Rail insiders have given a cautious welcome to the prospect of more night trains, as mooted by the chief executive of Network Rail.
“I am anticipating that my customers – the train operating companies – will come to me in the not-too-distant future and tell me they want to run 24-hour trains.”
The number of overnight sleeper services has gradually reduced over the decades to just three basic night trains: the Night Riviera between London Paddington and Penzance, the Highland Sleeper connecting London Euston with Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William, and the Lowland Sleeper linking Euston with Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Seated passengers can travel on portions of these services, for example on the 4.11am from Exeter to Plymouth or the 1.45am from Carlisle to Watford Junction.
In addition, all-night trains have run on the main line from London to Gatwick Airport to Brighton since the 1970s. Currently one or two trains per hour connect Bedford with Three Bridges, just south of Gatwick, serving Luton Airport Parkway and several central London stations.
In the north of England and southern Scotland, the main night trains are TransPennine Express services to and from Manchester Airport. For example, a train leaves Edinburgh at 10.15pm and Carlisle at 11.45pm, arriving at Manchester Airport at 2.16am. From York and Leeds, the overnight service to Manchester Airport is almost hourly.
But on most other routes, trains after midnight or before 5am are very rare. From Birmingham to Derby, for example, the first train of the day is at 6am, with the last at 11.09pm. And between Bristol and Plymouth, there is an eight-hour gap in direct departures between 9.26pm and 5.24am.
Mark Smith, the former British Rail manager who now runs the Seat61.com website, said: “Train service patterns today can still reflect the ‘early to rise, early to bed, Sundays off’ ethos of decades ago.
“Extra late night trains, and a much-improved Sunday service would be very useful on many routes with today’s lifestyles. But all night? I doubt that’s needed except in and around London and maybe one or two other major cities.”
Train operators will have to overcome several hurdles before launching night services. The first is gauging demand for such a link. Next, rail unions will robustly represent the interests of train staff whose working patterns are set to change dramatically. And they will need to negotiate with Network Rail for access to tracks. The infrastructure owner uses the gap between services to carry out essential maintenance.
Virgin Trains recently added an 11pm departure from London Euston to Manchester. Rather than the journey time of just over two hours achieved by earlier trains, tonight’s departure is scheduled to take over three-and-a-half hours because of delays and diversions due to engineering work.
The opening up of more lines could lead to innovative services and lower fares. A large number of High Speed Trains, built in the 1970s, are being replaced by more modern rolling stock. Enterprising train operators might opt to deploy the old Inter-City trains on long-distance links at very low fares.
In addition, there has been speculation that Scotland’s Far North Line would benefit from a sleeper service from Edinburgh and/or Glasgow — offering the prospect of a midnight train to Georgemas Junction, where the lines to Wick and Thurso divide.
Megabus and National Express currently run many overnight links at low fares, such as the midnight Megabus service from Glasgow to Birmingham, which takes almost eight hours for a typical last-minute fare of £18.
Mr Carne said: “If you look at the success of the Night Tube in London, it is an example of how if you provide a different service, people use it.
“If you have a 24-hour Tube, it is not going to be long before people want 24-hour availability of rail systems. So we have to be one step ahead of the game.”
A spokesperson for the Rail Delivery Group, representing train operators, said: “In their long-term plan rail companies have committed to doing more for communities, customers and the economy.
“Train companies will consider timetable changes where there is demand, where it will boost night time economies and improve transport interchanges.
“A balance must be struck, though, between ensuring reliable infrastructure, which will require regular maintenance – usually done at night – and meeting the needs of customers outside traditional hours.”