The West Highland Line runs from Glasgow to the Western ports of Oban and Mallaig via the West Highlands (as the name suggests). It provides connections to the various islands that lie off the west coast of Scotland. Due to the rural nature of the route, it passes through very small and remote places, some wonderful scenery and has become famous in its own right as one of the best railway journeys in the UK, possibly even the world. It was used for the filming of the Harry Potter series, and has had a steady stream of tourists through the summer months for The Jacobite, the only regular timetabled steam service which runs from Fort William to Mallaig (the very top end of the line) from June to October.
As mentioned before, the line has some very small and remote stations en-route. This ranges from places like Corrour, the highest station in the UK, which seems to exist mainly for the tourist attractions, to places like Lochailort and Beasdale which serve the tiny villages which are scattered across the line.
Lochailort station is situated close to the villages of Lochailort and Inverailort, near the mouth of the River Ailort and at the northern end of Loch Ailort. In recent years, patronage has declined from nearly 3000 passengers per year to about 1500 in the most recent figures. I decided that, whilst not under 1000 per year, it still warranted a visit.
Instead of starting from my usual locations of London or Edinburgh, I found myself waking up in a hostel on the banks of Loch Lochy, which is located about 20 miles north and east of Fort William. Why was I there?
I am a librarian of the Edinburgh University Wind Band, which is a fabulous society. Every year, they have a weekend away to the same hostel in the Highlands where the members of band spend a student weekend (mostly getting drunk, although there are a lot of other things that happen). Last year, I realised that it would be possible to get from there down to Spean Bridge (which is the closets railway station located ~12 miles south) where I could have some railway experiences on the West Highland Line whilst my colleagues did university work, or played games, or slept (or a combination of all three). So, with my alarm going off at a prohibitively early 08:45am, I got dressed (doing my best not to disturb my snoozing room mates), packed my bag and went downstairs. There, breakfast was being prepared. I helped by eating some of it. I was enthusiastically waved off at about 10am by the remainder of the group as I started the 150 metre walk to the bus stop where I would catch a coach for the 20 minute journey to Spean Bridge. It was very cold (it never got above 5 degrees for the whole day), there was frost on the ground and snow on the peaks. This was the scene from the bus stop.
At 10:27, 2 minutes late, the coach arrived. I showed my “ticket” (the confirmation e-mail which I had printed off) and took my seat. We made another stop at Laggan Locks (about 5 minutes south) where another person boarded. 15 minutes later, the coach arrived into the village of Spean Bridge. The driver stopped at the bus stop, and I thanked him as I got off. I managed to take an awful picture of the bus departing. I then walked the 3 minutes to the railway station. The bus had arrived at Spean Bridge at 10:50, and my train to Lochailort departed at 11:56. I had just over an hour at Spean Bridge station.
Whilst not being a particularly underused railway station (~7000 people used it last year), I did enjoy Spean Bridge. The old station building has been converted into a restaurant. There is also an old signal box which hasn't yet decayed. One of the odd things is that trains at Spean Bridge run the “wrong way”. Usually, trains in the UK run on the left-hand side. However, trains at Spean Bridge run on the right hand side. It is a passing loop, so it doesn't really matter, but I found this quite confusing as I automatically went to the left-hand platform (as looking in the Fort William direction) before realising that I had gone to the wrong one. The Glasgow-bound platform extends into a small wood which as going into a lovely shade of autumnal colours.
At 11:54, the southbound service to Glasgow arrived on the other platform. It was supposed to depart at 11:56, the same time as my Mallaig service. The two trains are meant to pass each other at Spean Bridge. However, this Glasgow service was given the authority to proceed into the single track section beyond Spean Bridge. This confused me, and also another passenger who had arrived wanting a train to Fort William. By this point, another Network Rail person had arrived. They were discussing various events. I overheard one of them say that the female driver of 1Y22 (the early morning service from Oban to Glasgow) had overrun a signal. I only add the information about the driver being female because the Network Rail people constantly repeated it. “So SHE overran the signal, and then SHE spoke to the signaller who told HER that SHE could proceed but then SHE reported it...” (I paraphrase slightly.) I spoke to them asking if they knew what was going on about our 11:56 to Mallaig which, at this point, had been wiped from the departure board. They said that it was coming and that they were waiting for it too. Earlier in the day, there had been a points failure at Spean Bridge meaning that they needed to make sure that trains could run over the points in question without them failing again. This also helped explain why the signaller had decided not to allow the trains to pass at Spean Bridge. If the points had failed again, that would have meant our Mallaig service would be able to use the “wrong” platform and be able to continue perfectly well. However, if the points failed and both trains had been in the station, then they would have been stuck.
The passenger who wanted to travel from Spean Bridge to Fort William said that she would use the bus from now on due to the disruption she experienced. I can't say I blame her, although public transport in this area of Scotland is sparse, especially during the weekends so I doubt that she will entirely abandon the railway, even if it is deeply annoying.
Finally, about 35 minutes late, the 11:56 service finally arrived.
