Where do you suppose the best railway journey in the world is located ? Through the Alps in Switzerland ? Across the Canadian Rockies ? In fact the West Highland Line from Glasgow to Fort William and on to Mallaig has been voted the worlds’ best in the Wanderlust Travel Awards for the last three years running.
The line from Glasgow to Fort William opened in 1894 with the extension west to Mallaig opening in 1901. It’s accolade is well deserved: the route runs through some of the wildest and most scenic parts of Scotland, with scarcely a road or settlement to be seen for long stretches. It’s not the fastest train around, however, stopping at every station and taking 5 1/4 hours to travel the 164 miles between Glasgow and Mallaig. You can read more about its history and see some great photos of the line in winter on the Seat61.com website.
It’s a journey I’ve long wanted to do, and I got my chance having cycled from Mull to Mallaig recently with my nephew. While a diesel train is the quickest way to travel on the stretch between Fort William and Mallaig, by far the best experience is the Jacobite steam train – aka the ‘Hogwarts Express’ – which runs twice daily during the summer months. The engine pulls 1950s British Railways Mark 1 carriages so you really get a good sense of what train travel was like in the days of steam.
All the passengers were tourists (it’s £34 for a return journey) and I guess everyone apart from my nephew and myself had come on a return journey. We, on the other hand, had arrived at Mallaig station looking for somewhere to get changed out of our soaking wet cycling clothes (it was a day of typical West coast drizzle) just as about 300 camera-toting tourists flocked into the station. The station master (is that what they’re still called in this day and age ?) rather abruptly told us off for trying to reorganise our cycling gear inside the station so we retreated to the toilets to get changed out of our soaking clothes. If we’d been better organised we would have realised what time the crowds would fill Mallaig. That way, not only would we have been able to get organised in peace but we wouldn’t have had to trail round four cafes until we found one with an empty table.
Fed and watered, we loaded our pre-booked bikes on to the train and took our seats. The bikes occupied a corridor in Coach D, just beside the souvenir shop in case you’re interested.
It was a real shame that the weather was so damp and grey since we missed the fabulous views out towards the islands of Eigg and Rum and the landscape wasn’t shown off in its full glory.
The steam train puffed along at a decent rate in between stations, hooting its whistle every so often. The line twists in among the mountains, cutting through tunnels occasionally then with the views opening out on to lochs on both sides of the track. Those Victorian engineers must have been really skilled to have found a suitable route.
I have two minor gripes with the Jacobite steam train, run by West Coast Railways. First, the windows were far from clean and second, they windows on the carriage doors didn’t open. (I’m not sure if that was just in our carriage or whether this was a ‘safety’ feature in all carriages). Either way – as you can see – it was very difficult to get decent quality pictures. Most people resorted to taking quick snaps through the mucky windows or jostling to stick their iPhones and iPads out of the sliding head-height windows you can see in the picture above. I’m sure the line has the remnants of electronic gadgetry littered along it at strategic points where people lost grip of their phones stuck out of the window !
It’s unsurprising that the windows are dirty, mind you. Steam trains are dirty. Our carriage was the first one behind the engine and the windows steamed up every time we went through a tunnel. And when the head-height windows were left open going through tunnels the smoke blew back into the carriage leaving soot on the tables !
The outward journey (from Fort William to Mallaig) stops at Glenfinnan Station for 20 minutes, time enough for people to get out and stretch their legs. However on the return journey there’s just a few minutes’ pause while the engine lets off steam (literally !). It’s then just a short distance to the most famous landmark on the line, the 21-arched Glenfinnan Viaduct which overlooks Loch Shiel and the Jacobite monument. The train doubled as the Hogwarts Express in the ‘Harry Potter’ films and was filmed crossing the famous curved viaduct. This is also the prime place to take photos, looking in front to the engine or to the carriages behind.
In spite of the dull weather it was a fantastic journey and one that I would recommend as a bucket list item to everyone.