Winter on the West Highland Railway

As far as train adventures go, a ride on the West Highland Line (billed as the UK’s most scenic railway journey) has long been high on my wish list. But the cost of train fares from my Devon home to Scotland’s Highlands had meant I hadn’t taken the trip during my first year (2022) of train adventuring.

But then we decided to have a campervan Christmas at Glencoe.

Campfire Christmas dinner

Joined by one of our sons, we enjoyed Christmas Eve whisky and chatter round the fire (in the rain), Christmas dinner cooked across two van stoves and a campfire (in the sleet), and eventually Christmas snow! By Boxing Day morning the mountains looked marvellous. It was so chilly, we didn’t remove our thermals for days and I spent the whole time wearing two jackets.

Fun in the snow

After exploring the snow-clad landscape and enjoying Boxing Day venison and haggis burgers (had to be done) at the Glencoe Mountain Resort cafe we decided we needed some drying-out time, and booked a flat in Mallaig for three nights.

I choose Mallaig because I like watching boats, and because it wasn’t an expensive flat. I had temporarily forgotten that Mallaig, as well as being a gateway to the Isle of Skye and a busy fishing port, had another massive advantage (not the bakery and pizzeria, they were closed). It was the final stop on my most-wanted section of the West Highland Railway line.

It was my access point for the UK’s highest mainline railway station.

A winter trip on the West Highland Railway

The West Highland Line route runs from Glasgow to Crianlarich where it splits to either take you through stunning mountains, glens and lochs to Oban or high across Rannoch Moor, over the Glenfinnan viaduct and down past silver beaches to Mallaig. Before we travelled, I’d spent plenty of time choosing which route to take, and what I’d do on the way but in the end, winter daylight and weather, as well as circumstances choose both my route and my activities for me.

Nonetheless I had a marvellous adventure by train!

I travelled on December 30th 2022

Start train station: Mallaig 

Travel time from London: 12 hours

Travel time from Bristol: 20 hours!!!

Travel time from Glasgow: 5 hours

Finish train station: Upper Tyndrum

Travel time from London: 10 hours

Travel time from Bristol: 13 hours

Travel time from Glasgow: 2 hours

Winter tips for travelling the West Highland Line

Author’s adventure tip: Pack snacks and a drink either for the train or for the lonely station platforms. Talk to the guard about where you’re planning to get off just in case there are request stops; for example on my trip, only one door was opened at Corrour Station. Take a jacket in case your carriages are chilly (this is a high route with the associated weather!) If you want to take photos through the train windows (which can be understandably mucky), pressing your lens or phone directly onto the window gives fair results. However you’re travelling through the Glencoe area, I can definitely recommend a stop-off at the Green Welly Stop. Fabulous soup, great outdoor gear, fantastic whisky collection and the most helpful  staff I’ve met in a long time.

Practicalities: Before you travel, use an Ordnance Survey map to check the location of your stations. Some of them are super remote (navigation skills and good walking legs required), others are a walk away from the main road. You can take your bike on the West Highland Railway, and bike storage is available at most stations. Look at the station names and timetables carefully when making your plans, for example Upper Tyndrum and Tyndrum Lower are on different branches of the West Highland Line and on opposite sides of the road, and Falls of Cruachan Station on the Oban leg is not available in the winter. If you want to continue your journey from Oban or Mallaig by ferry, Scotrail offer combined Rail and Sail tickets but check for ferry cancellations before you board your train.

There was at least one chap on board mine who hadn’t done this.

Your West Highland Line adventure

The West Highland Railway is often cited as one of the world’s most beautiful railway journeys. Just a quick look at its route through glens, past mountains and along silver-sand shores should show you why. Don’t bother taking a book; from the moment you hop on board, the scenery will demand your attention. And you won’t be able to take it all in. I my whole journey flitting from window to window as I tried to absorb the stunning landscape.

Time to get planning

How you plan your West Highland Line adventure is up to you but with timetables and remote locations to deal with, you’ll need to think things through before you travel. With so much incredible scenery to explore, it would be a shame not to hop off for few walks or cycles along the way but I would recommend planning your cycling or walking routes on OS Maps before you set off (routes in Scotland can often be steeper and take longer than you might imagine).

