Detail from Robert Bartlett's famous "The Night Scotsman" poster. The poster was one of a series commissioned by LNER to promote both daytime and overnight trains from London to Scotland.
We have written much about night trains on the European mainland, tracking how the pattern of services has changed over the years. In the newly published issue 61 of hidden europe magazine, we look at how the prospects for night trains are now much brighter on the continent. But we have rarely focused on night trains in Great Britain, so in this post we look at night sleeper services operating from London to Scotland sixty years ago.
It is easy to take an overnight train from London to Scotland. Nowadays the independent rail company Caledonian Sleeper is the sole operator of Anglo-Scottish overnight services. It offers a choice of two departures from London every evening bar for Saturdays. These services leave from Euston station in London.
Though timetables have been a little different during the Coronavirus pandemic, the usual pattern is one train – dubbed The Highlander – carrying sleeping cars for Aberdeen, Fort William and Inverness. Then a couple of hours later a second train – The Lowlander – heads north, with sleeping cars for Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Can you hazard a guess as to how many night trains to Scotland might have left London every evening sixty years ago? Four or five? A dozen perhaps?
You’ll be surprised. In the early 1960s, the regular timetables showed no less 15 Scottish sleeper services leaving London termini on most evenings. The departure stations of those 15 trains were as follows:
That’s fifteen separate trains. Amazing, eh? What’s more, some of these services carried sleeping cars to multiple destinations. But in our reckoning we count a train bound for Perth with through carriages to Oban as a single departure from London – not two.
Nor have we added in the tally any trains which did not carry proper sleeping cars. There were in those days some overnight trains in Britain which consisted entirely of seated carriages – no sleepers. Not fun for an overnight ride, so we have excluded them from our listings.
In conducting this study, we have examined timetables from 1960 and 1961, so we have a good snapshot of normal service patterns in the pre-Beeching era. We have not included special seasonal holiday services.
To understand the demand for so many Anglo-Scottish sleeper services, we need to remember that few travellers could afford to fly in those days. And the fastest daytime journeys by train took much longer than they do today. The Flying Scotsman dashed from London to Edinburgh in 7hrs 7mins, but many daytime trains took longer. On the West Coast route from Euston to Glasgow, the Royal Scot offered the fastest daytime timing: 7hrs 28mins. The best daytime timing from London to Perth was 9hrs 50mins, while the run to Aberdeen took 11hrs 35mins.
The first of the seven Scotland-bound sleepers from Euston left at 18.30, every day bar Saturdays, and the entire train ran right through to Inverness, where it arrived at 08.45 next morning. This train, called The Royal Highlander, carried a restaurant car so dinner was served as the train dashed north. Crewe was the train’s first stop out of London. Passengers on The Royal Highlander could then enjoy breakfast in the restaurant car on the final part of the journey through the Scottish Highlands to Inverness.
The second Scottish night train from Euston each evening left at 19.10. It was not really geared to the Scottish market at all, for it served no great Scottish city. There was a clear hint in the name of the train. It was called The Northern Irishman. It ran overnight to Stranraer in south-west Scotland, connecting there with an early morning boat to Northern Ireland. This train used the now disused line from Dumfries via Newton Stewart to reach Stranraer. Passengers were required to leave their berths at 06.25; they then transferred to the adjacent steamer, which departed at 07.00.
The 19.15 train from Euston chased The Northern Irishman all the way up the West Coast Main Line to Carlisle. If the 19.10 was a service which only incidentally served Scotland, the 19.15 was a train full of Scottish ambition. It ran to Perth, but on Saturday nights (when the 18.30 to Inverness did not run), this train continued right through to Inverness.
It took the regular route north from Perth via Pitlochry to Aviemore, but then made a curious Sunday morning diversion. Instead of following the main line via Daviot to Inverness, it ran instead via Grantown-on-Spey (West), Forres and Nairn to reach Inverness at 11.05 – a journey time of just under 16 hours from London.
Grantown and other intermediate stations on this unusual route thus enjoyed a once-weekly direct train from London. No longer! These days Grantown-on-Spey has no trains at all. Passenger trains on both routes through the Speyside town, serving stations called respectively East and West, were all withdrawn in 1965.
That 19.15 departure from Euston also had a remarkable extra section on Friday nights when the train conveyed through carriages to the port of Oban on Scotland’s west coast. The Oban sleeper was detached from the main train when it arrived in Stirling at 05.26. The onward journey from Oban was via the now closed route through Callander to Crianlarich, where the Oban-bound train stopped at the lower station. From there, it ran west on a line that is still very much in use to Oban. Arrival in Oban was at 09.09.
This weekly train was the sole night sleeper serving Oban. The return run from Oban to London left the Scottish port at 17.15 on Mondays, reaching Euston at 07.55 on Tuesday morning. So you could live in Oban, work a four-day week in London and return home for a long weekend in Oban.
The next Scottish sleeper to leave Euston was the 21.00 to Glasgow. Other than on Saturday nights, it was not possible to book a sleeping berth from Euston to Glasgow on this train, but only as far as Motherwell. The Glasgow sleepers were intended for those boarding further north. Glasgow-bound passengers from Euston were nudged towards the 21.35 departure which ran non-stop to Glasgow. That 21.35 train was composed entirely of sleeping cars. With a travel time of just over nine hours, the train arrived at Glasgow Central at 06.40.
