Monday, November 19, 2012

Scottish Hols–The Jacobite–A steam train journey Fort William to Mallaig and back

One of the most scenic rail trips in the UK apparently. well for us it was a game of two halves. Would I recommend taking the trip – you bet your bottom dollar – but I have some tips.

What made today’s trip special was that in addition to more mountains and lochs it was a to be a trip on the Jacobite Express. A steam locomotive hauled train from Fort William to Mallaig and back.  Apparently the rail trip is considered one of the top railway trips in the world. It starts near the highest mountain in the UK – Ben Nevis (Beinn Nibheis – 1,344m), it visits Britain’s most westerly railway station at Arisaig (The safe place). It also passes the deepest freshwater loch (Loch Morar with a depth of 310m) and the deepest seawater loch (Loch Nevis). It also passes the shortest river in Britain as well – River Morar – although the Scavaig River in Skye might be shorter!

I should add for Harry Potter fans than the route was used in the Harry Potter films for the Hogwarts Express – and so will be recognisable, particularly the Glenfinnan Viaduct.

So be warned now – there are a fair number of  train pictures. The railway station at Fort William is quite a small station. In fact although Fort William is quite a central location for road, rail and canal, although the town itself suffers from the bypass, a dual carriageway that separates the town from Loch Linnhe. This means the High Street has been pedestrianised and I guess that Scotland has so many Lochs then what does it matter if one is a little bit harder to get to.

It turns out the the path of the road follows that of a long gone railway line with a station more central to the town. The old station closed in 1975 and pictures of it can be seen here. There was a plan to extend the line from Fort William up to Inverness and it would have shortened the distance from Glasgow to Inverness by 47 miles. As a result there was commercial opposition from the Highland Railway that ran the route into Inverness. The line only got to Fort Augustus at the Southern end of Loch Ness. It closed in 1933 (Invergarry and Fort Augustus Railway).

Fortunately the line going westwards from Fort William to Mallaig survived and is part of the West Highland Line. Regular steam services finished on the West Highland line in 1967 as British Rail modernised, but were re-introduced in 1984 (by British Rail) to capitalise on the tourist trade and what was a heavily subsidised line (Wikipedia tells me).

The Jacobite Express – building up steam at Fort William

The train is provided by the West Coast Railway Company, based at Carnforth MPD, Lancashire.

I presume this was the driver, although it could have been a passenger allowed to get into the cab.

Driver of the Jacobite Express

The locomotive looked well used, although the bits that mattered so in good order.

Wheel of the Jacobite

This train was 44871, also carrying a plagues “The Jacobite” but that is fitted to whatever engine happens to be pulling the train. Apparently this is Ian Riley’s Black 5 (LMS Stanier Class 5 4-6-0). It was built in Crewe in 1945, withdrawn in 1968. Apparently Riley and Son Ltd is a railway locomotive engineering and refurbishment company previously Ian Riley Engineering. Apparently 44871 was rescued from Barry Scrapyard.

you can see the rust – which shows this engine works for a living.

Black 5 - 44871

Here is the cab of 44871, not the easiest of working environments.

The cab of 44871

The Jacobite express had 8 carriages on the day we were passengers. Apparently it gets booked up pretty quickly, but my first tip would be to book first class, there is only one carriage, but it was £56.50 versus £32 for the return trip so worth it I reckon. We were in the last carriage – number 8.

The problem we had was that the carriages are heated by a steam feed that passes through each carriage, generated by the locomotive. By the time it got to us that steam feed was more like an icy trickle. This meant that there was a lot of condensation on our windows which gets in the way when admiring the views. What’s more the outsides of the windows were filthy. Now I accept that it is a steam train and you get a certain amount of ash and soot coming out from the front end. You might have expected them to take every opportunity to keep the windows clean – since this trip was all about the views – but no. Ah well I could also open the windows at the doors – except ours have been welded shut.

I tried hanging my arm out of the window to clean it with some tissue – but after getting the skin flayed from my arm several times as we forged our way along the track with trees and shrubs right up to the train I gave up taking pictures. To be fair they did warn us about the undergrowth being a danger to those wishing to dangle their limbs out of the windows.

The Jacobite – carriages

A slightly more evocative picture with steam all over the place – I presume the steam pipes that provided the carriage heating leaked a little (lot!).

The Jacobite – carriages

This was our carriage – the end one, with the ABCP livery, it looked as if it had been abandoned on a siding to a life acting as a canvas for graffiti artists.  Here is a link to more ABCP art.

