad place to start.
I awoke at dawn, the blue light rising and lightening from the horizon, revealing slate-roofed farm houses, thickets of plump trees, and wet, green fields dotted with sheep. Through the sleeping towns of Tamworth and Atherstone, I drank coffee and counted the few lit windows in sight.
North of London, we stopped a few moments at Rugby. In 1866, on the platform just beyond the window, Charles Dickens drank bad coffee while waiting for a fire in the train he’d been riding to be extinguished. Dickens later sent up the station in his story “The Boy at Mugby”, which begins, “I am the boy at what is called The Refreshment Room at Mugby Junction, and what’s proudest boast is that it never yet refreshed a mortal being.” In those latter years of the 19th century, trains were still exotic and mysterious, and contained an essence of the magical. In another story, “The Signal-Man”, Dickens suggests that a train can move beyond time itself. Arthur Conan-Doyle put a disappearing train into his “The Story of the Lost Special”. Something similar happens, albeit to a person, in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. That feeling of removal, that the world is something happening out there, is still alive in the sleeping carriage. It’s a chance to disappear for a night, to slip along the invisible tracks like a strand of jewellery, a strand of necklace lost at dusk only to emerge in the morning looking buffed and polished, and all the more exotic and mysterious for it. As we pulled into Euston Station, and my fellow bushy-tailed travellers and I joined the throng of grey-faced commuters starting the workday, I knew it was true.