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The World’s Greatest Railway Journey, the Jacobite Steam Train

28 February 2023

Presenting a route of extremes and a pathway of sheer wonder, Scotland's Jacobite Steam Train is affectionately known as the Greatest Railway Journey in the World. You may hear it called by any number of other names, too, such as the Harry Potter Train, the Jacobean Train, or by one of its previous monikers - the West Highlander or the Lochaber - during your travels, but this is not out of disrespect - quite the opposite. Rich culture and deep history surround this 120-year-old railway, creating not just a route to follow, but an unforgettable rail experience. From the moment passengers step aboard, it is clear why this train is one of Scotland's most popular lines and why its 84-mile round trip showcase leaves a lasting impression. 

Steam Train Passing By A Loch And Mountains

Where the Steam Train Travels

Forty-two hard-fought miles of remote Highland scenery guide the course as the Jacobite Steam Train ventures from historic Fort William to Mallaig on the West Coast. Construction on this rail line began in 1897 to create the Mallaig Extension of the West Highland Line. The untamed land provided a rough canvas for construction, with the rocky terrain crumbling under traditional building processes. Reminders of the Scottish Highlands' wild roots continue to punctuate each mile of the route today, beginning as passengers board in the shadow of the British Isles' tallest mountain, Ben Nevis, in Fort William.

The train sets off on its route, surrounded by breathtaking sights of far-reaching mountains, heathered glens, and lochs that reflect the wide-open skies overhead. Though much has changed since the line officially opened in 1901, this part of the country's serenity is timeless. Amongst this landscape, mass concrete bridges and viaducts serve as a reminder of the ingenuity that went into constructing the line - perhaps none so impressive as the 21-arched Glenfinnan Viaduct. Harry Potter fans may recognize the structure from the big screen as the train approaches and delight in the opportunity to cross this viaduct themselves, just as the young wizards did on the Hogwarts Express. If time allows, the train pauses briefly to offer a more in-depth view of the scenery below, including Loch Shiel.

Even more spectacular vistas lie ahead as the Jacobite Steam Train continues toward Arisaig, Britain's most westerly train station. White sandy beaches pave the course between Arisaig and Morar, and on clear days, passengers can see over the water to the Small Isles, including the Isle of Skye and Canna, Eigg, Muck, and Rum. Approaching Morar, its silver-hued sand catches the eye and introduces another element of Scotland's magnificent coastal scenery.

But the wonderful sights do not end there. Instead, views of Loch Morar, the deepest freshwater loch in Britain; River Morar, the shortest river in Britain; and Loch Nevis, the deepest saltwater loch in Britain, come into view as the train approaches the end of the line in Mallaig. It is truly amazing what a difference 42 miles can make in the scenery.

Jacobite Steam Train Exiting Tunnel

The Jacobite Steam Train Experience

All the old-world romance of steam train travel is yours to behold as you travel west on the Jacobite. Diesel engines replaced the original steam trains during a push for modernization in 1967, but this change lasted only a short time. Since 1984, the fully restored steam engines from the 1930s and 1940s have led the way through the Scottish Highlands. Passengers are immersed in the sights and sounds associated with period travel, including the train's whistles, puffs from the smokestacks, and the rhythmic clickety-clack of the rails. After all, the line continues to use its original jointed tracks rather than modern welded tracks.

Guests board the maroon-colored coaches, all fully restored Mark 1's from the 1960s. Windows line the carriages and provide impressive views of the changing terrain as the route progresses. Moving at a reasonable pace of no more than 50 miles per hour, the Jacobite negotiates the landscape easily, rising and falling with the foothills and moorland, arriving in Mallaig after about two hours of travel. As it stations, passengers have about an hour and a half to wander around the destination, soaking in its heady combination of history and natural beauty, before the train sets back toward Fort William.

Classes of the Carriages

Travelers on Scotland's iconic railway may choose from either First or Standard Class accommodations for their journeys.

Standard Class accommodations: Padded chairs surround tables for four on both sides of the aisle in the comfortable Standard coaches. Two guests will face forward and the other two backward, making for easy conversation and multiple perspectives on the passing scenery. Tea, coffee, and refreshments are available for purchase from the trolley, which an attendant pushes through the cars, or in the Buffet Carriage during the journey.

First Class accommodations: Riding in First Class brings seating options, allowing guests to choose the accommodations that best align with their travel goals and the experience they hope to have.

  • Open Seat Carriage - Like a rolling lounge, the Open Seating Carriage is adorned with upholstered armchairs, small tables, and reading lamps. One side of the aisle features groupings of four chairs, whereas the other features tables for two, giving passengers more legroom during railway journeys. Those that choose this seating option are served a complimentary cup of tea or coffee during each stretch of the route and can order delicious cream teas to enjoy at their seat.
  • Compartment Carriage - Being that West Coast Railways provided the Jacobite Steam Train to become the Hogwarts Express, it is understandable that some riders may want the full experience. In this case, booking a six-seat compartment is the best choice. These traditional compartments feature three upholstered seats on each side of a central table and a door that shuts for more privacy. Guests should note that compartment reservations are only available during the morning departure and differ from those used in the film. Like in Standard Class, guests may purchase refreshments from the trolley or in the Buffet Carriage.
Quiraing Coastline In Scottish Highlands

Other Things to Know About the Jacobite and its Railway Journeys

The Jacobite Steam Train operates seven days a week between April and October each year to present the Scottish Highlands in all their glory. There are two departures daily: one at 10:15 a.m. and the other at 2:10 p.m. Accounting for the time on the rails and exploring Mallaig in between, the experience takes about six hours, during which travelers enjoy one of the greatest train journeys in the United Kingdom.

Peruse Vacations By Rail's catalog of Scottish rail vacations to join one of its iconic adventures. Whether you are looking for an in-depth coast-to-coast exploration by train, like Edinburgh, the Highlands, and Islands, or a shorter, more focused adventure that still includes fantastic rail journeys, such as the five-day Highland Adventure, there is no shortage of ways to join the Jacobite Steam Train in Scotland.