West is best in the highlands

19 min read

Feature Cab ride

The most scenic railway journey in the world? Well, in the UK for sure. But what is the West Highland Line like to drive? PAUL CLIFTON takes a cab ride to find out

With Ben Nevis as a distant backdrop, ScotRail156478 leaves Glenfinnn.

Is there a more staggeringly beautiful line anywhere? Loch Lomond, the wild Rannoch Moor, Glenfinnan Viaduct, white sand and Caribbean-blue waters with views across to the Hebrides. The West Highland Line also boasts the highest, most remote, and most westerly stations in the UK.

“I’ve done my whole railway life on this route. Any of the drivers will tell you that no two days are the same, especially with the weather.”

So says ScotRail train crew manager Diane Macdonald, who for this journey to Mallaig joins driver Marie MacBeth and newly-qualified conductor Margaret Macphee. “We never take it for granted,” Marie says. “We appreciate it more when we see it every day. We all know each other on this line, and we all understand we have the best jobs anywhere on the railway. We see some awesome sights early in the morning or late at night.”

But winters here are harsh, and the changing climate is having a real impact on the people who keep this line open and safe for passengers.

It is possible to do the entire route from Glasgow Queen Street to Mallaig and back in a day. But it’s a long one - around five and a half hours each way, with a couple of hours’ turnaround behind the ferry to Skye. It’s only 164 miles each way, but you could travel from Glasgow to London and back in less time than it takes to cross the Highlands.

There’s a change of driver halfway at Crianlarich. Glasgow crews bring the 35-year-old Class 156 north, then wait to take over the next train back south. Crews from Mallaig, Oban and Fort William take their trains from the coast to Crianlarich and swap over.

There’s a tiny rest room on the platform, with a microwave and a sink, while they wait. Some drivers are signed all the way to the city. Most are not.

Today, I’m meeting Diane and Marie at Crianlarich. Marie’s incoming train from Mallaig is running very late.

A notice pinned to the station cafe is an indication of difficult times. It reads: “As of August 2023, the tea room has ceased trading. We want to thank all our customers over the previous 12 years. Nadia and Callum.”

The lines split just beyond the platform - right for Mallaig, left for Oban. Single-track all the way, with a handful of passing loops at stations. The sign orders drivers: “Stop. Obtain token and permission to proceed.”

The ‘toke

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