Robert Hampton

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14th June 2010

Steamy Business

Jacobite TicketOn Thursday it was time to say goodbye to Knoydart and head back to Glasgow. We boarded the morning ferry at Inverie Ferry Terminal (a fancy name for a small hut containing a bench and a toilet).

The boat deposited us safely back in Mallaig just before 12 o’clock, and we immediately headed back to the station to work out our plan of action. Our goal: secure a place on the Jacobite steam train to Fort William. We had tried to book tickets online but had been told they were all sold out. The web site did offer a slim ray of hope, however: some tickets are sold on the day by the train crew. I therefore wanted to meet the train as it arrived from its inward journey.

We had about half an hour before the train was due, so I took the opportunity to have a look around, as our rushed connection on Monday afternoon had left no time to explore. I was pleasantly surprised that Mallaig station, despite only serving five trains a day, had a fully fledged station building with toilets and a staffed ticket office.

I was just relieved to have shelter from the rain, which was coming down rather heavily at this point. While Nuno hunted for somewhere to leave our luggage, I sat observing as the lone ticket clerk dealt patiently with a procession of foreign tourists who needed to get to London (impossible unless they stayed somewhere overnight or had sleeper tickets, as they couldn’t reach Glasgow before 9pm, well after the last London train would have left).

I wasn’t the only one making use of the station facilities, as some seagulls had decided to nest on the track! The rails they were using appeared to be disused, thankfully.

Seagull on the line at Mallaig station

There was also the standard double-arrow logo on a pole outside, and I couldn’t resist a Mersey Tart tribute shot:

Me outside Mallaig

I could have asked Nuno to take it, but I decided to do it the old-fashioned way: camera at arms’ length and take a wild guess at the correct angle (the above shot was my third attempt).

Then — excitement! In the distance the chuff-chuff sound of a real live steam engine could be heard. You always hear steam trains long before you see them, and it seemed like forever before the train actually arrived.

I’m strictly a diesel man myself — give me the throaty roar of a Class 37 any day — but I have to admit that there’s something quite special about steam locomotives: with all the hissing and clanking, the moving of pistons and wheels, and the unmistakeable smell of soot and smoke, they are almost living, breathing creatures, and it is wonderful to see one in action.

I went hunting for the guard, but found only a man wearing a kilt who pointed me towards Coach D, but advised me to wait until after the loco had run round its train and reversed into the departure platform, as the guard was supervising the shunt manoeuvre.

I therefore stood on the platform and watched as the train crew arranged for the loco to run round its train and shunt into the other platform. I also whipped out my iPod nano camera, so you now have the benefit of ACTUAL! YOUTUBE! FOOTAGE!

Nuno, meanwhile, had actually gone to the loco and blagged his way into the cab, where he snapped a closeup of the controls. It’s a far cry from the modern computer-controlled trains of today, where most problems can be solved by turning them off and on again (yes, really). Working one of these beasts is a massive undertaking. Driver and fireman need to have their wits about them, as every valve and handle needs to be handled with precision. Operating steam locomotives could become increasingly problematic in the future, as the people with the requisite skills… er, die.

Close up of controls of 45407

The loco, if you’re interested (and I’m sure you are) is “Black 5” number 45407 The Royal Lancashire Fusiliers, designed by William Stanier and built in 1937 for the London, Midland and Scottish Railway company. I knew all this already and definitely did NOT look it up on Wikipedia.

With the train now safely stabled in its departure platform, we sought out Coach D and the guard, who turned out to be a friendly woman in an orange safety jacket. She took our names and said she would definitely get us on the train, but we should come back later, as we were interrupting her lunch. Oops.

I was glad to get a guarantee from her. Up until now, I had been ambivalent about getting on board. It would have been nice, for sure — the chocolate sauce on top of the ice cream sundae that had been our lovely week (OK, that metaphor is stupid) — but it wasn’t essential. Now though, seeing the train with its rake of elegant Mark 1 coaches, I desperately wanted to be on board, soaking up the classic rail experience.