Next off the blocks was the 22.40 night sleeper to Stirling (arrival 08.52) and Perth, where the train terminated at 09.53. The final departure to Scotland was not till after midnight. But sleeping car passengers for the 00.10 to Glasgow could board from 23.30. Some sleeping cars were dropped at Preston where passengers could sleep in until 07.30. A restaurant car was attached to the train in Carlisle, so passengers could enjoy a leisurely breakfast before the scheduled arrival in Glasgow at 09.50.
Compared with the bustle of the West Coast Main Line out of Euston, the route north out of St Pancras slumbered through the 1960s. It could never match the timetables from King’s Cross and Euston for speed. But the trains from St Pancras did serve some communities in southern Scotland that had no other direct trains from London.
Sixty years ago, there were two direct night sleepers to Scotland from St Pancras, both of which left every evening of the week. For passengers bound for Edinburgh and Glasgow from cities in the East Midlands and South Yorkshire, these trains were an important part of the sleeper network.
The first of the two nightly departures from St Pancras was the 21.10 to Edinburgh, although it was not actually permitted to book a sleeper all the way to Edinburgh on this train. The idea was that there was a better choice of Edinburgh services from King’s Cross. But one could book from St Pancras as far as Galashiels which was the train's last scheduled stop before the Scottish capital.
The 21.10 from St Pancras took an unusual route running from Kettering north via Welland Viaduct – a route that closed later in the 1960s but then reopened in 2009 with a very limited passenger service. The onward journey was via Nottingham, Sheffield, Leeds, the Settle and Carlisle line then the Waverley route to Edinburgh, where the train terminated at 07.55.
The second night sleeper departure from St Pancras was at 21.25. This train ran via Leicester, Sheffield, and Leeds to reach the Settle and Carlisle line. Beyond Carlisle, it ran via Dumfries and Kilmarnock to give an arrival at Glasgow's St Enoch station at 08.30.
King’s Cross had six regular night sleepers to Scotland on most days of the week. Even during the evening peak at King’s Cross, passengers bound for Scotland on overnight trains would already have been gathering on the station concourse.
By the time the all-Pullman service to Sheffield left King’s Cross at 19.20 – that premium train was called The Master Cutler – passengers would already have been settling into their berths on The Aberdonian night sleeper, which was booked to leave King’s Cross at 19.30.
The main part of the train travelled to Aberdeen via Dundee, but there were also through carriages to Fort William via Dumbarton and the West Highland Line. The Aberdonian was in many ways the precursor of the modern Highlander train run by Caledonian Sleeper (which, as we have already noted, these days departs from Euston rather than King’s Cross). The journey from London to Fort William took just under 15 hours.
There were then five later sleepers from King’s Cross to Scotland, the first one timed on most days to leave at 22.15 (for Aberdeen), followed by three sleeper services to Edinburgh at 22.30, 23.20 and 23.35.
The 23.35 departure from King's Cross was the premium train. It was called The Night Scotsman and was reserved exclusively for sleeping car passengers. Its 23.35 departure time from King's Cross had been a feature of timetables over decades. Arrival in Edinburgh was at 07.26 next morning, so overall travel time was actually faster than on some daytime trains from London to Edinburgh.
North-east England was a good market for overnight travel from London King’s Cross, but the various trains already mentioned passed through Newcastle too early for most travellers. So there was yet another late sleeper geared more to the Tyneside market, although this service also continued right through to Edinburgh. Passengers could join The Tynesider – another train with only sleeping cars - at King’s Cross from 23.15 but departure was not until 00.55. Sleeping cars were detached at both Darlington and Newcastle, and in each case passengers were not required to disembarked until 08.00, by which time the Edinburgh-bound sleeping cars of the train were approaching the Scottish border. Arrival in the Scottish capital was at 09.46.
The supplement for travel sixty years ago in a single occupancy sleeper compartment from London to Scotland was two pounds. This was of course in additional to the regular rail fare. Looking at inflation over the last 60 years, that £2 fee in 1960 would equate to about £50 today. There was no great luxury. Compartments were small.
A couple sharing a two-berth sleeper (upper and lower berths) would pay a supplement for two people of 45 shillings (£2.25).
Full bedding was provided on all overnight journeys in sleeping cars. Each compartment had a small washbasin. En-suite facilities were unknown in those days, but there was a shared toilet at the end of each carriage.
Today’s Caledonian Sleeper services from London to Scotland offer a degree of luxury which would have been unimaginable sixty years ago. There may only be two departures each evening but, in comparison to yesteryear, today’s passengers are pampered. The word compartment has been ditched in favour of the more elegant-sounding room. There are classic rooms and club rooms, the latter with en-suite facilities. It is even possible to book a room with a double bed. How times have changed!
You can read more about daytime journeys from London to Scotland in our book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide. The 16th edition of the book includes Anglo-Scottish routes for the first time.