The West Highland Railway, also known as the West Highland Line (Scottish Gaelic: Rathad Iarainn nan Eilean - "Iron Road to the Isles"), is a scenic railway in Scotland running from Glasgow to Fort William and Mallaig, with a branch leading to Oban from Crianlarich. In 2009, the readers of Wanderlust magazine voted the West Highland Line as the most scenic railway line in the world - a mantra repeated by many awestruck tourists.
This is a modern, working railway which runs from Glasgow to the Highlands through some spectacular scenery, passing the Loch Long and Loch Lomond, to Crianlarich where most trains divide with one portion heading to Oban whilst the other portion running up the rest of the West Highland Railway. The route continues aross Rannoch Moor to Fort William, then along a later extension to the port of Mallaig.
The line between Glasgow and Mallaig was built between 1889 and 1901. Oban was served by a separate line (called the Callander and Oban Railway) from Glasgow, which was opened in 1880. After most of the line was closed in 1965, the Oban services were diverted onto the West Highland Railway to enable them to reach Crianlarich (for the Oban line).
If you live in the area, you can get a Highland Railcard. This costs £8.80 per year, and gives a 50% discount on most fares on the West Highland Line. So even with a single trip, you can save more than the cost of the railcard. This railcard is available from the stations at Fort William, Mallaig and Oban, or by post with a form on the ScotRail website.
- See also: Rail travel in the United Kingdom
For those travellers who want to experience the West Highland Railway in all its glory, it all begins at Glasgow's Queen Street station. Unless you are coming by the ScotRail train that runs from Edinburgh via Falkirk or coming directly by train from Stirling, Perth or Aberdeen, you find yourself at Glasgow Central instead - it's a short walk between the two or you can use the connecting 398 bus service, it's free if you already have your onward rail ticket.
If embarking at one of the unmanned stations along the route you can buy your ticket on the train.
Most trains on the line are two coach diesel (Class 156 Sprinter) units. Most trains leave Glasgow with two or three sets of these, giving 4 (or more) coaches and the train is split at Crianlarich, with the front two or four carriages going to Oban and the rear two carriages going to Fort William and Mallaig. If you are going North, make sure that you sit in the correct half of the train. There are typically three of these trains per day.
The Caledonian Sleeper (a sleeper train operated by Serco) runs from London Euston to Fort William, which must be booked in advance. This train does not run on Saturday nights. Passengers who intend to use the seated accommodation on the train must change coaches at Edinburgh Waverley.
The Jacobite steam train runs between Fort William and Mallaig between June and October. The train leaves Fort William at 10:20AM, connecting with the Caledonian Sleeper from London Euston, and returns to Fort William at 4:00PM. This allows an hour and a half to look around Mallaig. It crosses the famous 21 arch Glenfinnan viaduct and stops at the village of Glenfinnan where Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard in 1745. It also stops at the village of Arisaig on request. Fare: £27 standard and £40 first class. Telephone +44 1524 737751 /737753.. Tickets can also be bought from the guard on the train, subject to availability, but not from any manned ticket offices or on board any other train.
The full route takes around 5.5 hours to Mallaig and 3 hours to Oban. Both sections continue along different lines to the village of Tyndrum, which bizarrely has two railway stations, Upper Tyndrum and Tyndrum Lower, each serving a different branch of the railway due to the geography of the glen here.
- 24 (201.2km).
Glasgow to Crianlarich
The first stop after leaving Glasgow is Dalmuir in Clydebank. This is an interchange on the electric Glasgow commuter network, and there are direct trains to Glasgow Central.
The journey continues along the north bank of the River Clyde passing under the Erskine Bridge. Entering Dumbarton, the castle can be seen on the left just before the stop at Dumbarton Central, and Ben Lomond can be seen in the distance on the right. Entering the resort town of Helensburgh, the train leaves the electric network and climbs up the hill on the start of the single track line to Helensburgh Upper.
At this point, railway enthusiasts may notice that there are no signals, but boards that say 'Obtain token before proceeding.' Most of the signalling on the West Highland Line is controlled via radio from the train station at Banavie. However, the line around Fort William is still semaphore-controlled, and there are some unusual semaphores on the Oban line known as the Pass of Brander Stone Signals
Leaving Helensburgh, the Gareloch can be seen on the left, as far as the stop at Garelochhead where the Faslane nuclear submarine base can be seen. The train then proceeds along the side of Loch Long to Arrochar & Tarbet. The next stop is Ardlui, next to Loch Lomond, where the daytime train often waits for a down train to pass. The train then proceeds up Glen Falloch to Crianlarich where most daytime trains are split in two.
