The West Highland line is one of the most spectacular train journeys in the world. Running from Glasgow Queen Street station and ending in Oban and Mallaig on the west cost of the Scottish Highlands, the line is most famous for the section passing through the harsh and remote moorlands of the Highlands along its way to Mallaig.
It is hard to properly describe the beauty of the geography of that portion of the line. After leaving the trunk line out of Glasgow, the line slowly climbs uphill through the hills and mountains, and eventually runs on the remote moorland with spectacular vistas on both sides of the line The line then reaches its peak at Corrour station at a height of 1347 feet above sea level, making Corrour station the highest railway station in Britain.
The geographic profile of the line combined with the stunning vista that is the Highlands makes it no wonder that in 2009, the West Highland Line was voted the top railway journey in the world by Wanderlust, an independent travel magazine.
Its scenic qualities aside, this single tracked, unelectrified line is an important link for the communities living in the Highlands and beyond. It thus occupies a function much like any other regional branch line in Britain, apart from the fact that the line runs in a harsh and remote environment.
I had planned a short trip to Corrour in January 2018 to to run away from work. As this was the only means of transport to Corrour, I very happily jumped on what was going to be the most spectacular train journey of my life so far.
First published 6 February 2019. Updated 25 January 2023.
All services to Corrour are operated by Scotrail, the brand name used for all commuter, regional, and most intercity rail services in Scotland. The Scotrail services were nationalised by the Scottish Parliament in April 2022, effectively making Scotrail Scotland’s national railway operator.
Corrour station lies on the branch line to Mallaig. All services to Oban and Mallaig depart from Glasgow Queen Street station, and are operated using Class 156 Super Sprinter Diesel Multiple Units (DMU). A service usually starts from Glasgow with 2 DMUs coupled together as a 4 car set, before splitting at Crianlarich with one half heading to Oban and the other to Mallaig.
In early 2018, Scotrail operated 4 services to Corrour per day with the first departure at 05:48am, with an ETA of 09:00am. The only problem was that this was in the middle of winter, and the (only) hostel at Corrour had an 11:00am check in time, meaning I would have to spend 2 hours lugging my stuff around while I hiked. This wasn’t ideal, so I settled for the 08:21am departure instead which would drop me in Corrour at 11:21am.
For the 2023 West Highland Line timetables, please visit Scotrail's timetables page at https://www.scotrail.co.uk/plan-your-journey/timetables.
Departure from Glasgow Queen Street station
Glasgow is very walkable, so the walk to the station took only all of 15 minutes. Queen Street station was undergoing renovation at the time so a large portion of the facade was hidden behind scaffolding, making the entrance look like a temporary Tube entrance. Even at 8 in the morning the station was bustling with commuters, with what seemed like an equal number of people heading both in and out of the city.
I located my train easily enough, with the platform being relatively quiet compared to the other platforms, because who would commute to Corrour in the middle of winter?
One of the sets interestingly had the old FirstScotrail livery still applied.
The interior was a bog standard Class 156 interior, much like the ones run by Northern in northern England. The seats were well padded, albeit not that wide with a chunky tray table. It was comfortable, as in 90s comfortable. Lighting on the other hand was bright and well maintained. Seat reservations were also indicated by the standard slip-on-the-back-of-the-seat setup.
Doors were closed as I settled into my seat and we departed on time, pulling out of the station into the cold Scottish morning with the roar of the underfloor diesel engines.
We passed Dalmuir and Dumbarton Central stations on the electrified line in the morning mist, following the banks of the River Clyde, the stillness of the suburban area outside amplified by a low number of passengers boarding our train along the way. Soon, we were pulling out of Cardross station and branching off the electrified line at Craigendoran.
From here, the single tracked line began its climb up into the Highlands.
Climbing up the Highlands
The gentle incline and trees by the tracks masked our ascent up the mountains. The morning skies were still cloudy as was befitting of the region.
The only indication that something was different was the sound of the wheels going over the tracks. Here, the tracks are laid differently – jointed and not welded, a muted “clack-clack” sound heard every so now and then. It was how tracks were laid back then, and with the incline and curves on this route a welded track would have been a serious case of over-engineering.
We followed the tracks up the hill around Loch Long with great views of a snowy Beinn an Lochain, peering down at Ardgartan by the shores of the Loch below; We then disappeared around the bend as the track met the western shores of Loch Lomond, being treated to a vista of hills and mountains from the position we commanded.
It was like creeping amongst the tombs of giants, ever conscious of our insignificance.
Slowly, we saw peeks of the peaks that lay beyond, rising from the glens and moorlands our tracks would soon run on.
The train split at Crianlarich with the other half going to Oban, a shorter journey than the one we were about to undertake. We held for the passing of the earlier 08:57am service from Oban, and we set off once again.
Through the hills and glens
The tracks after Crianlarich runs through glens on the sides of hills. With hills on both sides, we could now see the snowy peaks of the hills in their full glory. On our right was the Gleann a’Chlachain woodlands, with the grassy peak of Beinn Challuim rising out of the trees.
The passenger count was sparse at this stage, and I could move about the train to get decent pictures of the landscape.
Running on the moorland
Soon, the hills gave way. We were now on Rannoch Moor and we saw the expanse in their full glory, the flatness of the moorland allowing an uninterrupted view across the landscape.
The moorland was also home to various settlements and livestock, primarily sheep. The Highlands used to be a lot more populated before the Highland Clearances, and its legacy could be seen in the many ruins of stone houses that the inhabitants left behind as they were forced out of their homes.
It wasn’t long before the lack of trees were evident, signifying that we had made the climb up to greater heights. Here, the tracks ran alternately on raised embankments, sometimes on old bridges that added a certain rustic flavour to the journey.
A fact I discovered later was that the tracks running across the peat deposits of Rannoch Moor aren’t anchored to the ground with solid foundations. Instead, the builders had to float them on a bed of treewood and brushwood.
Arrival at Corrour
The conductor soon came around asking for passengers who were leaving the train at Corrour. Apart from me, there was another small group of 4 or 5 who were doing some day-hiking. We were asked to move to the centre of the 2-car set as the platform was very short.
The roar of the engine became a soft rumble. A touch on the brakes, and we arrived at Corrour.
I stepped out into the cold, dry air and took in the view with the welcoming committee.
It had been an absolutely spectacular journey.