The World's Best Rail Journey?

The Wanderlust Travel Awards 2009 included a new category, Best Rail Journey.  So who won?  The train to Machu Picchu in Peru?  Through the Alps in Switzerland?  Trans-Australia?  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.  And 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 a bit about the West Highland Line, and how to plan and book a journey up there using the direct London-Fort William sleeper, itself (in my opinion) the best train in Britain.  As well as the London-Fort William sleeper and the regular daily trains from Glasgow to Fort William & Mallaig, you can travel along the West Highland Line on a daily summer steam train, or even on a luxury cruise train Click here for an excellent free online map of the UK rail network.

On this page...

  London to Fort William by Caledonian Sleeper

  Glasgow to Fort William by train

  Fort William to Mallaig by train

  A brief history of the West Highland Line

  More information about the West Highland Line

 

  Planning your trip:  Local area & accommodation

  Planning your trip:  Bus & ferry connections

  Planning your trip:  Train times, fares & online tickets

  The Jacobite steam train Fort William to Mallaig

  The Royal Scotsman - Scotland's luxury cruise train

The best train in Britain:  The London to Fort William Caledonian Sleeper...

The fabulous West Highland Line starts closer than you think.  At Euston station in central London, in fact.  Around 9pm every night except Saturday night, the Caledonian Sleeper leaves for the Highlands of Scotland, with two direct sleeping-cars to Fort William on the West Highland Line at the foot of Ben Nevis, Britain's highest mountain.  With private bedrooms, a lounge car featuring leather sofas and steward service of drinks and light meals, this certainly isn't your commuter train to work.  It's almost a cruise train, yet it's a real scheduled service running all year round with fares starting at just 68 each way including a bed for the night and light breakfast.  The sheer contrast is exhilarating, between going to sleep as the train speeds north at 80mph through the likes of Watford or Milton Keynes, then waking to find your sleeping-car twisting and turning on a remote single-track branch line through the beautiful West Highlands of Scotland at 30mph, past lichen-covered oak trees and bubbling brooks, with deer bounding away from the train as it passes.  The latter give the train its unofficial name:  The Deerstalker.  There's plenty of time to admire the scenery over breakfast next morning, as the train doesn't arrive in Fort William until around 9:50am.  In my book, this is without doubt Britain's best train journey.  To see what it's like waking up on the sleeper in the West Highlands, see the video here!  There are full details of all Caledonian Sleeper services to Scotland on the Caledonian Sleeper page, with timetables, fares & how to buy tickets.

The sleeper to Fort William on the West Highland Line, boarding in London   2-berth sleeper compartment   The sleeper lounge car, complete with leather sofas

1. Leaving London for the West Highlands...  Every night except Saturday night around 8:15pm, the Highland sleeper starts boarding at London's Euston station (above, left).  You walk past the long line of sleeping-cars bound for Inverness & Aberdeen, to the two sleepers right at the front, bound for Fort William.  The sleeping-car attendant greets you at the carriage door and checks you in...  You travel in 2-berth standard class or single-berth first class sleepers with fresh clean sheets, fluffy duvets & plump pillows (above, centre).  It leaves around 21:16. 

The sleeper is ideal for a weekend or short break in the Highlands, without flying!

More information about Caledonian Sleeper trains.

 

2.  Overnight by sleeper...  In the lounge car, order 'haggis, tatties & neeps' (4) washed down with a glass of red, or just relax on the leather sofas with a wee dram of Glenfiddich whisky (4).  Head for bed as the train speeds north.  In Edinburgh around 5am, the two Ft William sleepers are uncoupled & added to another seats car & lounge car.  They set off, by-passing Glasgow and heading up the West Highland Line past Helensburgh and the naval base at Garelochhead in the early morning.

3. Next morning...  You might wake on the shores of Loch Lomond (on the right-hand side of the train) just before Ardlui station, with sunlight streaming in as you put up the blind.  Next stop, Crianlarich, where the line to Oban branches off.  After Crianlarich comes Tyndrum Upper, 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.

West Highland Line:  The horseshoe curve around Beinn Dorain   Up the West Highland Line by sleeper:  Just leaving Rannoch

4.  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).

 

5. 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 (just visible in the background).  On this damp February day, snow can still be seen on distant mountain tops.

The West Highland Line's summit at Corrour, 1350 feet above sea level.   West Highland Line scenery:  A view of Loch Treig

6.  Corrour...  If Rannoch is remote, Corrour 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.

 

7.  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...

More West Highland Line scenery: Another view of Loch Treig    The Caledonian Sleeper arrives at Fort William.

Above:  The West Highland Line passes the southern end of Loch Treig... 

8. 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.

 

9.  Fort William...  The sleeper from London arrives at Fort William terminus at 09:54.  It's a modern station built in 1975, the railway originally extended along what is now the ring-road to a station just off the main street.  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 1,344 metres.  It'll take you 3-5 hours to climb, 1-2 to descend.  Climbing Ben Nevis by the tourist track.

Glasgow to Fort William...

You don't have to use the sleeper from London, of course...  Daytime trains will get you from anywhere in Britain to Glasgow.  From Glasgow's Queen Street station, three trains a day (one on Sundays) wend their way up the West Highland Line to Fort William on the same route taken by the sleeper, continuing to Mallaig.  It's not fast:  Glasgow to Ft William takes 3 hours 45 minutes stopping at all the wayside stations, so there's plenty of time to enjoy the scenery.  The trains have a refreshment trolley, but feel free to bring your own picnic.  See www.nationalrail.co.uk for train times & fares, or use the online booking form below.

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 trains a day link Ft William & Mallaig in each direction (one on Sundays), taking about 90 minutes.

