West Highland Line

(West Highland Railway)

Noted for its scenery and remoteness, the West Highland Line (or West Highland Railway) extends for 140 miles (225 km) from Craigendoran (near Helensburgh in Argyll and Bute) via Fort William to Mallaig. There was once a branch from Spean Bridge to a pier at Fort Augustus. The modern West Highland Line includes the 42-mile (67.5-km) Oban Branch, which diverges at Crianlarich and represents the westernmost section of the former Callander & Oban Railway.

The West Highland Line is regarded as one of the most scenic railways in the world. The line was built in two phases; the section from Craigendoran to Fort William was begun in 1889 and completed in 1894, while work on the extension to Mallaig began in 1897 and this section opened in 1901. The Fort Augustus branch opened in 1903 but closed in 1946. It posed considerable engineering difficulties in its construction, crossing the Rannoch Moor and comprising some 350 bridges, viaducts and sheep creeps, a number of tunnels and several snow shelters. The route was designed by Charles Forman (1852 - 1901), of the Glasgow-based firm of Formans & McCall, who later discovered that it almost exactly mirrored the path of a road which had been proposed by Thomas Telford (1757 - 1834) in the early 19th C. but never built. The most significant engineering works on the line are the Glenfinnan Viaduct (380m / 418 yards), the Rannoch Viaduct (208m / 227 yards), the Loch Treig Tunnel (127m / 139 yards) and a grand horseshoe-shaped loop in Auch Gleann. The section of track across Rannoch Moor floats on a carpet of brushwood, the engineers having found it impracticable to sink foundations through the great thickness of peat.

The contractor was Sir Robert McAlpine (1847 - 1934), known as 'Concrete Bob', who used concrete in the construction of the line, which was a novel material at the time.

The railway brought new industries to the West Highlands and accessibility permitted easier transportation of fish and agricultural produce to the markets of Glasgow. Closure was proposed in 1963, but the line survived and is now important for tourism. In addition to regular diesel passenger services run by ScotRail, steam-drawn services provide a major tourist attraction in the summer months. Freight also runs on the line which services HM Naval Base Clyde, DM Glen Douglas and the Lochaber Aluminium Smelter, with timber from Crianlarich and Spean Bridge, and fuel to Fort William and Mallaig. However, the ScotRail 'Caledonian Sleeper' service from Fort William to London barely survives.

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