Robert Hampton

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30th May 2010

Mallaig of Extraordinary Gentlemen

ScotRail West Highland Line timetable coverWe were up bright and early on Monday morning to head for Glasgow’s other main station, Queen Street. This is the starting point for services to the North, including the long and winding route to Mallaig. Armed with a bottle of Irn-Bru for refreshment (made in Scotland from girders… and E-numbers), we boarded a well-appointed ScotRail Super Sprinter and settled in to our table seat for the 5 hour, 2 minute journey ahead.

After chugging through the suburbs of Glasgow, I peered out of the window as a wondrous landscape began to emerge. On one side of the train, the River Clyde shimmered in the morning sunshine. On the other, Dumbarton Muir loomed large.

I realised that masts for the overhead power lines were still whizzing past at regular intervals, meaning we had not yet left the confines of the Strathclyde urban network. A quick check of the map confirmed that Dumbarton Central, our second stop, was still very much in the commuter belt.

Let that sink in for a second: if you commute into Glasgow by train, you get to see this sort of thing every day. Maybe after a few months it becomes routine, but I can’t see how that could happen.

Helensburgh Upper marks the start of the West Highland Line proper and the nature of the railway immediately changes. Gone is the fast double-tracked line and electrification, replaced by single track with steep gradients.

Nuno was busily snapping away with his digital camera during this section, and as soon as he gets the pictures to me I will include them. For now though, you will have to make do with my description. Sorry!

At Crianlarich we were joined by a coach party, consisting mainly of elderly people from south-east England. Some delay ensued as they wandered through the carriages, trying to find unreserved seats.

Two old dears homed in on the seats at the other side of our table. One checked the reservation label and called to her friend: “It’s all right, these are only reserved between Fort William and Malaga.” They chattered away for the rest of the journey, bemoaning the state of their former home town of Crawley, and complaining about the various insects that flew in through the open train window.

Also joining us at Crianlarich was the catering trolley. It was the usual train fare: prepacked sarnies and premixed coffee, all costing far too much. However, the female trolley steward was delightful, engaging in friendly banter with every customer and pointing out interesting landmarks while she counted out change. I liked her so much that I felt guilty for not buying anything from her.

The train’s diesel engine throbbed relentlessly as it tackled some fearsome gradients, and I pondered what would happen if we broke down. The line passes through some of the remotest areas in mainland Britain — rescue would not come quickly if needed.

View from the train on the West Highland Line

This is a proper railway, ambling along through the countryside at 50 mph, miles away from the modern, sterile, experience offered by the likes of Virgin on the express lines. For mile after mile, the train rocks and bounces over jointed track with its characteristic “clickety-clack” noise, mixed in with squeals from the wheels as they object to yet another tight curve.

We stopped at stations with platforms so short only one door of the train was opened, causing the conductor on several occasions to shout over the PA to people that they were waiting at the wrong door. We stopped at stations with no visible purpose, located in isolated spots where the only sign of civilisation was the station itself: a friendly red double-arrow logo standing like a beacon amidst the bleak landscape.

We arrived at Fort William, where the coach party left us, to be replaced by an equally large contingent of people: hikers, tourists and locals mingled in the aisles, trying to find an unreserved seat. A few minutes later, we were on our way again — in the opposite direction, as the train has to reverse back out of the station to continue to Mallaig.

Soon we reached Glenfinnan, and a significant number of the train’s passengers leapt out of their seats to try and grab a shot of the famous viaduct, seen in the Harry Potter films amongst others. I attempted to capture it with my camera phone — not entirely successfully.

Glenfinnan Viaduct

We were nearing journey’s end now. We passed through Arisaig, where, in the distance, it was possible to see stunning beaches where the sand was almost white with sparkling blue-tinged water.


A few minutes later we reached journey’s end at Mallaig. The train was just over 5 hours long, but the time had passed by quickly without a moment’s boredom — we were too busy staring open mouthed at the scenery as it passed. It is an amazing experience for rail enthusiasts and casual tourists alike. Small wonder that it was voted best railway journey in the world last year.

Mallaig offered a variety of delights, not least the Jacobite steam train, waiting in the adjacent platform as we arrived. No time to explore though, as we had just six minutes to hurry to the ferry terminal for the boat to Inverie.

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