The World's Best Train Ride?

A few years ago, the Wanderlust Travel Awards included a new category, Best Rail Journey.  So who won?  The train to Machu Picchu in Peru?  Through the Alps in Switzerland?  Across the Rockies in Canada?  No.  Right on our doorstep, readers of Wanderlust Magazine voted for the wonderful West Highland Line from Glasgow to Fort William & Mallaig in Scotland as the world's best train journey.  Rightly so, as the West Highland Line is not only the most scenic train route in Britain, it's one of my favourite journeys anywhere.  This page explains what there is to see on the West Highland Line, and how to plan and book a journey on it. You can also travel on the West Highland Line on a daily summer steam train, or even on a luxury cruise train.

  The journey in pictures...

  A brief history of the West Highland Line

  Practical information:  Train times, fares & tickets

  Bus & ferry connections

 

  Local area & accommodation

  The Deerstalker sleeper from London to Fort William

  The Jacobite steam train Fort William to Mallaig

  The Royal Scotsman - Scotland's luxury cruise train

Where does the West Highland Line go?   Click for map of UK rail network

The West Highland Line runs from Glasgow to Fort William, the largest town in the West Highlands of Scotland, and onwards to Mallaig, a tiny fishing port and terminal for the ferry to Armadale on the Isle of Skye.  Most of the line is a twisting single track railway through fabulous Highland scenery, often miles from the nearest road.  There's also a branch to Oban, the ferry terminal for various other Scottish islands.  Just 3 ScotRail sprinter trains a day link Glasgow Queen Street with Fort William & Mallaig, fewer on Sundays, in addition to the London-Fort William sleeper - see www.nationalrail.co.uk for times & fares.  It's not fast, taking 3h45 for the 123 miles from Glasgow to Fort William or 5h15 for the 164 miles from Glasgow to Mallaig, stopping at all wayside stations.

A magical winter ride on the West Highland Line...    Click for practical information

These photos were taken on a magical winter morning from the London to Fort William Caledonian Sleeper.  Compare them with the magical summer's evening journey from Fort William to London shown on the Deerstalker page.

Tip:  From Glasgow to Fort William, sit on the left-hand side for the best views northbound, right hand side southbound.

Train to Fort William on the West Highland Line

Departure from Glasgow...  The West Highland Line starts at Glasgow Queen Street, passing through the Glaswegian suburbs towards Helensburgh.  You run along the shores of Loch Lomond (on the right-hand side of the train) towards Ardlui station.  Next stop, Crianlarich, where the line to Oban branches off.

Scenery on the West Highland Line   Upper Tyndrum station

After Crianlarich comes Upper Tyndrum (pictured above right), high up on the hillside above the village, with Tyndrum Lower on the steadily diverging line to Oban in the valley below.  The tiny village of Tyndrum is the smallest place in Britain with two separate stations.

The famous horseshoe curve on the West Highland Line

The Horseshoe curve...  North of Tyndrum, the railway builders hadn't the money for a viaduct across the mouth of a broad valley.  The result is the famous 'horseshoe curve', where the line enters, circles & leaves the glen at the foot of Beinn Dorain (pictured above, 3524 feet), Beinn a' Chaiseil (2897 feet) & Beinn Odhar (2948 feet).

Horseshoe curve looking back   Horseshoe curve looking forward

The Horseshoe curve again, looking backward (above left) and forwards (above right)

Bridge of Orchy station   Stags seen from the West Highland Line train

Bridge of Orchy station

 

Stags, seen from the train...

More West Highland scenery   Rannoch station

More winter scenery...

 

Rannoch station...

Leaving Rannoch station

Rannoch Moor...  The bleakest part of the line, where the railway is 'floated' across the peat bog on layers of turf and brushwood without solid foundations.  Here, the train is crossing the short viaduct north of Rannoch station.

Rannoch Moor

The bleakness of Rannoch Moor in winter...

Approaching Corrour station   Sign marking Corrour summit

Corrour...  If Rannoch is remote, Corrour station is even more so.  Probably Britain's most remote station, it's miles from anywhere accessed by a mere track.  The station featured in the 1996 film 'Trainspotting'.  Just north of Corrour station is the summit of the line, 1,350 feet above sea level.

A wide shot leaving Corrour

Looking back at Corrour, Britain's most remote station...

Loch Treig from the West Highland line train

Loch Treig...  For several miles the train passes beautiful Loch Treig.  The West Highland Line still has jointed rails, not welded rails, and the train's wheels clickety-clack along...

Frosty river   Tulloch station

A frosty Scottish river...

 

Tulloch station...

Monessie Gorge near Spean Bridge   Arriving in Fort William

Monessie Gorge...  After Tulloch station, look out for the pretty Monessie Gorge on the left, where the railway is built on a ledge along a rocky canyon with the river bubbling along below.

 

Fort William, 123 miles from Glasgow...  A modern station built in 1975, the railway originally extended along what is now the ring-road to a station off the high street. 

Climbing Ben Nevis...  Fort William station is only 10 minutes walk from the bottom of the tourist track up Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain, 4,409 feet or 1,344m.  It takes 3-5 hours to climb, 1-2 to descend.  Climbing Ben Nevis by the tourist track.

Fort William to Mallaig...

Fort William is the largest town on the West Highland Line and the sleeper from London terminates there.  But the West Highland Line extends further north to the fishing port & ferry terminal of Mallaig, and many people regard this as the nicest section of the route.  Mallaig is the ferry terminal for the Isle of Skye and several Scottish islands.  Four ScotRail sprinter trains a day link Fort William & Mallaig in each direction (one on Sundays), taking about 90 minutes - most run direct to and from Glasgow.  On this section, the left-hand side of the train gets most of the best views going north, right-hand side going south, including views round the curve onto Glenfinnan viaduct - but if travelling to or from Glasgow, remember the train changes direction at Fort William which is a terminus, so you'll have to switch sides there!