Timetables and daylight

Understanding the timetable (which takes a while on a splitting line) is the key to getting your West Highland train adventure right. When I travelled there were only four trains a day running from Mallaig to Upper Tyndrum. Once you’ve understood the timetable, you need to remember to check sunrise and sunset times. There’s no point taking a scenery-soaked train ride if you can’t see the scenery, and Scotland in winter can be a dark place. On the other hand, with long Scottish summer days, you’ll have more available daylight than you would further south.

Then there’s the weather

A train ride can be an adventure in itself but if you’re planning station-to-station walks or cycles, or want to explore around a station, you’ll need to be aware of the weather. With some really exposed sections and fairly long times between trains, it makes sense to have both a good and poor weather plan. You might even need to stay overnight and catch a train the next day to facilitate your plans. Great for summer-weather camping but not so easy with winter snow and accommodation closures.

Example walking routes from the West Highland Line

Walks from Corrour Station

Rannoch Moor is well known for its remote wildness, which makes a walk from Corrour Station a must for any keen train adventurer. There are a few options but making any of them work in snowy weather on short winter days, without the backup of fully-booked Loch Ossian Youth Hostel was beyond me (and I know how to navigate in the dark). I’ve suggested three walks below but I don’t recommend any of them without good hill and navigation skills, especially in bad weather or in the winter months.

Because I travelled in the winter, I haven’t yet experienced any of these walks (but would like to try all of them).

Corrour Station to Rannoch Station: Hop on the 06:03 departure from Mallaig, get off at Corrour Station at 08:32 then walk the 17km track to Rannoch Station (almost as remote). If you get a march on, you’ll just be in time to pick up the 12:42 to Glasgow but there’s always the 18:38 if you want to take your time. This one’s definitely a train adventure for the lighter months (if you can stand the midges!)

Copyright Ordnance Survey 2023

Loch Ossian circular: Take a 15km stroll around Loch Ossian. If you book a bed at miniscule Loch Ossian Youth Hostel, you won’t need to worry too much about your walking speed or train times but you will need to book well in advance, this beautifully remote hostel is sometimes only available for whole-building hire, and with only two dorms, it can get booked up.

Copyright Ordnance Survey 2023

Carn Dearg summit: Don’t even think about this one without a map and compass (and some good legs) but if you fancy collecting a Munro, Carn Dearg (red rocky hill) has a significant cairn and is 941 metres above sea level. It’s also 7 kilometres from Corrour Station so you might want to pack your bivvy bag.

Copyright Ordnance Survey 2023

Author’s adventure

With so many exciting options, I had plenty of walking and wild camping plans for my first adventure by train on the West Highland Line but they were all for spring or summer days with more daylight (and as it turned out, less snow). My December excitement at being in the right place to hop on the train at Mallaig and meet Mr D (driving the campervan) at Tyndrum was slightly tinged by the realisation I wasn’t going  to be getting off the train. But to say I was looking forward to my journey would be an understatement.

Butterflies at Mallaig Station

As I walked along Mallaig’s short seafront, I felt the same twinge of excitement I do with all of my train adventures. With a new train journey, you never know quite what you’re going to see from the windows or encounter once you’ve disembarked. It’s all far more intriguing than arriving somewhere by car.

Be prepared for anything

In my (perhaps overactive) mind, the remoteness of this train journey gave it an extra edge. I had packed my rucksack accordingly. We were about to head across a high, remote moor, away from any roads.  A moor that a couple of days before had been covered in snow. Which (in my head) meant I’d need all my usual walking equipment. Warm clothing, snacks, a hot drink, a map and compass, and a torch. Despite the fact I didn’t think I’d be getting off the train.

Ask and you might receive

Of course, I wanted to be able to disembark at the UK’s highest mainline train station but I kept imagining a scenario in which I hopped off at Corrour Station, got distracted taking photos and was left in the middle of nowhere, with just my rucksack for company. In the end I did the sensible thing and asked the conductor.

Him: ‘So you’re heading to Tyndrum?’

Me: ‘Yes, will the train stop there?’

