There are tiny one-track halts up in the Highlands, seemingly made of a few planks and if you’re lucky a light bulb, where the only onlooker is a seal or a wheeling bird of prey. Just two rails gleaming in the gloaming, and then the welcome lights of a train that will whisk you to the glimmering grandeur of Edinburgh or the exciting bright lights of Glasgow, with its bustling railway network. Going the other way, the speed with which the atmosphere changes as you leave the busy commuterland of Glasgow at, say, Helensburgh Upper, and are rapidly into mountains with superb views, is hard to beat.
Well you have such a choice!
The most beautiful scenic railway in the World, the West Highland. Independently judged.
I have travelled the famed lines in India, Norway, right across Europe from Istanbul to Lisbon, everywhere in the United Kingdom, many lines in North America, New Zealand and China. This one is on another level (1,350ft at one point!). I think it does merit the most exalted title. As I have said elsewhere my books, the Skye Line and the Highland Main Line come pretty darn close as contenders.
The most romantic rail journeys in Britain: That you can traverse the above routes, crossing high moors watched by royal stags, skirting beautiful lochs dotted with impossibly picturesque wooded islands, glimpsing the golden light over the sea – all starting from London on comfortable sleeper trains, or from Edinburgh or Glasgow, is romance unfurling on twin gleaming silver ribbons. Or from grey North Sea to blue Atlantic in one lovely ride. From Tweedy lowlands past many a mountain and loch to end up overlooking the swirling cold seas between Scotland and Orkney. That is real rail romance.
The Highest main-line summits. Trains as high as aircraft (well, light aircraft, anyway)! Drumochter Summit is 1,484ft (452m) above sea level.
The Longest rail bridge. At 2¼ miles (3,264m), the Tay Bridge is the longest in Britain, (and the story of its predecessor’s collapse this led to another superlative – Scotland’s worst poem).
The Highest railway viaduct in Britain is Ballochmyle Viaduct,169ft (52m) over the Water of Ayr between Kilmarnock and Auchinleck in East Ayrshire. Yes the track on this amazing bit of stonework is even higher than that on the Forth Bridge. Completed in March 1848, and engineer John Miller’s masterpiece, the viaduct was then the largest masonry arch in the world, and indeed still looks sensational from below. Glasgow to Carlisle passenger trains and heavy freights still traverse it daily.
The Widest and boldest spans. The globally famous Forth Bridge is a stupendous achievement. Two of the spans leap 1,710ft (520m) across at a clearance of 150ft (46m) above high water. So get your tides right and you can get the biggest warships ever built for the Royal Navy out from Rosyth Docks nearby. Which they do. But it is the height and striking lozenge shape of the cantilever construction that makes it so recognisable. And this bridge also lays Scotland’s claim to have the Greatest Manmade Wonder in Britain and to the Most Famous Railway Bridge in the world. Plus, we should mention historically, this waterway was the setting for the World’s First Train Ferry.
The most Northerly railway station is Thurso. A Viking name, and a unique spot, overlooking Britain’s most northerly headland and Orkney, where the swirling, dangerous waters of the Pentland Firth see the chilly North Sea battle the powerful Atlantic.
The most Westerly railway station in Britain is not, as many might imagine, down at the end of Cornwall, but at Arisaig, on the Mallaig extension of the West Highland Line. This staggeringly beautiful route offers great views of the islands of Rum, Eigg and Muck, the start and finish of Britain’s shortest river, and the deepest loch too. Arisaig is also unique because of the four cardinal compass points on Britain’s railway network, it is the only one that is not a terminus.
And on that route, the most successful standard-gauge timetabled steam operation, the incomparable Jacobite train. And with the Glenfinnan Viaduct making global fame through its starring role in the Harry Potter films, when the Hogwarts Express traverses the viaduct accompanied by flying Ford Anglia cars, more people are visiting and finding that this unique place works its spell on them. Indeed, well over 70,000 people have enjoyed the magic of the Jacobite. Long may it continue.
The most thrilling main line. Having one end of The East Coast Main Line means that Scotland has been part of this exciting history – Stirling singles, Flying Scotsman (the most famous loco in the world). The Flying Scotsman (the train), the Race to the North, the world-record holding Mallard, the sensational Deltics, the best train ever made - the High Speed Train, and now sharp electrics. It’s been a sensational ride, and it ain’t over yet.
The best railway re-openings and electrification projects. An Englishman, a Welshman and an Irishman gathered in a pub (and this will be a right let-down if you are expecting the usual joke!) and said: ‘You know what, you’ve got to hand it to the Scots on railway progress.’
Whole new lines have been built – such as the Borders Railway), new electrification has been rolled out between Edinburgh and Glasgow, both main lines to England have long been electrified for 125mph trains, new or reopened branches are opening (such as Alloa, reopened in 2008).
The most complex sleeper operations. Two enormously long sleeper trains leave London every night, and two more in the opposite direction. The second one, which goes only to Edinburgh and Glasgow, splits at Carstairs, and leaves so late one can enjoy an evening out in London’s West End and then awake refreshed in one of those cities.
The first one is the really romantic one, the Highlander. It leaves earlier, and splits at Edinburgh into three trains, usually of five carriages going to Fort William, five for Aberdeen (which also serves Dundee) and six for Inverness. All these portions need their own locos and crews for each leg – and while this is happening, it’s going on in the reverse direction too.
And finally, some of the friendliest staff and the loveliest – or sometimes downright quirky – station buildings. Have you see the quite wonderful Edwardian building at Wemyss Bay, or the stately Victorian station at Dingwall or the Duke of Sutherland’s former private station at Dunrobin on the Far North Line or the funny little waiting room at charming Plockton?