When planning my trip to Inverness, I was aware that I’d have a bit of an issue in that I wouldn’t be able to check in until 1500 and I’d have a bag with me until then. Rather than traipse around the city, luggage in tow, I decided to take the opportunity to discover what is possibly the most beautiful railway line in the UK.
Inverness station opened almost exactly 165 years before my visit as the western terminus of fledgling Inverness & Nairn Railway. Initially with just one platform and three lines, the station has been expanded several times over its history until the current building’s were constructed in the mid-1960s during British Rail’s tenure. The station’s importance in the organisation of the railway has ebbed and flowed, with the London and North Eastern Railway closing it’s offices in 1933, however the station’s importance is increasing as since 2015 Serco Caledonian Sleeper has had it’s head office in Inverness.
Having arrived into Inverness on the Caledonian Sleeper (read about that here) I had around half an hour until my train departed and after grabbing a quick cup of coffee in the Caledonian Sleeper lounge, boarded the class 158 ‘Express Sprinter’ that would take me the 82 miles along the Kyle line to Kyle of Lochalsh. Heading north-west from the western half of Inverness station, we crossed the River Ness and then took a turn to the south-west before crossing the northern end of the Caledonian Canal on a swing bridge. The line then continues roughly westwards, following the coast of the Beauly Firth to the town of the same name.
Beauly is one of several stations along the Far North and Kyle lines that has been closed for a period of its history. Beauly initially closed in 1960 but following a local campaign was reopened in 2002. The single platform at the re-opened Beauly is the shortest in Great Britain, measuring just 15.06m, meaning just one door is opened on trains that stop there. The reopening of the station led to 75% of Beauly commuters switching to rail and with its population of just 1,164 each of Beauly’s residents undertake an average of 36 journeys per year.
From Beauly the line heads north calling at a pair of stations that were also closed in 1960, Muir of Ord and Conon Bridge. Muir of Ord was closed for the shortest period, having reopened in 1976, and it was here that a temporary depot was established in 1989 when the bridge crossing the River Ness was washed away. The rolling stock was brought to Muir of Ord by road and services continued across the Far North and Kyle lines whilst the bridge was rebuilt.
After Conon Bridge is Dingwall, where the Far North and Kyle lines diverge shortly after passing the River Peffery. The station here is the first north of Inverness that wasn’t closed in the 1960s and the 1886 Highland Railway buildings are still part of the current station. On the platform is a railway pub, one of my favourite things to see at a station, this one named Mallard. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get off to try it out.
With a fairly sharp turn after the junction, the Kyle line soon begins to head west, the general direction it will head for the next 25 miles or so. For a few miles the railway takes a route away from the road, something that is a bit of a rarity in the Highlands as road and rail use common low ground through the challenging territory. Before the next stop, the railway re-joins the road as they pass around the south side of Loch Garve shortly before the next stop at the village of Garve.
Continuing on we passed through the line’s first pair of request stops at Lochluichart and Achanalt before next stopping at the village of Achnasheen. From here, the line begins to head southwest, following the course of the River Carron for much of the route. With much of the line single track, Achnasheen is the location of one of the three passing loops on the Kyle line, allowing east and westbound services to pass each other.
Achnasheen used to have a signal box until all of the Kyle line as well as the Far North line beyond Dingwall had their conventional signalling removed in 1984, as part of a project by British Rail to introduce Radio Electronic Token Block (RETB) signalling to the area. Essentially the RETB system allows a train into a single line section by providing it with a ‘token’ whist the system will only allow one ‘token’ per section to be issued. The system require very little infrastructure as signal are not required, points can be spring loaded, and the entire north of Scotland essentially can be signalled by one or two signallers.
Achnasheen is the point where the line turns to the southwest and follows the valley below Sgorr Ruadh until it reaches the shores of the coastal lochs just after Strathcarron. Meandering along these shores, we pass the request stop of Attadale before calling at the village of Stromeferry. Stromeferry station is the only point along a 10 mile stretch that the railway isn’t next to the shore and the village’s name is now rather oxymoronic as the ferry hasn’t operated since the 1970s.
Duncraig is another request stop passed without stopping, although it does mark the point where we leave the coast behind and head more inland to Plockton station. Plockton is probably the most connected village in the area served by both the railway and an airfield, which whilst having no scheduled flights, sees a steady stream of private flights in the peak season.
The final request stop of the line is Duirinish and on my trip we did actually stop here to allow a couple of dog walkers to board. Kyle is almost directly south from here and the railway does mostly head that way, whilst beginning to hug the coast again as the hilly terrain became more challenging for the railway to cut through. After two and a half hours of stunning scenery and an enjoyable journey, we pulled into the harbourside station at Kyle, bringing to an end my journey on one of Britain’s most beautiful railways.