About the West Highland Railway
Run by ScotRail, Scotland’s national rail company, the West Highland Railway is a must-do train trip. It’s been voted the ‘world’s most scenic train journey’ for three consecutive years by readers of Wanderlust magazine and no wonder.
It passes iconic Highland scenery – all glens, lochs and rugged mountains – and goes over the Glenfinnan Viaduct, famously featured in the Harry Potter films and many small and big screen productions.
Where & when does the West Highland Railway go?
The West Highland Line starts from Glasgow Queen Street and goes either to Oban or Mallaig on the west coast of Scotland. From Mallaig you can get the ferry to Skye or one of the ‘small islands’. There are only a few departures per day, and with a total journey time of over five hours to Mallaig, the 8.21am departure may be your best bet.
West Highland Line by Steam
During the summer months, you can also travel on the Jacobite steam train, a hugely popular tourist train that runs from Fort William to Mallaig. From May to October the morning service leaves Fort William at 10.15am and arrives at Mallaig at 12.25pm. The return leaves Mallaig at 2.10pm, giving you plenty of time to sit and enjoy fresh fish and chips on the seafront. From June to September, this service also runs at the weekend.
The afternoon service leaves Fort William at 2.30pm and arrives back in Fort William at 8.24pm. It runs from June to August, Monday to Friday.
How much does a trip on the West Highland Railway cost?
If you buy your tickets well in advance you could get lucky and grab a return – or two singles – for around £30. Otherwise, prices can go up to around £57. Check out http://www.scotrail.co.uk for up-to-date tickets and times.
A standard return on the Jacobite is £33, while First Class is £56. You can get tickets from http://www.westcoastrailways.co.uk
What’s the food, drink and service on board the West Highland Railway like?
There’s no dining car on the West Highland Railway although there is a trolley service, with hot and cold drinks, crisps, chocolate and other snacks. There’s not a lot of choice though so you might want to take a packed lunch with you. Five hours is a long time to be stuck on a train without decent food and drink, no matter how lovely the scenery is.
There are some concessions made to the fact that this is primarily a tourist train though – friendly staff come round handing out postcards of some of the best views along the line, as well as guides to the history and points of interest en route. If you want a preview of what to expect, you can download the guide from http://www.scotrail.co.uk/
You can spoil yourself – or someone else – a bit more on the Jacobite. When you buy your tickets you have the option to buy champagne, chocolates or flowers – or all three!
What’s special about the West Highland Railway?
In a word, the scenery. Once you’ve left Glasgow’s urban sprawl behind, less than thirty minutes into the journey, it’s pretty phenomenal eye candy for the duration.
Around Garelochhead, the train sweeps high above the banks of the Clyde, with little clusters of white cottages looking impossibly small on the opposite shore and the sloping tree line fringed with pines. Soon after, the views switch to the right side of the train as the edge of Loch Lomond appears through rows of corkscrewed, still bare branches which look like gnarly hands reaching out to scoop the silvery waters below.
The scenery gets more dramatic as the station names become more staunchly Gaelic sounding, conjuring up no small measure of romance. Coming up to Ardlui, the wilds of the Highlands get into their stride. The hillsides have that suedey textured scrub, their khaki colours are patched with the odd splash of orange and mustard, even at this time of year when winter has more or less faded but spring has yet to burst into life. The burns and waterfalls carve paths down the hillside.
At Crianlarich the train divides, giving you a chance to stretch your legs and take in some mountain air. Around this point of the journey you begin to feel woven into the landscape, as you find yourself in amongst the craggy rocks rather than seeing them from afar.
Soon the stations become the only outposts of civilisation, some of which double up as bunkhouses for hikers stopping off. They’re uniformly charming too, with low level station cabins with brightly painted window frames, flower baskets and gravel platforms, you could almost be in the Alps. One is put use as a restaurant in the evenings. The Old Station Restaurant invites you to ‘Dine on the Line’ at Spean Bridge Station.
At Rannoch you’re pitched into true wilderness, the landscape opens wide, with just the lumpy gorse-clad earth and the odd startled deer or sheep for company. You can practically smell the peat in the air outside. A lone tree sprouts from a mossy rock, as if posing deliberately for a VisitScotland brochure photo opp, the shell of a single grey, ruined church looks lonely and God forsaken in this wilderness, making you wonder just how far its devout congregation had to trudge to reach it.
Before long you pass through Corrour Summit until eventually you reach Fort William. From here you can jump on board the Jacobite steam train, which offers plenty more dramatic scenery, as well as the sheer joy and romance of travelling the old-fashioned way. Starting near Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain, you’ll pass several small Highland villages including Lochailort, Arisaig and Morar, as well as several lochs, rivers and mountains. On a clear day you’ll also be able to see the ‘Small Isles’ of Rum, Eigg, Muck, Canna and the southern tip of Skye.
Is the West Highland Railway worth it and what type of traveller would enjoy it?
Not only is it worth it, it’s really not to be missed. If you’re in Scotland, make sure you arrange your itinerary so you have a day free to experience both the West Highland Railway and the Jacobite steam train journey. You don’t have to be a rail enthusiast to enjoy it either: the landscape is the big draw here – and there’s plenty of it!
It can work both as a one-day scenic journey or as the starting point for a hiking or camping holiday so it would a range of travellers, from those wanting a lazy window-gaze to the more active outdoorsy types.
Know before you go
During the summer, the Highlands is plagued with midges. These tiny critters have a big bite, and they’re pretty wily too: they hang about the stations and swarm in with the passengers when the doors are opened. You’ll spend the next few minutes slapping yourself and being eaten to death unless you slather yourself in repellent!
If you’re planning a few days in Scotland, it’s worth looking into ScotRail’s passes. The Freedom of Scotland Travelpass gives you unlimited travel on trains, ferries and some coach services throughout Scotland from £134, while the Highland Rover gives you unlimited travel throughout the West and North Highlands. See http://www.scotrail.co.uk/ for details and prices.
If you’re coming from overseas and fancy heading south of the border into England, you might also want to look into BritRail passes, which should help you get the best value for your trip in what lamentably is still a relatively expensive country for rail travel.
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