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Night train to Hell -​ Prue Leith loved the romance of travelling overnight – until she and her husband squeezed onto the sleeper to Edinburgh

Blog | By Prue Leith | Sep 12, 2023

There is something lovely about sleeping cars. Maybe because it’s the only way grown-ups get rocked to sleep.

As a child, I would ride the Blue Train from Johannesburg to Cape Town and fight with my brothers for the top bunk. The excitement of travelling without Mum and Dad would keep us awake until the steady rocking and creaking would send us to sleep.

We’d be woken in the morning by the steward, smart as paint in his starched white uniform, delivering tea. We’d roll up the blind to see the open plains of the Karoo, or the magnificent Drakensburg.

As a board member of the Belmond Hotel company (the ex-Orient Express group), I got to ride on all sorts of posh trains, and loved them all.

On the restored Orient Express to Venice, I woke to a tray of Italian coffee, fresh croissants and the New York Herald Tribune, with Mont Blanc through the window, shining in the sun.

The Eastern and Oriental Express crawls up the Penang Peninsula from Singapore to Bangkok and has private loos and showers. Sadly, we sometimes stopped in the night to let a few hours go by, and the rocking stopped.

Best of all was touring the Highlands on the Royal Scotsman, also with private mod cons, and accompanied by a whisky buff to educate us in the finer arts of drinking Scotch.

But the modern Caledonian Sleeper, from London to Scotland, is a crashing disappointment. Sixty years ago, the bunks were a decent width, the bottom one low enough to give the top one room to sit up in, and a ladder with wide comfy treads.

Some time later, the sleeper cars got a makeover, and the velvet walls, brass fittings and mahogany woodwork disappeared. The bunk shelves were replaced by a net fixed to the wall for your night-time possessions. The nostalgia had gone but at least everything still worked.

Not so today. Having heard that the much-trumpeted new Caledonian Sleeper had private bathrooms and double beds, my husband and I booked tickets to Edinburgh from Euston.

On arrival, we were told our room was unavailable, but they’d managed to find us an identical one. It turned out not to be a double bed or even twins, but two super-narrow bunks, one above the other. We protested.

The steward explained, ‘This is a common misunderstanding. People think “double” means double bed, but it means two beds. This is exactly the same as the one you booked.’

Well, I am 83 with a dodgy ankle and John, my husband, has just had a knee op. We didn’t think either of us could climb up top. But since it was now 11 at night, too late for a plane, and I was due to shake 1,200 graduating students’ hands the next day (I’m the Chancellor of Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh), we had no option but to be grateful.

No one has given any thought to the design of the bunks. The ladder is vertical, fixed hard against the bunks with narrow, ridged metal treads, which are agony on bare feet.

There is so little space above the top bunk that you must start to lie down before you get your knee over the top. There are padded boards to stop you falling out, which also make getting in, at least for me, almost impossible.

There is neither a shelf nor a net. Probably the new bunks are too narrow to allow for one. There is a little contraption behind your head which charges your phone and takes your water bottle, but nowhere for your book, glasses or anything else.

If getting in was difficult, getting out was worse. One of the bores of old age is needing a wee in the night – sometimes twice. I’d have liked to descend the ladder backwards, but there wasn’t room to roll over and kneel up.

I tried to come down with my back to the bunks, but my heels slipped off the ladder and I fell the few feet to the floor, fortunately half-caught by John.

Next time, not wanting to wake him again, I managed to climb down via the wash-basin. John woke anyway and suggested that we tuck up, like teenagers, head to toe in his bunk. Not a success. He still has a lot of post-op pain and needs to roll over. He slept on the floor.

We thought a Scottish breakfast of kippers, haggis, black pudding, toast and marmalade would revive us. It was dire. The dining car is soulless, the fare miserable. My yogurt and granola came in a sealed carton, with disposable spoon.

A fare of £390 for two is a lot to pay to get no sleep.