As spectacularly scenic railways go there is nothing anywhere in Britain to match the Scottish route from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh and the West Highland Lines from Glasgow to Fort William, Oban and Mallaig.
Such is their appeal that ScotRail now markets a ticket known as the Scottish Grand Tour – a chance to travel a near 500-mile circular route encompassing both the Kyle and Mallaig lines, with bus and ferry links included.
Grand Tour tickets cost £89.00 (£58.75 with a railcard) for a single journey in either direction, giving you four days rail travel within eight consecutive days in which to complete the journey, at any time, except on departures from Glasgow or Edinburgh before 09.15 on weekdays.
But at this time of year, as well as in the spring months, there is a much cheaper way of doing the Grand Tour for holders of a ScotRail Club 50 Card (£15 a year and available to anyone over the age of 50).
A little-known loophole in Scottish rail fares, contained in a document called the ScotRail local routeing guide, allows any holder of a ticket from Glasgow or Edinburgh to Kyle of Lochalsh to travel via Mallaig.
So for the Club 50 promotional flat fare of £17.00 for any return journey in Scotland (currently available until 13 November), it is possible to make this remarkable 481½-mile circular trip by buying an Edinburgh-Kyle of Lochalsh return, with the only added cost being travel between Kyle and Mallaig.
Of course there are certain limitations to doing the tour on the cheap this way. For a start, break of journey is not allowed on either the outward or return journey, although you can spend up to a month anywhere between Kyle and Mallaig before returning, so in that sense it is more flexible than the official ticket.
Then there is the 09.15 restriction applying to weekday use of the official ticket. No such restriction applies to the Club 50 promotion, except for use of trains arriving in Glasgow or Edinburgh before 09.30, so I was able to begin my anti-clockwise Grand Tour by travelling on the 08.34 Edinburgh Waverley–Inverness.
This train is not available to holders of the official ticket. It allows time for a leisurely lunch in the Highland capital, rather than travelling an hour later from Waverley, requiring a change at Perth, and then having a very tight connection into the 13.35 Inverness – Kyle service (it was held for 5 minutes on the day I travelled to await arrival of the delayed connecting service).
Similarly, anyone from the west of Scotland wanting to do the tour in a clockwise direction would have the option of catching the 08.21 Glasgow Queen Street – Mallaig service with the Club 50 ticket, whereas the first weekday direct service, open to holders of the official Grand Tour ticket, is not until 12.21.
Setting out on the 08.34 from Edinburgh Waverley to Inverness aboard one of the comfortable Class 170 units, the first notable signs of railway interest are the manual signal boxes at Hilton Junction, Stanley Junction and Dunkeld, all with fine arrays of semaphore signals.
Next up is Pitlochry, where waiting to cross a delayed up service gave a chance to see work on platform extensions being built to accommodate the new short HST sets. This part of the £20m Highland Main Line upgrade will see closure of Pitlochry Signal Box next spring, loss of its semaphore signals, and control pass to Stanley Junction.
The Highland Main Line is a splendid introduction to the wild Scottish landscape, with the train passing mile after mile of open and rugged terrain, with isolated settlements at Blair Atholl, Dalwhinnie and Kingussie, before returning to civilisation at Aviemore, the other place due to lose its signal box and semaphores early next year.
After a pleasant 90-minute lunch break in Inverness (haggis at Wetherspoons’ Kings Highway pub near the station recommended), one of the real highlights of a Grand Tour is the spectacular Kyle of Lochalsh Line.
My Class 158 unit had decanted most of its passengers by the time of its fourth stop in Dingwall – with re-opened Beauly proving particularly busy – leaving just 18 of us aboard for the two-hour run to the west coast.
For most of the final hour of a journey to Kyle the train is skirting picturesque lochs and more wild open country giving you views of villages such as Lochcarron and Plockton, with distant mountains behind.
Arriving in Kyle at 16.12 we had missed any opportunity to carry on to Armadale by bus, so had arranged a taxi for the 23-mile journey (Kyle Taxis-£45) and, despite a slightly late arrival by train, were able to get to Armadale Pier just in time for the 17.10 ferry to Mallaig, operated by Caledonian MacBrayne’s Loch Fyne (single fare £2.90).
This very pleasant 45 minute crossing over the Sound of Sleat gets you into Mallaig in good time for the final southbound train of the day, the 18.15 departure for Fort William.
I and my travelling companion had opted to break our journey by spending a couple of nights in the charming village of Morar, just seven minutes south of Mallaig and a rather quiet spot now that the A830 “Road to the Isles” from Fort William to Mallaig has been diverted away to the west of the village.
Here we stayed at the comfortable Morar Hotel, a large and rather old-fashioned place right outside the station, with rooms at the back having a splendid view of silver sands and estuary of the River Morar, the shortest river in Great Britain.
Rooms in the Morar Hotel are quiet and comfortable, and the large restaurant serves good food but beware of the bar, where there is no real ale and what is on offer is exorbitant – £4.95 for a can of Guinness seemed a bit excessive.
Having a full day in Morar proved a good opportunity to see two very different special trains passing the station – the luxury Royal Scotsman in the hands of Class 66 diesels 66738/743 closely followed by The Jacobite steam service, in the hands of “Black 5” loco 45212.
For sightseeing there is no better vantage point in Morar than climbing up the steps to what is known as The Cross, an iron structure dating from 1965 that replaced earlier wooden predecessors and is dedicated to a “very successful mission by redemptorist fathers on Sunday 21st July 1889”.
Scrutiny of the West Highlands timetable also gave us the chance for an afternoon trip back to Mallaig, followed by a trip to the next station on towards Fort William, Arisaig, and later dinner in the charming Arisaig Hotel.
Resuming our Grand Tour south from Morar on a sunny Sunday morning was a real treat, with rich autumn colours in every direction and fine views across the sea to the rugged islands of Eigg, Rum and Muck.
At Glenfinnan we passed another fully-loaded Jacobite steam service, this time in the hands of 45407, masquerading as 45157, then crossed the famous curved concrete viaduct, with its view of the monument to Bonnie Prince Charlie at the head of Loch Shiel.
Approaching Fort William there is plenty of railway intrest, starting with yesterday’s Jacobite loco (45212), a West Coast Railways Class 37 diesel and plenty of spare West Coast coaching stock in sidings on the left.
Then come the fine semaphore signals controlled by Fort William Junction box, followed by Caledonian Sleeper locos 73967/970, standing in a compound near the signal box.
In the station itself are four sleeping cars and two seated coaches making up the Fort William portion of the Caledonian Sleeper, along with 66738 Huddersfield Town, one of the two Class 66 locos on yesterday’s Royal Scotsman.
Heading south from Fort William, highlights of the near four-hour journey to Glasgow are remote (and remarkably busy) Corrour – Britain’s highest (and remotest) main line station – followed by the crossing of Rannoch Moor.
After attaching a two-car unit from Oban at Crianlarich, our now six-car formation made steady progress south, with some fine surviving station buildings on the line’s typical island platforms and glimpses of Loch Lomond through woods on the left, then Loch Long and later Gare Loch on the right, before descending to the north bank of the River Clyde, just east of Helensburgh.
Arriving at a building site called Glasgow Queen Street station just over five hours after leaving Morar, one final leg of our Grand Tour was a 50-minute run in one of the fast and very comfortable Class 380 EMUs recently introduced on the newly-electrified route via Falkirk High to Edinburgh Waverley.