Edinburgh’s Waverley station, in the run-up to midnight, has an abandoned and melancholy feel. The vaulting is dark and the row of shops below—WHSmith; Boots—shuttered and lightless. A few railway workers in hi-vis tabards loiter by the turnstiles. Outside on Princes Street the air is bitterly cold, and the cold spills down the escalators into the vacant concourse. The few travellers move like trespassers. Their footsteps and the wheels of their luggage are clattery in the untenanted space.
I had travelled up from London that morning to give a talk at a school just outside Edinburgh. Seeing that the cost was no greater than a normal return, I booked the sleeper back rather than stay with a friend and lose the next day to travel. I’m glad I did. The dreamlike atmosphere of the nocturnal station is part of the pleasure: last orders in the shabby pub, then the walk to the Caledonian Sleeper—a dark hulk of train that itself seems to be sleeping. Is there any better way to travel in the world than overnight in the sleeping carriage of a train?
There’s something almost parental about a train’s night staff, showing you down the tiny corridor just one person wide to the place you will sleep. Daytime railway staff—slinging sandwiches and clipping tickets—strike us as members of any other service industry. They might be working at Pret. But 20 minutes before midnight they are something else: more solicitous and more stern. They are hoteliers or, more suggestively, jailers, with their keys on a chain at their hip.
“I’ll wake you around 6.30 when we get in,” the attendant says more than once, “and you’ll need to vacate the train straight away. No lie-ins.” I wonder if they do have customers—sleepy or full of the restaurant car’s Scotch—who refuse to move and have to be levered from their berths. You’d be tempted, wouldn’t you? I would.
Your tiny cell, complete in itself, is a delight. There is even something to relish in the strange sense—again, perhaps, a cousin of the experience of going to jail—of abrupt intimacy with a complete stranger. In a space the size of a wardrobe, you and a random berthmate must get undressed, climb into bunk beds and sleep. It feels proper to exchange the odd stiff pleasantry—an enquiry about the other’s business in Edinburgh, a remark on the fitments of the carriage.