AT a time when air travel has lost its mystique and turned into just another a form of unromantic mass transit, long distance rail travel has retained its allure.
Canada, the world's second-largest country, has made overnight train journeys across its vast expanse into a coveted part of the visitor experience for tourists. Trains like the Rocky Mountaineer and the Canadian feature glass-domed observation cars and fine dining restaurants, not to mention dreamily comfortable reclining seats that turn into beds and private private en suite bedrooms to accommodate passengers in comfort. Travelling on one is as much a part of the fun of visiting the country as white-water rafting. No wonder there is a thriving industry in Canadian train holidays.
The UK too, of course, has overnight rail services, namely the Caledonian Sleeper and the London-Penzance Night Riviera, but how many tourists get excited at the thought of using them? How many even know about them? Not enough, is the short answer, which is why Transport Scotland's vision for a new, improved Caledonian Sleeper service capable of becoming an international tourist attraction, is so welcome.
While held in great affection by its loyal regulars, the Sleeper service is in need of a revamp, not just for the sake of the business people who currently make good use of it, but to attract more leisure travellers from home and abroad. Those customers should be encouraged to look upon the Sleeper journey, not just as a means of getting from one city to another, but as part of their holiday. Passing Ben Nevis and Aviemore on its Highland route, the Sleeper can compete for spectacular scenery with the best of the rest worldwide. Making the train itself into a more enticing hotel-on-wheels is rightly regarded as part and parcel of remarketing it as the romantic gateway to Scotland.
This change is necessary because of the way the market in public transport has changed. The service still has much to recommend it, giving customers the freedom to have a leisurely dinner in one city, go to bed and wake in another. It still offers some very competitively priced tickets. Nevertheless, competition from loudly marketed low-cost airlines means the Sleeper service must work hard to retain its share of the market in the long term. The decision to maintain a choice of accommodation at different price points is wise. The Sleeper service must remain accessible to as many travellers as possible.
Public confidence in the rail franchising process suffered a major blow last autumn when the decision to award the West Coast mainline franchise to FirstGroup was scrapped, because of mistakes in the bidding process by Department of Transport staff. That cost taxpayers an estimated £50m. Scottish ministers and civil servants will be anxious to avoid any whiff of controversy in relation to this contract, which involves £50m of public money. Hopefully passengers can look forward to a smooth conclusion to the process and the beginning of a bright new era for the beloved Caledonian Sleeper.
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