Him: ‘Aye it will.’

Me: ‘Are any of the other stops request stops?’

Him: ‘We’ll be stopping at all of the stations on this route.’

Me: ‘I really wanted to get off and take a photo at Corrour.’

Him: ‘Well we’ll be stopping there but there’s only one door’ll be opening. It’s that one at the very rear of the train’.

To my puzzlement, he pointed then towards what was clearly the front of the two-carriage train and went off to check the next ticket. I was left undecided as to whether or not it would be a good idea to step onto the Corrour platform. I was also a tad confused about the required door should I choose to do so.

As we pulled away, I decided to stop fretting and settled back in my seat only to feel a jolt as the train came to a sudden halt.

‘Quick! Quick!’

It was the conductor again. I swivelled my head, thinking some kind of evacuation emergency was occurring but the train had stopped to let two late-comers on board (something I’ve never seen happen in Devon!)

Loch to sea views

You don’t have to travel far out of Mallaig on the West Highland Railway to realise you’re beginning a pretty special journey. At first I recognised bits of road we had travelled the day before and spent some time looking out for Greta our campervan. But soon the scenery had me gripped; it was even better than my glimpses from the road. At Morar I could see both the loch (the UK’s deepest waterway) and the white sand beaches. Soon after that we were climbing gently and the first hints of mountains came into view. The tone of the engine deepened and the height gain decreased the carriage temperature. Although I wasn’t walking, I could physically feel I was heading into the hills.

Twin routes

Like friendly siblings, the road and track kept meeting then falling apart but the superior edge was ours. Raised above the road here, deep in a cutting there, the world of the train was completely different to the world of the car. My eyes explored fully.

Views to bathe in

We were only about 30-metres above sea level by the time we reached Lochailort Station but the miniscule platform appeared to be sloping into the hills. We passed an intriguing garden. The shed had a grass roof and in the middle of the high lawn, there was a bubble structure that had inside a ladder leading down into the earth. If it was a hot tub, it had a fantastic view.

Heading into the hills

The train climbed over passes and dropped to meet lochs. I’d never been on a rail journey with such a noticeable incline. The snow line on the mountains was getting ever closer. I did my jacket up as the air continued to chill. It was fascinating, absorbing, just wonderful.

The Glenfinnan viaduct

The Hogwarts Express

Pulling away from its station, the train kept a slow pace across Glenfinnan’s famous (Harry Potter) viaduct. The memorial to Bonnie Prince Charlie was further away than it had been by road but because we were higher, the views past it and down Loch Shiel were longer and more magnificent. We continued.

In the shadow of the Ben

The buildings and daily life of Fort William came as a jolt after such empty landscapes. Under the watchful eye of a dazzling-white Ben Nevis, we passed the car park where I’d been thrilled to spot the Caledonian Sleeper just a few days before, then pulled into the station.

As the train emptied and then filled, I pondered my Corrour photo strategy. Should I move to the other carriage or not? Where exactly was the door that would open? And why had the conductor called the front the back?

I eventually made the move into the more crowded but much warmer front carriage. As we pulled away again, everything became clear. We were heading out of Fort William Station way we’d come in. Despite swapping carriages, I was once again at the back of the train.

Staring at the UK’s tallest mountain, I realised I’d never before had opportunity to view it’s full cloud-free height. Towering over us, it was enormous but its rugged edges were smoothed in a snowy coat. My glimpse of the full glory didn’t last long. I looked away for a moment then back. Shrouded in cloud, the Ben had already lost its tops.

A Christmas forest

We passed the Nevis Range Mountain Resort and climbed through the trees towards Spean Bridge. It was clear we were heading higher than we previously had. In suitable Christmas style, snow started to appear on the branches and at the edge of the track. The snow line at last. I was mesmerised.

At Tulloch Station we turned the corner. The corner I’d been waiting to turn since I first found out about the West Highland Railway. The corner that would turn us away from the road and up onto Rannoch Moor. Just us and the track. Alone.