We both boarded, and the train set off for Fort William. At Fort William, the train reversed in order to continue to Mallaig. On board, passengers were requested by the guard to make contact with him if they were supposed to be making connections to the 2pm sailings from Mallaig. Once we had set off from Fort William, the guard came through to check tickets. I showed my tickets and requested Lochailort. Lochailort is a request stop. We passed through various little settlements, some of which I will be visiting for the blog. We also passed over the famous Glenfinnan viaduct, which is quite a spectacle. Not only is it a fabulous piece of engineering in spectacular countryside, it is also hilarioius to watch various tourists and the like cram over to one side of the train to take out-of-focus phone pictures of it. 2 minutes later, we arrived at Glenfinnan station, one of the most well used on the Fort William to Mallaig section of the line. Lochailort is the station after Glenfinnan. However, it takes 15 minutes to traverse this section of the railway. It passes through some wonderful scenery, including around Loch Eilt. After we had run the length of the Loch, we crossed the road via a bridge and clung round the Highlands until Lochailort station came into view. The train stopped and I got out. The conductor wished me a nice day and pointed at the exit. I thanked him and soon the train was departing west to Mallaig. I had arrived 36 minutes late.
Lochailort station is located quite a distance above the road and the village in terms of height. A disused and very overgrown platform is visible. The facilities of the remaining platform are a waiting room, some notices, a CCTV pole and a gate. The station also has a car park where most of the notices, a help point and some bike racks are. I was disappointed that the station was all tarmac, rather than the usual red gravel that the majority of lesser-used Scottish stations have.
When I arrived, there was a group of Network Rail vehicles (yes, again) complete with people. I spent about 20 minutes at the station with them before deciding that I should vacate the station and explore the local area before returning and doing a more extensive documentation of the station before my train back. Despite the delay, I still had over 3 hours to play with.
As I walked down the path, the group of Network Rail employees appeared to get the “all-clear” from their control, so they ventured out on to the line to start working on whatever it was they were doing.
The Surrounding Area
Meanwhile, I had arrived in the village of Lochailort, which appear to consist of a hotel, a church and a bus stop. There was also a phone box, which had a notice of termination in it. It stated that, 42 days from the notice being put up, the phone box would be removed. That notice was dated August 2016, a mere 800 days ago. I turned left off the main Fort William to Mallaig road towards the Loch, the river and the village of Inverailort. The scenery by Loch Ailort is brilliant, so I spent some time enjoying it.
As I had walked down to the Loch, I had noticed a rather imposing building, known as Inverailort House, nearby. I decided to explore it. Inverailort House is a Victorian building which, over the years, has been used as Farmhouse, a Shooting Lodge and a training base for the army during the Second World War. Since then, it has been abandoned meaning that it has slowly decayed. Now, some windows are boarded up, others are broken and it is covered in “DANGER: KEEP OUT” signs. The gates to the grounds are locked, and I assume the doors to the actual house are locked too, although the state of the windows means that it wouldn't be too hard to gain entry. I did not venture either into the grounds or the house. I stayed outside to gather my pictures.
With about an hour and a half to go before my train back to Spean Bridge, I returned to the station in order to gather more pictures and enjoy the solitude.
The Return Journey
My train back to Spean Bridge arrived about 5 minutes late. I enjoyed the journey back to Fort William. There a group of two fantastically stereotypical hipsters boarded at sat opposite me, complete with bandannas, dreadlocks and alcohol. I was most annoyed. A female passenger who had been on the train the whole time I had been on joined them. They proceeded to drink some orange juice before decanting their entire bottle of rum into the partly empty orange bottle. Hipster one (the one with the stupid beard and bandanna) proceeded to drink a bit before exclaiming “Shit, that's really strong”. Clearly they hadn't worked out the basic physics of stirring/shaking. By that point I had put my headphones on. I showed my intense displeasure at their loud and obnoxious existence by staring out of the window for the duration of the journey from Fort William to Spean Bridge. An elderly couple opposite me made more vocal exclamations of annoyance at the hipsters as they moved carriage due to the racket. This caused the hipsters to move across to the unoccupied seats so that they could sit together. They forgot the bottle cap, and spent about 5 attempts trying to reach it from their seat before one got up off their bum and retrieved it.
The train arrived at Spean Bridge, where I got off. I walked the short distance back to the bus stop where I had another hour-long wait before another coach arrived to take me back to the hostel. The driver very kindly dropped me off directly outside the hostel, rather than at the bus stop which was about 100 metres to the north. I thanked him and went inside, just in time for the wind band committee to serve supper. Despite it having been a successful trip, I was very cold and was looking forward to something hot.
People who have read previous posts will know that I am very pro small stations that serve small villages. The people of Lochailort, Inverailort and other tiny settlements that fall into the catchment area of Lochailort station deserve a form of public transport.
Inverailort House was a nice bonus as I was not expecting it to exist. Prior to the trip, I had not realised it existed. Part of me wishes that I had had the courage to venture into the grounds and have a proper poke around to see what was going on, but the other part of me thinks that I was right to stay well away. Derelict buildings should not be ventured into, if any sci-fi film or television show is to be believed. Or, more importantly, if structural engineers are to be believed.
Author - Felix