West Highland Railway: Worth the Hype?
It’s been voted the ‘world’s most scenic train journey’ for 3 consecutive years by readers of Wanderlust magazine, so it’s high time I checked out the West Highland Line, since it’s practically on my doorstep after all.
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 5 hours to Mallaig, the 8.21 departure is your best bet. The line is run by Scotrail with return tickets starting from around £30 if booked in advance.
So what’s the train like?
Is it truly worthy of the accolade foisted on it by no doubt staycation crazy Wanderlust readers? Does it live up to all the hype? Well, pretty much, though there is room for improvement.
First of all, it’s important to know that this is not a luxury train service. I knew this before I took it, but still couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed by the train itself. Run on stock from the late 80s or maybe early 90s, it looks like a typical intercity or commuter service. The seats are narrower and less comfortable than what you might find on say the East Coast Mainline and other British rail journeys of a similar length.
No Dining Service
The other let down is that there’s no dining car on board. There are menu cards circulated early in the journey, but don’t let this fool you, it’s trolley service only. The trolley comes around at regular intervals, stocked with standard fare, pre-packaged sandwiches, crisps and snacks. The coffee was decent enough though and there are a few healthy options, including Stoats Apple & Cinnamon Spiced Porridge, which my partner enjoyed.
I’m not saying it should be a luxury train you understand, it’s a vaguely affordable (by British standards) working service, ferrying hikers and bikers up to the Highlands, alongside the tourists, and so it should remain. But just because the views outside the window are spectacular this doesn’t mean that a little more effort inside the car would go amiss.
What about the journey itself?
It’s reliably and consistently scenic, no doubt about that. If great glens and glistening lochs are your thing, you’re in for a treat. 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. In fact, even before things get all scenic on your ass, there’s still enough to capture your attention: there’s a graveyard of wooden ship skeletons around Bowling Harbour, the mudflats of Helensburgh and the Clyde Estuary, the strangely imposing mound at Dunbarton Station, all of which makes for interesting viewing.
Things pick up in earnest 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 treeline 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.
Wha’s like us?
The scenery gets more dramatic as the station names become more staunchly Gaelic sounding – and harder to pronounce for us Sassernachs. The place names conjure up no small measure of romance and you can easily imagine how intoxicating they sound to visitors from the New World who yearn to trace their ancestors’ tracks.
All Scottish stations are bi-lingual these days, a legacy of devolution perhaps, but you notice that the Gaelic names are given equal billing as you head further north. Understandably, this confuses some visitors. We stifle a chuckle as one of elderly American ladies in the window seat opposite us says to the other and says, ‘Oh my, I wonder why they’ve put all the station names in Welsh?’
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. They rush so fast that they could almost be mistaken for skinny ski runs from this distance. A random ‘we apologise for the delay’ announcement comes through the tannoy for no apparent reason. A passenger behind us supposes that it’s force of habit.
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 windowframes, 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 we pass through Corrour Summit, where groups of weary, rosy-cheeked hikers stumble on with their backpacks, amid clouds of midges and eventually we reach Fort William, the terminus of our rail journey this time around.
Beyond Fort William lies the extraordinary feat of engineering that is the Glenfinnan Viaduct, which is famous for its role in the Harry Potter films. Here you can flit back in time and take the Jacobite Express, a glorious steam locomotive service, which doubled up as the Hogwarts Express and runs daily from Fort William and Mallaig during the summer months.
But Fort William is our journey’s end. ‘Outdoor Capital of the UK’ it may be, but beyond Ben Nevis, I think it’s fair to say it’s not much of a destination. First impressions from stepping out of the station are underwhelming. It looks like a particularly unloved retail park, with its vast car park, the obligatory MacDonalds and a huge Morrison’s Supermarket.
Fortunately we weren’t staying long. It was merely our jumping off point for a lazy weekend at the gorgeous and homely Kilcamb Lodge Hotel, in Strontian, on the remote and considerably lovelier Ardnamurchan Peninsula, Argyllshire. More on that shortly.
There are a number of good deals available through Scotrail. A regular partnership with Sainsbury’s means that you can travel on this line – and in fact anywhere in Scotland – from just £19 return when you make a purchase in store.
If you’re over 54, then you could join Club 55, which can bag you tickets at £19 between 16 January and 31 March.
Finally, do check out this exhaustive list of British bargain rail tickets and railcards.