Continental Car-Rail

This week saw the launch of the Caledonian Sleeper’s new fleet of carriages for use on their five overnight Scotland-London routes. After the pleasant but antiquated stock Serco tool over from First ScotRail four years ago. This fleet represents the 2017   £150m investment Serco made to revamp the Caledonian Sleeper, with en-suite cabins and double beds, They wee originally due to come into service a year ago. With airports increasingly crowded and inconvenient, traveling overnight saves a day each way, compared to daytime services, as well as the cost of a hotel.

Good though this improvement might be, thee is further opportunity they might consider that will exist even after Brexit—continental services. When the Channel Tunnel fist opened in 2007, there wee airy promises made to justify the £5.8 billion spent that it would benefit all of Britain. Indeed, there was one train a day that would its way from Waverley to the original Waterloo Chunnel terminal. Bit this took seven hours and was soon cancelled. Since then, all further investment has gone into the St Pancras terminal and the HS1 line through Kent.

While it would be an undoubted economic boost for Scotland to have a direct TGV link to the Continent that London enjoys, even the HS2 link to the Midlands stands in doubt. Buy Scotland should not despair. Half of family holidays from Scotland taken on the Continent involve taking a car and the subsequent two-days-driving-plus-ferry to each your destination, whether it be Bilbao or Barcelona, Florence or Venice. Each of these destinations is about 1,300 miles away—or over 24 hours of driving, quite apart from time spent on rests, sleep and ferry.

What if you could do it all in a day, enjoy the journey and arrive rested?

The terms of the franchise under which Serco operates the Caledonian Sleeper are entirely up to the Scottish Government. Were they to show some far-sighted initiative, Scotland could have its own link with the Continent that would not only ease  travel abroad for Scottish families and turn a profit but would provide a conduit to lure Continental families to holiday in Scotland with their car. It would require the co-operation of the English Network Rail, the Chunnel and SNCF but they would each be interested in revenues from under-used resources. Apart from access contracts with them, we would need:

  • Expansion of the existing Caledonian Sleeper franchise to include this
  • Car-rail terminal facilities in both Central Scotland and Southern France
  • Three additional fast sleeper trains with vehicle flatcars.

Together, these would provide a daily car-rail service between a Central Scotland terminal somewhere easily road-accessible, like Ratho or Mossend and a Southen France terminal somewhere like Arles or Nimes. The outbound train would depart early evening to allow time to drive there and avoid evening rush hour and travel fast non-stop to just north of London, taking about five hours. It would avoid London terminals and join the NS1 line north of the Thames crossing at Ebbfleet, reaching the Chunnel before 2am and so run through it when thee is little traffic. Skirting Paris about four hours later—again before rush hour—it would take the Lyons line, then the Rhone valley to arrive at Arles after  1,000 miles before noon the next day. There would then be a half day for drivers to reach Bilbao, Barcelona, Florence, Venice etc. by evening in the 5-6 hours it would take to cove the remaining 200-300 miles left.


The reverse inbound trip would operate to similar timings in reverse, arriving with a 6-hour turnaround time before repeating the journey. This means just two trains could operate the service at a pinch. Clearly Spanish, Italian and Southern French families, daunted by present awkward logistics would then find it easy to bring their car to tour Scotland and provide a secondary market. A train would consist of five sleeping cars, eight enclosed vehicle flat cars, plus a lounge and a dining car. All this is within the 775m length requirement. This would transport up to 30 families in 4-bed suites, saving the £300 each way for petrol and ferries, quite apart from accommodation costs. Assuming this charge would be competitive as a ticket price 50% above this ($450 per family one-way), given the time and stress saved, a 75% loaded train should gross revenues of £25,000 per round tip.

Were the initial service to prove successful, a further terminal at Perth to serve North-East and Highland markets. A second Continental terminal around Munich would not just open up Central European destinations in an arc from Prague through Vienna to the Dalmatian coast but open access to a further market of visitors wanting a driving tour of Scotland. In all cases, the concept of a fast overnight arrival that allows time for driving at both ends would be the USP. While family car holidays would be the main target customer, other small groups and even foot passengers would find such a service.

Key also is that this must be a fast, if not express, service that does not stop between terminals. Unlike the present London sleeper, which dawdles deliberately so as not to arrive too early, the Continental Carr-Rail would match East Coast 225 service to London and fit with TGV slots beyond. This might require electric motive power—especially in light of the emissions that each trip would be saving.

Of course, this requires a full business case to be made before it could become more than a pipe dream. But, along with many other good things, Brexit is likely to foul this up.




About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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