This year’s extension of the Jacobite season is the latest development for the Fort William to Mallaig steam trains, which have been running for over 30 years. The trains are now to run from Easter to the end of the year with a break in November.
Steam trains started running on this route for three days a week in 1984 following a request by Mallaig Community Council to British Rail’s (BR) newly formed ScotRail division. Since privatisation, these trains have been operated by West Coast Railways (WCR) as a daily service. The Jacobite trip takes six hours, two hours each way with two hours to visit Mallaig, a thriving fishing village and port for the Isle of Skye.
The train is named after those who supported Bonnie Prince Charlie’s bid for the throne in the 1745 uprising. It runs through rugged highland scenery from Fort William, the largest town in the Scottish Highlands, to Mallaig. This takes two hours, a time that suits most passengers. As the setting for the Hogwarts Express, it offers the Harry Potter factor, even though its passengers are (presumably) muggles. With such a magical combination of ingredients, it is not surprising that last year these trains carried 70,000 passengers, much to the benefit of the local economy.
PEPPERCORN AND BLACK FIVES
This year the steam locomotives booked for this service include Peppercorn ‘K1’ 62005 and ‘Black Fives’ 45407 and 44871. The hard- pressed firemen on these locomotives shovel about 3.5 tonnes of coal on each Jacobite trip. 44871 was built at Crewe in March 1945 and, in August 1968, was withdrawn from BR service, immediately after hauling its last steam passenger train.
Florence MacLean has been working on the railway for 34 years, during which she has been a ‘trolley dolly’, sleeping car attendant, shunter and freight guard. Florence is a guard on the Jacobite steam train. She loves her job. Her train carries honeymoon couples, those renewing vows and Harry Potter fans dressed as wizards. She has a first-class coach named after her and only works in summer.
On leaving Fort William, the train runs for nine miles along the shores of Loch Eil, with views of Ben Nevis towering over the town. After reaching the end of the loch, the sharp bark of the exhaust denotes the climb up a gradient of 1 in 48 towards the curved 21-arch Glenfinnan Viaduct, offering views of the Jacobite monument.
Immediately after the viaduct the train stops for 20 minutes at Glenfinnan station, restored to create the atmosphere of a late Victorian station. Here there are signalling demonstrations in the disused signal box and restored 1950s dining and sleeper coaches. The station houses a museum about the history of the line which has two rooms linked by the McAlpine tunnel, named after the engineer who built the railway, Sir Robert McAlpine, also known as Concrete Bob. The line was one of the world’s first construction projects to use mass concrete.
From Glenfinnan, the train continues its steep climb to the line’s 361-foot summit and then descends along the edge of Loch Eilt which has several tree-strewn islands. Shortly afterwards the train emerges from a short tunnel high above Loch Ailort. The first sight of the sea is a few miles later from the eight-arch Loch Nan Uamh viaduct. This has a plaque about a popular myth which reads, ‘The legend of builder Robert McAlpine’s horse and cart falling down inside a pier of Glenfinnan viaduct in 1899 was corrected in 2001 when radar imaging proved that the event occurred here in the centre pier.’
BEACH AND MOUNTAIN VIEW
Just after Beasdale station, a tunnel leads onto the three arch Borrodale Burn viaduct whose 128 feet central arch was once the world’s longest mass-concrete span. Arisaig is Britain’s most westerly railway station. With a longitude of 5.55 degrees West, it beats Penzance by just 0.3 degrees. Here, the line turns north close to the coast to offer views of white sandy beaches over the sea to Skye and its Cuillin mountains.
Just before Morar station, a viaduct crosses the River Morar, reputed to be the shortest in Britain at less than a mile long. Its source, Loch Morar is, at 1,017 feet deep, Britain’s deepest body of freshwater. From here it is a few minutes until the Jacobite’s arrival in Mallaig.
In 2015, Mallaig was given a gold award by the ‘Keep Scotland Beautiful’ tidy stations programme that also awarded silver awards to Morar and Arisaig. This was due to the efforts of Sonia Cameron who adopted these three stations 15 years ago, as part of the ‘adopt-a-station’ scheme promoted by Association of Community Rail Partnerships (ACoRP) to make stations part of local communities. Across Britain there are now more than 1,000 station adoption groups.
During this time, Sonia has steadily improved these stations. Mallaig can now boast numerous hanging baskets and planters which have been funded by local businesses and ScotRail. Sonia also organises events for ScotRail, is a hostess on the luxury Royal Scotsman train and writes a rail column for the monthly community magazine. She also produces the ‘Off the Rails’ leaflet which lists local businesses. This is placed on every table of the Jacobite train.
Her contribution was recognised by the Association of Community Rail Partnerships in 2015 when they named Sonia as their volunteer of the year, noting that ‘Sonia is an unstoppable force with a heart of gold, who can’t stop doing a kind deed to make railway travel on the West Highland line a memorable experience.
The 41-mile single line railway between Fort William and Mallaig opened in 1901. It transformed Mallaig into a significant fishing port from where trains carried huge quantities of herring to the south. Now the special fish trains are long gone. Instead the line’s main traffic is thousands of tourists who use one of ScotRail’s four daily trains, the Jacobite or the luxury Royal Scotsman train. In this way, Concrete Bob’s railway continues to support the local economy.