By Ted Thornhill, Mailonline Travel Editor
13.40 4 March 2023, updated 13.46 04 March 2023
I’m in the “Club Car” for breakfast and I’ve brought a spy thriller book to read, but there’s no chance I’ll read a single sentence.
Not with such spectacular scenery as this.
I’m also in a particularly nail-biting moment in the void, but the stunning Scottish wilderness rolling past the northbound Caledonian Sleeper I’m on keeps my eyes glued to the window.
The notion of ‘the world’s greatest train journey’ comes to mind when cloud-crowned mountains tower around. The cliche. Yes. But this part of the journey along the West Highland Line, north of Glasgow – which includes Britain’s highest and most remote railway station – Corrour – is certainly a contender. This is, mark my words, a far cry from my Denmark Hill to London Victoria commuter service.
The Scottish odyssey begins on a damp February Friday night at London Euston. I’m giddy with excitement – I’m a huge fan of rail travel and the Caledonian Sleeper is, by reputation, one of the best rail journeys the UK has to offer.
My traveling companions – my five-year-old daughter and partner, plus friends Tony and Caroline and their six- and seven-year-old daughters – are equally excited (despite not having my history of toganoracism).
The train departs at 9.15pm – but we make our way to the departure platform upon boarding at 8.30pm to allow for the obligatory group selfies and to settle 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 our, the Highland, which splits at Edinburgh Waverley station (an unadvertised stop), with one section traveling north to Aberdeen, the other to Inverness , and ours via Glasgow Queen Street to Fort William, the “outdoor capital of Great Britain”.
Trainer? Note that from Euston the locomotive is an electric Class 92 with a top speed of 140 km/h (87 mph). North of Edinburgh the formation is hauled by a refurbished Class 73 diesel locomotive of similar performance.
We are met on the platform by a cheerful host, and then we climb on with far more luggage than we would ever take on a plane.
The downside is that it’s a bit of a struggle to collect everything in our compartment.
My partner, daughter and I have two “Classic” rooms, with a bunk bed in each and a connecting door that opens to form a slim suite.
Yes, it requires a degree of coordination that submariners will be all too familiar with to navigate, but I think it’s pretty cool. And my daughter is ecstatic.
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 sleeping pack containing an eye mask, earplugs and soap; at the foot of the bed there 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 end of the cushion are two bottles of water in a hole, along with a panel containing a USB point, a dimmer switch for the main light, a reading light and a button for temperature control.
There’s also a thick cushion that runs along the lower bunks that you can comfortably lean against in a seated position – smart – and a sink and mirror.
Pay more for a double or club room and you get the added luxury of a toilet and shower.
Once our suitcases and bags have been stowed under the beds, with the train on the edge out of Euston, we make our way – my little holder in the welcome bag containing a magazine and puzzle – to the ‘Club Car’ saloon car for drinks and food.
This carriage is superb, with relaxing Scandinavian decor in a mushroom-y palette characterized by bold blue tones and a well-thought-out layout suitable for multiple passenger formations, with window views for all. There are tables for two, for four, banquet arrangements for even larger groups and stools at a counter angled towards the windows for solo travellers.
The menu, meanwhile, is extensive. The standard? Pretty good – a match for Business Premier catering by Raymond Blanc on Eurostar. Value? Very good.
Menu items include pizza (£12.50); haggis, neeps and tatties (£13.75); cauliflower and red lentil dahl (£13.75); a cheese board (£14.50); a “traditional Scottish clootie dumpling” (£10.75); various sandwiches (£5.25) and snacks; red and white wine, and a range of spirits including a 12-year-old Auchentoshan whiskey (£11) and an award-winning gin made in Perth (Scottish Perth, £9.50).
I choose a macaroni cheese (£12.50) which is creamy and soothing, and we enjoy white wines which are nicely structured and refreshing – Lolo Albarino from Spain (£6 per glass) and Footsteps Sauvignon Blanc from Chile (£6 per glass).
The service isn’t Pullman polished, but efficient and friendly enough – and there’s a wonderful atmosphere, with small talk exchanged between tables as the train leaves the capital.
Everyone is clearly excited.
We go to bed just south of the first stop – Crewe – and sleep for me is a start-stop affair.
I find the cabin cozy and snug, but the tension level is too high to drive away quickly.
Plus I find that laying down seems to mean feeling every jolt and jolt all the more – and the silence in the room amplifies the clicking sound of the wheels.
But this also increases the tension, and reinforces the sense of adventure.
I wake up just after the train has split in the Scottish capital, with the Class 73 engine rumbling 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 miss any epic scenery.
I drift off and wake up in the wilderness, the weather is moody.
After Glasgow, the train follows the shores of Loch Lomond, passes through Crianlarich, where the Oban line branches, then rolls through Upper Tyndrum before crossing the Allt Kinglass Viaduct.
I arrive at the lounge for breakfast with my unopened thriller shortly before this landmark, staring in disbelief at the approach over my porridge and coffee.
The line here forms a horseshoe curve around a valley at the foot of a trio of significant peaks – Beinn Dorain (1,074m), Beinn a’Chaisteil (883m) and Beinn Odhar (2,948ft/898m).
The nine-span, 576-foot-long structure can be seen on the other side of the curve from some distance away, and at first it seems unlikely that the train will wind all the way around to it, and the bridge looks as if it on a completely different line.
After this comes Bridge of Orchy station and Rannoch Moor, where the line is laid over a large peat bog.
Rannoch station itself is remote – but is connected to the Highlands by a B road.
However, Corrour, in the north, has no public road access and claims the record for the highest British railway station thanks to being 1,338 feet (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”.
The line then runs along the eastern flank of the huge Loch Treig. We gaze in awe at waterfalls cascading from the dizzying peaks along the opposite coast, struggling to comprehend the scale of the geology.
Then there is an additional awe shortly before arriving at Fort William just before 10:00 p.m. 10, with the train running alongside the River Spean as it cascades dramatically through the Monessie Gorge.
The epic landscape is sadly shrouded in darkness on the 550km return journey, preceded by a coffee in the cozy Fort William Caledonian Sleeper lounge, with the daylight leg arriving south of Milton Keynes.
But while we eat porridge, I think about that day or night, this sleeping service is a dream journey.
Ted and his family run the Caledonian Sleeper, which operates services between London and Scotland every night except Saturday.
There are two Caledonian Sleeper services from Euston, the Lowland, serving Glasgow and Edinburgh, and the Highland, which splits at Edinburgh Waverley station (an unadvertised stop), with one section traveling north to Aberdeen, the other to Inverness, and a second 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 stays, Club rooms from £235 for solo and £290 for shared stays, and Caledonian Doubles from £345 for solo and £ 410 for shared accommodation. Adapted rooms are priced separately.
PROS: Comfortable beds with practical features including ports and reading lights, friendly service, reasonable food, spectacular scenery – this is the best way to travel to Scotland from England.
CONS: The Classic rooms are cosy, but a tight squeeze, without a toilet.
Ranking out of five (including nature): *****