PLANS FOR a sleeper service linking Thurso in the north of Scotland with the Scottish central belt appear to have been foiled by a lack of support from Transport Scotland.

The concept, dubbed Midnight Train to Georgemas, has been promoted by the Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership (HiTRANS). The original concept was based on using Mk 3 sleeper vehicles displaced from Caledonian Sleeper services by the introduction of new Mk 5 coaches during 2019. A study was commissioned from SNC-Lavalin which considered various options for rolling stock, stabling and maintenance and service patterns. A report to a HiTRANS meeting in November suggests the service would require a £2.5 million annual subsidy but would deliver £4.2 million per year in benefits. However, it says Transport Scotland raised a range of concerns, including about demand, subsidy, rolling stock condition and refurbishment costs, compliance with Persons with Reduced Mobility (PRM) regulations and other safety requirements and depot access.

In response to this, HiTRANS developed an alternative proposal based on HST operation using a luxury seating layout with no sleeper berths. Each train would be in a 2+4 configuration with three first class carriages and one vehicle for bikes/sports equipment, parcels and catering with some seating. This is thought to be a simpler operation with reduced housekeeping costs through having no sleeping berths. Trains could be serviced at Haymarket and/or Inverness depots, with services running from Thurso to Edinburgh via Glasgow (and vice versa). Fitment of Radio Electronic Token Block (RETB) equipment would be required for operation on the Far North line, with HiTRANS suggesting one power car could be switched out north of Inverness to save on fuel but would provide redundancy in case of a failure.

HiTRANS reports Transport Scotland reviewed a report produced by Systra in the summer and concluded that, whilst the concept of an overnight connection has some merit, the proposals presented generate a number of substantial issues regarding patronage, subsidy level and a range of operational risks consequent on using older rolling stock and declined to support the proposition as it stands.