The Jacobite – carriage number 8

So there are no pictures on the trip from Fort William to Mallaig, well taken from the train. Don’t worry things changed n the way back.  So where has this picture come from I hear you ask – well the train stopped at Glenfinnan. We were hoping to be able to walk along a path for a view of the viaduct – but the path was being repaired. Well at least we were able to have a good old chat with our fellow passengers.

The View from Glenfinnan Station

When we reached Mallaig the weather was looking really good – first things first we popped into a restaurant for lunch, we were a little peckish, it was lunchtime and chatting does make you hungry. So we took advantage of the rather strange fact that we seemed to be the spring chickens on the train, well at least in our group and so were able to nip off and into the town before the rest had gathered their wits about them.

We sat in a rather nice restaurant (The Fish Market) with the sun shining in and had some delicious langoustine with ginger, lime and chilli and then fish and chips. Well it was a fishing port. I have just looked at the Tripadvisor web page on this restaurant and all I can say is that there are some grizzly grumps out there who seem to get their kicks from complaining – we really enjoyed it..  Ooops just ignore what I was saying earlier about cold carriages with dirty windows.

This boat is called Reul A Chuain and looked to be getting a bit of TLC – well care anyway. If you look at the picture of it in this link you’ll see that fishing trawlers lead a hard life. Apparently it is 7.23m in length.

Fishing Trawler – Reul A Chuain, Mallaig

It was a lovely day – the sun had warmed up the wind was almost non-existent and the views across to Rhum (aka Rum), Eigg and Muck and the Southern tip of Skye were wonderful.  I think that this is Rhum. We also saw a seal in the water – which was staring at us as if to say he saw some humans up on the land.

Views of the Islands from Mallaig

Although I am not really sure – I think this one is Skye (the Southern tip) probably.

Southern Tip of Skye seen from Mallaig

Soon it was time to board the train for the journey back. For the run home the locomotive just uncouples from the (first-class) carriage at one end  and then couples up to the third-class carriage (our carriage) at the other end.  I never knew that they ran train-based saunas. Now we were at the front end, so to speak, next to the engine we had first dibs on the steam that was used to heat all the carriages.

Goodbye condensation, hello world. What was even better was that I discovered that they allow the second class passengers to open the carriage door windows so on the journey back I was able to take a bunch of pictures without anything between me and the scenery. The good news is that I only had two cameras whipped out of my hands by the passing scenery.

This is a reflection in a loch, look closely. It was amazingly still.  The bottom left right (I can’t always tell one from the other) of the picture differs because there is some weed in the water – at first I thought some of the clouds must have been stealth clouds only visible in the water – (anti-vampire clouds).

The Jacobite – view of Lochs and Mountains and reflections

Don’t worry only another 150 of these reflection pictures to go.

The Jacobite – view of Lochs and Mountains and reflections

Just to prove that we were on a steam train this is the view looking back as the track curves around a loch. It was so still that the puffs of steam hung in the air above the  railway line.

Puffs of steam left above the track on the Jacobite

No I hadn’t been drinking any more beer (despite the importance of supporting local breweries). This is the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct. Fortunately there weren’t any Death Eaters punishing all those naughty people hanging out of the windows.  Except of course for the third-class passengers who couldn’t be trusted with windows that opened.

Glenffinnan Viaduct (no Hogwart’s Express though)

I forgot to mention that when we visited the Neptune’s Stairs locks we did think about catching the train back into Fort William. It was a Sunday though and trains only seemed to run once in a blue moon on Sundays.  So we didn’t,  There was a good view of the stairs from the train though.

Neptune’s Staircase from the Jacobite

One thing about this trip is that Station to Station the scenery remained just breath-taking. The snow on the mountain tops was a reminder that despite the glorious sunshine we had had most of the day it was getting late in the year.

Glorious evening sunshine near Fort William

Well that was certainly an amazing train journey. If I were to take a disorganised tour then I think that I would arrange to get to Mallaig by ferry from one of the islands. Then I would get a first class ticket for the afternoon journey back to Fort William.  One of the downsides about being up close and personal with the locomotive is that you get covered in little flecks of sooty ash some of which have been designed to be eye-seeking missiles. Oh and choose a still day with gloriously sunny weather  then you will get more opportunities to take pictures than you can shake a camera at and it won’t matter that the heating at the end of the train is rather ineffectual.

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