Falls of Cruachan is the only request stop on the Oban branch of the West Highland Line. It is also one of two stations in the UK to be seasonally open: it is closed from November to the end of March. The other station is Dunrobin Castle on the Far North Line, one which I will visit for the blog at some point. The annual patronage only really reflects just over half of a “normal” station which isn't shut over winter. That patronage remains stable at about 700 people per year. Falls of Cruachan doesn't serve any settlement as such, instead it is built for the nearby power station and waterfall. It is mainly used by walkers and visitors.
Falls of Cruachan is one of the stations on the least used stations list that has a reasonable Sunday service. In fact, with 6 trains per day on a Sunday, it has a better service on its least frequent day than most stations have on their most frequent day. That meant I could get up quite late, and aim for a 12:20 departure from Glasgow to Falls of Cruachan. The journey time was about 2 and a half hours, most of which was through the scenic beauty of Argyll and Bute. The West Highland has a reputation as being one of the most scenic rail journeys in the world, a reputation well deserved.
My 6 car train was going to Oban and Mallaig, dividing at the village of Crianlarich. I sat in the “wrong half” of the train until then, because the 2 Oban carriages were very crowded, but the Mallaig passengers had 4 coaches to sprawl across, so was less stuffed. At Crianlarich I swapped halves, and continued towards Oban.
Falls of Cruachan is advertised as a request stop. However, by the time my train had arrived at Loch Awe station (the stop before), the guard had not been down. Being the nervous person I am, I went up the train to catch him before he retreated into the rear cab again. I made sure that the train was stopping at Falls of Cruachan (the train crew had decided to make it a compulsory stop), and returned to collect my things. It is only a 5 minute run from Loch Awe station, which is a very short distance in rural Scotland. The train approached quickly, but stopped and I alighted. The train departed, and I was left on the platform of a surprisingly modern-looking station.
Falls of Cruachan Station
I say surprisingly modern because of the large shelter in the middle of the platform. This wasn't the usual little wooden or plastic thing. There are also two wooden benches, the normal series of signs, a number of flower pots, a bin, a help point, a departure board and a plaque which commemorated the re-opening of the station in 1988. On the gate, there is a plaque which states that the station is the most improved station in the Highlands in 2011.
One gains access to the station from a set of steps up from the main road. There are also some signs at the bottom of these steps. However, I didn't turn down to the road when I left the station, I turned up towards Ben Cruachan. This brought me face-to-face with a very low bridge.
After the bridge, the path ascended steeply up through the trees alongside the Falls of Cruachan.
Originally, my aim was just to get to the top of the waterfall. But, this was abandoned when I caught a glimpse of the top of a set of railings over the horizon. Interests peaked, I continued alongside the stream towards what I now know to be the Cruachan Dam, a large hydroelectric power station.
The Cruachan Dam
A rather spectacular structure, and doubly-so when I had not expected it. This trip had been planned at fairly short noticed, so my level of research had not gone far enough. It stands about 400 metres above the station and the Loch at the bottom of the valley. Its height and location means that it has some rather spectacular views across the mountains of Argyll and Bute.
I had originally planned to have 2 hours at Falls of Cruachan station, but the discovery of the dam had meant I had pushed back my departure train to the one 2 hours later. That gave me nearly 4 hours in total, which meant I could enjoy the views from the dam whilst eating my sandwiches. I then walked back down the mountain, making sure not to bust my ankles on the rocks and steepness of slope.
Back at the Station
I had about an hour before my train. This time was spent taking more pictures and waiting for my train.
The signals that you can see in the background of some of the photos are to alert drivers to rock falls. The station is located on the Pass of Brander (which runs from Loch Awe to Taynuilt stations) where rock falls from the mountains above are more common. They were originally installed in 1881, 1 year after the railway opened following a (surprise, surprise) rock fall. The system has not changed since. Along the roughly 4 miles of Pass, there is a wire fence which, if any of the wires are broken, will cause the signals to fall to “danger”. That alerts the driver to a possible obstruction on the line, and they will act as appropriate (slow down so they can stop within sighting distance). This system isn't fool-proof. Most recently, a rock fall occurred below the fence, meaning that a train hit a boulder shortly after departing Falls of Cruachan. It derailed, but nobody died. The year was 2010.
Back in 2019, no rocks had fallen. The train arrived 1 or 2 minutes late, and I hailed it down and I boarded it. The return journey was negotiated without difficulty.
The station is actually pretty poorly used. About 50,000 people visit the power station each year, which, even if all 700 passengers at the station went to the power station, adds up to a 1.4% share of the traffic from the railway. Of the many walkers I saw, all appeared to have used their cars. There were about 10 parked directly underneath the station, and all the walkers I saw at the bottom got into cars and drove away. This is bad, especially for a country which has declared a climate emergency. Perhaps a better service on the railway line as a whole would encourage more people to use public transport.
Author - Felix