Climbing on board the Caledonian Sleeper at London’s Euston Station has often felt like stepping back in time. The old British Rail rolling stock, the 1970s orange lighting in the seated carriage and the mysterious controls for the heater in the cabins all conjure up images of a bygone age.
Changes are afoot though. Outsourcing giant Serco took over the running of the franchise on 1 April, 2015, and is on track to introduce 75 new carriages in April, 2018. The company is investing £150m in the rolling stock – which is being built by Edinburgh Trams-supplier Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles (CAF) in Barcelona – with £60m coming from the Scottish Government through a capital grant.
In the meantime, Serco has been giving Scottish entrepreneurs a boost by stocking more of their produce on board the existing trains. Dingwall-based RSF Scotland supplies 300,000 meals a year to the service as part of a £1m contract.
Over the summer, the evening menu available to passengers in the lounge car included smoked venison from Rannoch Smokery, haggis form George Cockburn & Son in Dingwall and lamb from Clunes Farm near Inverness, along with chicken from Midlothian, cheddar cheese from Perthshire and Wester Ross smoked salmon. Around 92% of the food served aboard the trains comes from within 50 miles of RSF’s base in the Highlands.
Many outlets will serve Scottish produce, but they miss a trick by not naming their suppliers and telling the story behind the dishes, reinforcing the provenance of the food. Turning its food and drink into a selling point will be a key part of Serco’s plan to change perceptions about the sleeper service, as it repositions the franchise from being a simple train journey into a hotel-style experience.
“There’s only so much that you can do when you’ve only got two microwaves on board,” admits Ryan Flaherty, guest experience director at Caledonian Sleeper. “The new trains will
have a full galley, with conventional ovens and a toaster.
“We’ll be able to do things like make the bacon crispy. I can’t wait to be able to have a soft-boiled egg with toasted soldiers on the train.”
While it’s no surprise that the lounge car serves around a dozen Scotch whiskies, the drinks list also includes Valt vodka from Strathleven Distillers and Caorunn gin from ThaiBev’s Benromach distillery at Cromdale in the Cairngorms National Park, alongside more mundane spirit brands.
Scottish sourcing also extends into the eye-catching list of craft beers on offer, with Innis & Gunn’s lager and original oak-aged beer sitting alongside West Brewery’s St Mungo lager, Deuchars India pale ale (IPA), Belhaven Best, Thistly Cross cider from East Lothian, and tipples from Black Isle Brewery and Fyne Ales.
Food and drink are only part of the story though. Flaherty praises the work of Glasgow-based fashion designer Alan Moore at Ten30 in designing the new uniforms for the train’s staff and Edinburgh-based interior agency Ian Smith Design – which has worked with Cameron House, Martin Wishart and Andy Murray’s Cromlix Hotel – in its plans for the new carriages, which feature Harris Tweed. “It’s all about portraying Scotland in a contemporary way,” Flaherty adds. “Not like it is on a shortbread tin.”
Passengers are already being offered Arran Aromatics products on board, with first-class ticket holders able to use the showers in the lounges at either end of the route as part of their package. The new trains will include en-suite berths with showers, as well as cradle seats, fully-reclining “pod flatbeds” with their own privacy screens and reading lights, and cabins with double beds.