Interior of ScotRail sprinter train on the West Highland Line from Glasgow to Fort William & Mallaig   Looking back at Ben Nevis from Banavie on the train to Mallaig

1. 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...

 

2. Loch Eil, Ben Nevis & Neptune's staircase...  The train skirts Loch Eil.  Look back on the left and you can see Ben Nevis, towering above Fort William (pictured, above).  On leaving Banavie station, the train crosses the Caledonian Canal, and on the right you can see 'Neptune's staircase', a succession of locks to raise the boats to a higher level.

The famous Glenfinnan Viaduct, as featured in the Harry Potter films   The West Highland Line:  Loch Eilt, between Ft William & Mallaig

3. Glenfinnan.  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.  Down at the side of Loch Shiel, a monument commemorates Bonnie Prince Charlie raising his standard here in August 1745.  The best views at Glenfinnan are on the left hand side of the train.

 

4. 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.

If you stop at Glenfinnan, check out the station museum (www.glenfinnanstationmuseum.co.uk).  It even has accommodation in converted 1950s railway carriages...

Another view of Loch Eilt   The Church of Our Lady of Braes, as featured in the film 'Local Hero'.

Another view of picturesque Loch Eilt, taken from the West Highland Line...

 

5. 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.

At Arisaig & Morar you glimpse the sea...   End of the West Highland Line at Mallaig.

6. Arisaig & Morar.  At Arisaig & Morar you can glimpse the sea on the left hand side...  Arisaig is Britain's most westerly railway station (you didn't really think that was in Cornwall, did you?).  The sandy beaches at Polnish & near Morar were used in the films 'Local Hero' and 'Highlander'.

 

7. Mallaig.  Journey's end, 164 miles from Glasgow...  For accommodation in Mallaig, try The Moorings B&B or the West Highland Hotel.

Mallaig fishing boats and lifeboat   The CalMac ferry from Mallaig to Skye

In Mallaig, try the locally-caught haddock & chips at the Fishmarket restaurant on main street, or the wonderful langoustines at The Cabin restaurant near the corner of Main Street & Davies Brae.

 

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.

See the video  - The West Highland Line by Sleeper...

This 4-minute video by Lima Ed gives a flavour of waking up in your sleeper in the wonderful West Highlands of Scotland on the amazing West Highland Line...

 

A brief history of the West Highland Line...

Tiring of the 50-mile trek to the railhead of Kingussie on the Highland Line to Inverness, the citizens of Fort William decided they must have their own railway, and construction started in 1889.  It was not an easy railway to build, across remote and difficult regions of the Scottish highlands.  Lack of money meant the line featured many steep gradients and sharp curves as more direct alignments would have meant expensive viaducts & cuttings.  The first trains linked Glasgow with Fort William in August 1894.  The next step was an extension to the sea, to serve the fishing industry on the west coast.  A plan to serve Roshven was blocked by a local landowner, so Mallaig was chosen instead.  However, the extension became something of a political football and the Mallaig Extension wasn't opened until 1901.  The separate branch line to Oban wasn't originally part of the Glasgow-Fort William-Mallaig line at all, it had its own route from Glasgow via Callander, opened in1880 and operated by the rival Caledonian Railway.  This passed under the Glasgow-Fort William line just north of Crianlarich, and you can just make out the old track-bed today from the train to Fort William. The line from Glasgow via Callander was closed during the Beeching cuts in the 1960s, and trains between Glasgow and Oban diverted to share the line to Crianlarich with the Fort William trains.

More information about the West Highland Line...

Free route guide with maps...

Planning your trip:  Local area & accommodation...

Planning your trip:  Ferry & bus connections

Planning your trip:  Train times, fares & online tickets...

Buy train tickets online...

You can buy tickets for any regular train in Britain using this form, including the West Highland Line, the sleeper from London to Fort William, and daytime trains from anywhere in Britain to Fort William or Mallaig.  It links to www.thetrainline.com.  A small booking fee applies, around 1 debit cards, 3.50 credit cards.  Booking opens around 3 months before departure.

Tips for booking a sleeper...

If you want a bed not a reclining seat on the sleeper, choose the cheapest fare with a bed symbol against it.

STANDARD = bed in shared 2-berth compartments.

FIRST = bed in single-berth compartment.

If you live overseas, you can book tickets here & collect them from the self-service machines at any main station in Britain.

 

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

During the summer months you can take a daily steam train between Fort William & Mallaig.  It runs Monday-Friday from mid May to early October, also on Saturdays & Sundays from late June to late August, leaving Fort William around 10:15, arriving Mallaig at 12:25.  It departs again from Mallaig at 14:10, arrives Fort William about 16:00.  Special fares apply, around 29 one-way, 34 day return (ordinary rail tickets are not valid).  You travel in British Railways 1950s Mark 1 carriages, with opening door droplights and window ventilators that make photography easier than through modern trains' sealed windows.  You may be hauled by one of several possible vintage steam locomotives - although on my own trip on the Jacobite the train was pulled by a diesel as both available steam locomotives had broken down!  For more information & online booking see www.westcoastrailways.co.uk. A limited number of tickets may be available for buying on the day of travel at the station, but it's best to pre-book as this train is very popular.  Harry Potter fans will find it a real Hogwarts Express experience, too, over the Glenfinnan Viaduct featuring in the Harry Potter films.

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 the same hotel for less!

www.booking.com is my favourite booking site, as 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.

Award-winning company Wilderness Scotland offers small group walking, sea kyaking, canoeing, hiking  & family activity holidays.  National Geographic list Wilderness Scotland as one of the 'Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth'.  They're the only Scottish company to hold AITO's 5-star Responsible Tourism award and were recently named Best Green Tour Operator at the World Travel Awards.


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