Sprinter train at Fort William station   Inside a ScotRail spinter train

Departure from Fort William...  Settle into your seat on the ScotRail sprinter train for the 1 hour, 41-mile journey to the end of the line at Mallaig.

River Lochy   Neptune's staircase

Old Inverlochy Castle...  Soon after leaving Ft William, look out for the ruins of Old Inverlochy Castle on the right just before crossing the River Lochy.

 

Neptune's Staircase...  At Banavie, the first stop, look to the right to see Neptune's Staircase, the series of locks on the Caledonian Canal across Scotland... 

Loch Eil

Loch Eil...  For some miles the train runs along the banks of saltwater Lock Eil.  This is the view looking back from Banavie towards Fort William and Ben Nevis.

Glenfinnan Viaduct

Glenfinnan Viaduct...  Just before Glenfinnan station, the train crosses Glenfinnan viaduct as featured in the Harry Potter films.  Built by contractor Robert McAlpine in 1901, it was one of the first rail viaducts to be built of concrete.  During construction, the story goes that a horse backed up a wagon to pour rubble into one of the hollow piers.  It backed too far, toppled backwards into the pier, and was sealed up.  The story was vindicated a few years ago, but on another viaduct, when maintenance staff using X-ray equipment found the skeleton of a horse in one of the piers of the Loch Nan Uamh viaduct.  The best views at Glenfinnan are on the left hand side of the train.

Glenfinnan and Loch Shiel   Bonnie Prince Charlie monument

Glenfinnan & Loch Shiel...  Down at the side of Loch Shiel, a monument commemorates Bonnie Prince Charlie raising his standard here in August 1745.

Glenfinnan station   Glenfinnan station

Glenfinnan Station...  Check out the station museum (www.glenfinnanstationmuseum.co.uk).  It even has accommodation in converted 1950s railway carriages... 

Scenery
Scenery
Loch Eilt

Lock Eilt.  The train runs along what is perhaps the most picturesque loch on the route, with several tree-strewn islands like this.  The best views here are on the right-hand side of the train.

Church of Our Lady of the Braes   The sea!

Church of Our Lady of the Braes.  Just after Lochailort station you might glimpse this church on the left.  It featured in the 1983 film 'Local Hero'.  Church services ceased in 1964.

 

The train meets the sea at Arisaig then Morar, on the left hand side.  The sandy beaches at Polnish & near Morar were used in the films 'Local Hero' and 'Highlander'.

Arisaig station   Approaching Mallaig

Arisaig, the most westerly railway station in Britain.  You didn't think that would be in Cornwall, now, did you?  Above right, the train approaches Mallaig.

Train arrived at Mallaig   Mallaig station

Mallaig is journey's end, 164 miles from Glasgow.  For accommodation, try The Moorings B&B or the West Highland Hotel.  For food, try the locally-caught haddock & chips at the Fishmarket restaurant on main street, or the wonderful langoustines & Mussels at either The Cabin restaurant or the Steam Inn near the corner of Main Street & Davies Brae.

Mallaig Harbour and ferry to Skye

Ferry to Skye & the islands.  Mallaig is the ferry terminal for ferries to Skye (Armadale), also the Scottish islands of Muck, Eigg and Rum.  For ferry information, see www.calmac.co.uk.

 

A brief history of the West Highland Line...

Practical information... 

 

Train times, fares & how to buy tickets...

The Jacobite steam train Fort William to Mallaig www.westcoastrailways.co.uk

Ferry & bus connections

Local area, food, hotels & accommodation...

Cruise the West Highland Line in luxury:  The Royal Scotsman cruise train...

Scotland has its very own cruise train, the luxurious & exclusive Royal Scotsman.  Several times each month from May to October the Royal Scotsman offers 3-night land cruises from Edinburgh up the West Highland Line & back with all meals, wine, whisky, afternoon tea and excursions all included from around 2,600 per person based on two people sharing.  It's a unique way to see a lot of Scotland in luxury in just a few days.  They also offer 2- & 4-night tours to other parts of Scotland.  For more information, photos & online booking, see the Royal Scotsman page.

Royal Scotsman train...   2-bed room on the Royal Scotsman cruise train   Lounge-observation car on the Royal Scotsman cruise train.

The Royal Scotsman, Scotland's very own cruise train...

 

A twin bed stateroom on the Royal Scotsman, with shower & toilet.  The train spends nights in a siding or platform, so you can sleep soundly.

 

The lounge-observation car, with complimentary drinks & open-air observation platform...

Britain's other scenic rail routes...

There are many other scenic routes in Britain, including:

You can check trains times for all of these routes using the form above or at www.nationalrail.co.uk.

You can find an excellent free map of Britain's national rail network at www.nationalrail.co.uk/passenger_services/maps/Network_Rail_national_map.pdf.

Sponsored links...


Hotels & accommodation in the West Highlands

For hotels in the wonderful West Highlands of Scotland (or anywhere else for that matter), you can search all the main hotel websites at once using the Hotels Combined booking form below.

 

◄◄ Hotel search & price comparison.

www.hotelscombined.com checks all the main hotel booking sites at once to find the widest choice of hotels & the cheapest seller.  It was named as the World's Leading Hotel Comparison Site at the World Travel Awards 2013 and I highly recommend it, both to find hotels in even the smallest places and to check that another retailer isn't selling your hotel for less!

www.booking.com is my favourite booking site.  It's really clear and you can usually book with free cancellation and so confirm your accommodation at no risk months before train booking opens.


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