The West Highland Steam Express 2014

It has been a very long time since UKHH has made a blog post. So, over the coming weeks and months we will be taking a few feature articles from the e-zines of 2014 and making them available as blog posts through Locoyard, UK Heritage Hub’s blog site. We start off this series with an article from Matt Evans, of a railtour chase, featuring ‘The West Highland Steam Express’.

With the summer season over and done with, autumn was kicked straight into action with a number Preserved line galas and events. The Railway Touring Company also had their own way of closing the summer season, a 4 day steam tour of the West highlands of Scotland. The West Highlander Steam Express is an Annual 4 day tour started in the North West of England taking in some of the most beautiful lines in the country, including the Oban branch and the well-known Fort William – Mallaig branch. Motive power came from a whole host of ex Highland engines including the unexpected addition of a Highland Class 37!  Working with West Coast Railway and the loco owners, Railway Touring Company have organised a trip that can be thoroughly enjoyed whether on board or chasing by roadside.


Day 1 was kicked off in the capable hands of 61994 ‘The Great Marquees’ with Gordon Hodgson on the regulator, departure from Preston was on time with 47245 tagged behind to be dropped off at the Carnforth water stop. She passed us at Bay Horse a couple of minutes late due to a late running Inter Model in front but had soon caught this up by Carnforth leaving 1 minute early for the attack of Shap. We had placed our self not far from Shap Wells for this and got a good view of 61994 curving along the gorge in the distance listening to the crisp 3-cylinder beat. The 7 coach load was nothing too strenuous for the K4 and reported topping the summit at 32MPH and making a quick decent down the other side including missing out a pathing stop in Penrith leaving the with a 26 minute early arrival into Carlisle. She was then held at Carlisle to right time with a crew changeover, Peter walker taking over from Gordon Hodgson, and passed our group again at Mossband hard on the tail of another freight train but putting in a great performance. After jumping another pathing stop at Quintinshill goods loop, arrival into Lockerbie was 20 minutes early allowing a bit extra time for water and getting Marquees ready for the climb to Beattock summit.  Departure from Lockerbie goods loop was 7 minutes late due to late running service trains but nonetheless 61994 kept as close to time as possible and managed a steady climb of Beattock topping the bank at 24mph, still only 7 minutes down, before pulling into the loop to allow further services to pass. Leaving the loop 10 minutes late due to further service delays, 61994 made a quick sprint to Carstairs to have another drink before the final sprint to Glasgow Central arriving in to the Terminus of the WCML 17:06, only 10 minutes down, a brilliant achievement for an engine that was built for the steep climbs of the West Highland mainline.  Once all passengers were off the train 37516 was attached to the rear of the train and the 2 locos worked the Empty stock to Bo’ness for an overnight stop.

The second day was kicked off with a bit of sad news to hear that 61994 had to be left behind at Bo’ness due to a few boiler issues.  However this news was taken in light, a 37 on the West Highland line used to be a regular occurrence in BR days before they were withdrawn and DMUs took their jobs over.  So we continued as planned and headed to Dumbarton for the first shot of the day. 37516 ‘Loch Laidon’ was seen working through Dumbarton East station only 3 minutes late after catching up from a 26-minute late departure from Glasgow Queen Street. However pathing stops were kept to and we once again met her at Ardlui where she powered over the viaduct and up the bank. That was it then, quick running allowed her to arrive nearly 10 minutes early into Crianlarich where her job was over and she handed over the train into the Capable hands of Ian Riley’s 2 black 5s 44871 and 45407. The 2 engines were to top and tail the train up the Oban branch with 44871 working the Crianlarich – Oban Leg and 45407 working the Oban – Crianlarich, both engines faced Glasgow for this run and both managed well with the run and were seen working hard on the climbs out of the stations, plenty of stops along the way to collect the Radio token and allowing services to pass. The line speed of the route allowed our self on the road to catch up quite a bit and as road and rail run parallel for a lot of the run, there was a lot of parallel running in sections. Arrival into Oban was 7 minutes early at 1:20pm, which allowed the passengers a good hour to explore the small fishing town and get some food before departure 2:14pm. 45407 took charge of the return leg back to Crianlarich with 44871 assisting on the rear. We caught the pair at Kilchurn Castle crossing the girder bridge over the river Orchy in fantastic light, both engines making great time. Arrival into Crianlarich was 12 Minutes early at 4:05pm, now 44871 took charge again with 45407 assisting on the other end for the final leg to Fort William. The pair rolled down the gradient past us at Horseshoe curve and kept to time right down the line as we watched them disappear from the A Road and on to Rannoch and Corrour. We met them again at dusk as they rolled into Spean Bridge station to collect the Radio token, both weren’t sat for long and as soon as the token was acquired, one final sprint took place to Fort William where they arrived 2 Minutes early allowing for the passengers to rest there head before another busy day!