Nature’s own art

The journey up the shore of Loch Treig was stunning and made all the more so by the knowledge that ours were the only human eyes feasting on its glory. But not the only eyes. Blobs swayed across the yellow-brown shore, I struggled to focus through splattered window rain drops, then realised what I was seeing; deer, a whole herd breaking into motion as one. We travelled on. The snow-iced hills merged into snow-filled cloud, the loch’s leaden grey waters a perfect foil to the crisp white. I felt privy to artistic perfection.

Rannoch Moor

But nothing that had come before prepared me for the emotion of viewing a snowy Rannoch Moor. The iced rivulets and virgin snow patches sat heavily against the dark peat. The view from my window blurred with rain and, along with the low cloud, enhanced the endless quality of the landscape.

I felt butterflies clench my stomach. I was approaching Corrour Station.

Winter at Corrour Station

Don’t leave me behind

When the announcement for Corrour came I stood up nervously leaving my rucksack on the seat. So much for preparation, if the train left me behind, I wouldn’t even have a pair of gloves. The conductor was ready by the door, chatting to man whose backpack, thick gloves and umbrella indicated he was better prepared for being outside in the snow than I was.

‘Are you getting off?’ I asked.

‘Oh yes, I live here.’

‘How wonderful, will you have a long walk?’

‘Only four miles or so.’

‘Goodness. I’m going to wait for the summer to have my walk.’

The conductor chipped in, ‘Very sensible. Are you ready for your photo?’

I nodded. ‘You won’t leave me behind will you?’

‘Not if you’re quick!’

The train stopped, the conductor opened the door, and I stepped out onto 10 cm of virgin snow. The platform was glorious, the Station House was bigger than I’d expected, and the wilderness on the other side was hidden by the train. I left crunching footsteps in the snow as I hurried over to the station sign.  I had time for one photo, then a triumphant selfie before I heard the conductor’s voice.

‘Hurry up! We’re already 10-minutes late!’

I jumped back on board grinning from ear to ear. I’d done it! I’d visited the UK’s highest mainline train station. Uttering effusive thanks, I went back to my seat. It was downhill now from Corrour’s 410 metres above sea level.

Rannoch Moor in the snow

A once-in-a-lifetime experience

Although the track did now start to head down, we had plenty of wild moorland landscape left to enjoy. The Labnaclach ruin, so attractive in summer photos, was a dark spot on the moody white landscape. We continued, the dark iced hummocks interspersed with grey puddles gained added mystery viewed as they were through the mirk on the train window. All too soon we had dropped 100 metres and arrived at Rannoch Station.

Horseshoe loop

We had kilometres left to go but after the excitement of Corrour, the trip from Rannoch has blurred in my mind. I remember swapping from one seat to another in order to take in snow trees on the left and boggy moor on the right. I also remember a sense of pioneer’s  achievement as our track finally drew back in line with the road at Loch Tulla and the impressive horseshoe loop of track (visible from the road) as we crossed Allt Coralan on the girder constructed Gleann Viaduct.

Now arriving at Upper Tyndrum Station

It was just after this that the rest of Team Darby spotted my train from the road. I didn’t see them but they got a good inkling we might arrive at Tyndrum at the same time. I was unsure of my next steps as I disembarked (this time with my rucksack) onto another snowy platform to find the conductor hanging out of the back door.

‘You’ll be off to the Green Welly for your dinner then?’

‘I’m hoping for Cullen Skink. My husband’s meeting me in the campervan.’

‘You’ll be walking down that lane. He’ll nae get a campervan up in this weather.’

I thanked him profusely for all his help and tolerance, told him he’d made a writer from Devon very happy, and waved as the train headed off again. I stood for a moment taking in my adventure and the snow-clad platform with its original Swiss-chalet style building. I felt at peace and thrilled all at once. Such a pretty ending to a grand winter escapade.

Train adventure’s end

I had only walked a few steps down the slippery-looking lane when I heard an engine I recognised. It was Greta, our trusty 4×4 campervan doing what she does best and making the snowy lane look easy. Talk about timing! Despite Mr D packing the van after I’d left Mallaig that morning, and stopping for snowy coffee and dog exercise at Glencoe on the way, our sibling routes had negotiated twists, turns and hills to arrive at almost exactly the same time.

Train adventure perfection!