Mark 1 coaches at Mallaig

With some time to kill, we headed out of the station for some exploration. Mallaig is a small town but charming in its own way with all the facilities you need to get by, including a famous fish and chip shop (which I sadly didn’t get to sample) and a bank that closes for lunch. There was also this rather unsettling figure sat outside one of the shops:

Figure outside shop in Mallaig

We had a couple of hours to kill before the departure of the train and the weather remained unkind, so we dumped our bags at a nearby outdoor goods shop which offered a left luggage facility, and ducked into the Fishermen’s Mission, which was holding a second-hand book sale. Nuno, avowed bookworm that he is, found some excellent books, including the truly demented-sounding French to English Dictionary for Chemists.

Back at the station there was a lot of activity as excited tourists wandered around, trying to find their seats. The luggage van was serving as an impromptu gift shop, selling DVDs, posters and assorted souvenirs at EXTREMELY REASONABLE PRICES.

We joined a small queue of other hopeful latecomers outside the guard’s compartment. I imagine this is what it’s like when you’re trying to get into a nightclub. Right? It is, isn’t it? It’s EXACTLY THE SAME.

The guard appeared and recognised us. She took our money and wrote out our ticket. Then she turned to the expectant elderly couple behind us.

“Sorry, we’re full.”


The guard then beckoned us to follow her. She led us down the carriage, which was one of those wonderful compartment coaches with side corridor.

Interior of Mark 1 compartment coach

She gestured to a compartment which was marked “PRIVATE – STAFF ONLY” and had toolboxes, overalls and various other bits of equipment stowed in the luggage racks. Anxious thoughts started to fill my head, but I managed to dispel them quickly.

The West Highland Line is single track, so before we could depart, we had to wait for the normal service train from Glasgow. It duly glided in, right on time, at 1409. This was the same service on which we had travelled a few days earlier. Then, it had seemed exciting; now, it was pedestrian, routine.

It was time for us to depart, and sounds of a railway from fifty years ago filled my ears: doors slammed, the whistle blew and then we heard the unmistakeable sound of a steam locomotive at work: first the hissing as the driver opens the regulator, followed by the clanking and creaking from the coaches as they reluctantly started to move. Then, of course, came the unforgettable chuff-chuff sound from the engine up front.

A steam train is not just an experience for the passengers on board, but also for the bystanders who happen to see it. As the loco worked hard to build up speed, I became aware of the spectacle we were creating. On the adjacent road, pedestrians stopped and waved at us. Children in cars pressed their noses up against the glass, no doubt prompted by their parents saying, “look! It’s Thomas!” (which, of course, is not correct, as it was Henry who was based on a Black 5).

Nuno heroically ignored the “Do not lean out of the window” signs to capture some fantastic images, including a wonderful shot of Glenfinnan Viaduct. Tch, health and safety, eh?

Glenfinnan Viaduct

A few minutes later, we steamed through a tunnel. The window had been left open, allowing the compartment to fill with smoke. It was probably not brilliant for our lungs, but an amazing treat for the senses.

The icing on the cake came a few minutes later when a steward came through and announced that I had won the train’s charity raffle and handed me a bottle of West Highland Railway whisky!

It’s probably a bottle bought from the local Lidl with a custom-made label attached, but it was still a great way to end a perfect journey.

West Highland Railway Whisky

We arrived at Fort William and settled in for quite a wait, as our onward connection to Glasgow was not due until 5.27pm, nearly 90 minutes later. Fortunately the station’s neat and tidy concourse was a perfectly adequate place to wait, complete with a small newsagent which clearly used to be a WHSmith as all the signage was in their font and colours, with any reference to the chain store carefully removed.

Fort William station concourse

The station has two ticket windows, which remained open until 20 minutes before the train was due, at which point one of them closed (IT MAKES PERFECT SENSE). I watched as a queue rapidly built up at the remaining window behind two American tourists. They were arguing loudly with the ticket clerk about a mistake on their Caledonian Sleeper tickets which would seemingly prevent them from travelling.

There are nice touches to the station, like this old British Rail plaque commending the staff for keeping services going during severe weather in 1984. This is the sort of thing I miss about the old BR — a simple gesture like this must have instilled a real sense of pride in the area’s railway staff and I doubt anything similar would be attempted in the privatised era.

Commemorative Plaque at Fort William

Finally, our train arrived and we settled in for the run to Glasgow. By this point I was slightly too tired to appreciate the unfolding scenery for a second time. We rolled into Queen Street bang on time at 9.30pm. We were exhausted from a full day of travelling, but happy.

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