As the mist hung over Fort William on the Morning of day 3, K1 62005 rolled out of the yards at Fort William and into the station ready to take charge of the RYTC’s trip. 44871 was also being prepared on shed to work the daily Jacobite tour for WCRC which would depart an hour later once the tour had cleared. Departure was right on time and as we waited at Corpach, you could watch her as she coasted along in the far distance. She slowed down for the station and coasted over the level crossing before the driver opened her up across the Loch wall and back up to line speed. A quick dash to the car allowed us the chance to experience her over Glenfinnan viaduct, of course famous for its part in the Harry potter films but there was no Ford Anglia’s in sight this time! She took the gradient off the viaduct with ease and arrived into the station on time and departing after the token was collected and we caught her again on the other side once again working hard up the gradient. She was caught several more times on some of the well-known locations along the line before an on time arrival in Mallaig after a sterling performance on Beasdale bank. We backtracked a bit to just after Glenfinnan again to catch 44871 work the Jacobite up and made an equally brilliant performance on the gradients and was seen again working into Morar station before dropping down into Mallaig for a break. Not long had 44871 arrive, 62005 was ready to head south again, the atmosphere at Mallaig was unimaginable with 2 steam tours taking up the platform space and no modern units in site.  Departure was on time and once again there was a no fuss effort made of the gradients out of Mallaig and made quick work of the return to Fort William arriving 7 minutes early where 45407 was ready and prepared to take the tour back to Glasgow. After attaching, the black 5 had a short wait whilst the Sleeper train to London was being prepared for a later departure that evening. Departure was at 3:30pm right on time and she quite quickly disappeared off into the Hills of Rannoch. However we soon found her again running nearly 20 minutes early at Bridge Of Orchy working hard around the Horseshoe gradient and up the climb towards County March Summit. A quick run up the road to Crianlarich allowed us the chance to watch her coming in which amazed many of the onlookers in the hotel next to the line. On arrival at the station, they then had a 2 hours break, which allowed the Passengers a chance to stretch their legs and walk down to the nearest pub for a drink. It gave the crew chance to water 45407 and attach 37516, which had been idling in the head shunt since the day before, to the rear of the train for assistance with the empty stock to Bo’ness that night. We left the tour to it at that point and headed for the hotel in Glasgow. 45407 made easy work of the route back and arrived on time at Glasgow Queen Street before heading with the ECS to Bo’ness and would make a Light engine move back to Fort William the following day. We had been greeted with the news that a lot of hard work by the support crew has been done and 61994 was repaired and ready to take charge of the final day of the tour!


For day 4, passengers had to make their way across Glasgow to the suburb station of Barnhill where they were met by 61994 fit and ready for the final day and a sprint along the rarely used Glasgow and South Western Railway to Carlisle with Mr. Hodgson back in the driver’s seat. We met her at Prestwick town where she made a quick sprint through behind a service train to Ayr. They soon arrived at the water stop at Falkland a couple of minutes early and had an hour and a half to top up the tanks. From here they curved off at Ayr junction and headed for Annbank. None of the gradients on this stretch affected her and she arrived at Mauchline 7 minutes early for a pathing stop leaving again on time.  Keeping to line speed most of the way they arrived in Dumfries 2 minutes late and left 2 late for a the final leg to Carlisle. They passed us at a level crossing not far outside Dumfries making a good effort on the gradient and then started dipping down onto Gretna Junction officially entering the tour back into England for the first time since Friday morning.  Arrival into the Citadel station was 1 minute late before she moved off into the goods loop leaving the passengers a good 2 and half hours to explore the border city and get some lunch. At 3:53pm, 61994 departed Southbound over Shap with the final leg of the epic 4 day trip in the capable hands of Mick Rawling, we saw her working hard on the grade past Southwaite before she entered the goods loop at Plumpton for a brief stop to allow further services to pass which were hot on her toes at Southwaite. She left the loop 3 minutes late due to a number of services delayed and started well, unfortunately the late running trains in front kept her meeting amber and red signals till Penrith where she passed through 5 minutes late. Still able to make a spirited run to Shap summit they reached the top at 48.5MPH before dropping down through the Lune Gorge. They kept a steady 60mph down the other side of Shap before arrival into Carnforth Goods loop 9 minutes late for a quick water stop. A quick turnaround got them out of the loop only 4 minutes down. Marquees made easy work and kept at her limit for the rest of the run keeping good distance from the services in front and behind her. She passed us one final time at Outbeck Goods Loop before arriving into Preston only 5 minutes late. 37668 and 37518 arrived at Preston behind the tour and were attached to the rear of the stock to take the empty stock and 61994 back to Carnforth for a rest.

Despite her boiler issues taking her away from Day 2 and 3 of the tour, 61994 had put in a brilliant performance and delayed no services on the busy West Coast Mainline on Day 1 and 4 taking on some of the steepest gradients in the country.

The tour that took in over 700 miles of railways ranging from that major WCML to the short Crianlarich – Oban branch and that used 4 different steam locomotives and 1 diesel locomotive has ended, and was a success. A full train of passengers enjoyed exactly what they were promised through stunning scenery and on some very tough gradients. A big hand is deserved to all loco crews, support crew, on train staff and everyone behind the scenes from WCRC, Network Rail and RYTC for this tour as even at the time where things were looking down, they still kept the tour running to time and to the correct destination. Here’s to next year, which will hopefully be just as successful!