Crianlarich to Oban
Both sections continue along different lines to the village of Tyndrum, which bizarrely has two railway stations, Upper Tyndrum and Tyndrum Lower, each serving a different branch of the railway due to the geography of the glen here.
The Oban branch stops at Tyndrum Lower, then through Glen Lochy to Dalmally. A few miles after Dalmally, Kilchurn Castle can be seen on the left beside Loch Awe. After stopping at Loch Awe, in the summer there is a request stop at Falls of Cruachan near the Cruachan Hydro Electric Power Station (which is housed in a cavern hollowed out of the hillside). The route line then passes through the Pass of Brander to Taynuilt. From here, Loch Etive (a sea loch) can be seen on the right. The next stop is Connel Ferry from where a branch of the Callander and Oban Railway used to run north to Ballachulish, a village about ten miles south of Fort William. From Connel the line runs inland to Oban, where passengers have an easy transfer to the ferry terminal.
Crianlarich to Fort William
The first stop is Tyndrum Upper. The line then heads north to Bridge of Orchy, with the West Highland Way footpath running alongside, and the A82 road nearby. Halfway between Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy, there is an impressive loop known as the 'Horseshoe Curve' in the line at Auch, before the line runs along the side of Beinn Dorain (1076ft). Part of the building at the Bridge of Orchy railway station is a youth hostel called the West Highland Way Sleeper.
After Bridge of Orchy, the line turns away from the road and heads over Rannoch Moor, a large upland wilderness. In places the line is 'floating' on the moor, on foundations made from wood and ash. Along the line, you just might see some soldier's trenches dating back from 1745 - blink and you will miss them! At Rannoch, there is a hotel and a road heading east to Pitlochry. It is possible to reach Rannoch station by bus from Pitlochry during the summer, changing at Kinloch Rannoch.
The next stop is Corrour, Britain's most remote and highest railway halt, over nine miles away from the nearest public road and serving only the deerstalking Corrour Estate and the environmentally friendly Loch Ossian Youth Hostel . Corrour is a request stop for the Caledonian Sleeper, whilst all other scheduled trains stop here anyway. For experienced hillwalkers, Rannoch is a half day walk away back down the line.
The picturesque Loch Treig can be seen on the left shortly after leaving Corrour, before the train stops at Tulloch. The station buildings are now a hostel . Approaching Roy Bridge, waterfalls can be seen on the left. The beautiful Monessie Gorge can also be seen from the left hand side of the train. At Spean Bridge the station buildings are now a restaurant . The line then heads southwest into Fort William, where the Caledonian Sleeper terminates. Passengers can change here for the Citylink buses to Inverness and the Isle of Skye.
Fort William to Mallaig
This part of the line was built as the Mallaig Extension Railway, now known as part of the West Highland Line, and was completed in 1901. Some people argue that this part of the line is the best part of the journey between Glasgow and Mallaig owing to its scenery. The train reverses out of Fort William and heads west to Banavie, where most of the signalling on the West Highland Railway is controlled from. At this point, the Neptune's Staircase (an impressive series of canal locks) can be seen from the train. The train heads on alongside the shore of Loch Eil, stopping at Corpach, the Loch Eil Outward Bound centre, Locheilside (by request) before reaching Glenfinnan, where the train crosses the famous Glenfinnan viaduct. The train then passes the scenic Loch Eilt before reaching the small village of Lochailort (a request stop). Passing Loch nan Uamh and the request stop at Beasdale, the train reaches the coast at Arisaig, where passengers can walk to the nearby Ferry Landing for the Arisaig Marine ferry to Eigg and Muck. The train is now on the last stage of its journey, stopping briefly at Morar then terminating at Mallaig, where passengers can cross the road to the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry terminal for Skye and the Small Isles.
- Walk from Milngavie (on the outskirts of Glasgow) to Fort William on the West Highland Way. This roughly follows the railway route from Ardlui to Bridge of Orchy.
- Take a Citylink Coach from Glasgow to Fort William. There are about 5 coaches per day. After Bridge of Orchy, they follow a very different route, passing through the scenic Glen Coe. This is one of the best coach routes in the UK (with most continuing on to Portree or Uig on Skye), but it is not quite as spectacular as the train.
- Take a Citylink Coach from Glasgow to Oban. Two different routes are used, one route via Inveraray and the other via Tyndrum, both fairly scenic.
Glasgow is Scotland's largest city, full of architecture, museums, and culture.