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Train from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh - the best train journey in the UK?

Posted by News Editor at 11:22 on Tuesday 12 April 2016

In his new book 'Ticket to Ride', The Times travel journalist Tom Chesshyre aims to answer the question: Why do people across the world love trains so much? In the following extract from the book, Tom describes his favourite journey: the Kyle Line in Scotland between Inverness and the Kyle of Lochalsh

During my work as travel writer for The Times I get to take many a train in the UK. There are plenty of contenders for my favourite journey on home soil - including Paddington to Penzance (especially down by the sea in Devon and crossing Isambard Brunel's bridge into Cornwall), Belfast to Derry in Northern Ireland (I love the meandering route to the north coast), and King’s Cross to Edinburgh (with those fine views across the Tyne at Newcastle and on the turn into Berwick-upon-Tweed), but the Kyle Line in Scotland between Inverness and the Kyle of Lochalsh is my number one ride.

One of the many loch views en route from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh. Photo: Tom ChesshyreOne of the many loch views en route from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh. Photo: Tom ChesshyreAt Inverness station, an engine rumbles as I wait for the train to the Kyle of Lochalsh. I’ve just been to the WH Smith where Sheila, the sales assistant, has told me: ‘Everybody gets so excited. You can’t help but get excited with them.’

Sheila is referring to the rail enthusiasts who come to this station to take the journey on which I am about to embark, a 70-mile trip across some of the most beautiful countryside in Britain. The Kyle Line, as it is known, opened in November 1897 at great cost. An estimated £20,000 was spent per mile to cut through rock and to build bridges (29 altogether) to link Inverness on the east coast with the Kyle of Lochalsh on the west. It was an important connection as cattle could be loaded to be sent to market, reaching London from the west of Scotland in 21 hours. Previously it had taken six weeks to lead beasts by hoof along drove roads to reach trains going south.

Photo: Tom ChesshyrePhoto: Tom ChesshyreThe railway was almost closed during Dr Beeching’s cuts in the 1960s, but the line survived this – and another scare in the 1970s – thanks partly to enthusiasts from Friends of the Kyle Line, who lobbied with passion and no small degree of cunning to save the track. I use the word 'cunning' as there was, at the time, a chance of oil discovery in deep waters off the west coast. Were this to happen, the railway would be extremely useful for transporting materials needed on platforms. Campaigners played this up. Politicians, partly swayed by the prospect of riches, granted a reprieve.

The view from the train. Photo: Tom ChesshyreThe view from the train. Photo: Tom ChesshyreYou can pick up excellent little guides explaining what you see along the way from the WH Smith, which is just across the concourse from Bertie’s Bar. Before going to the platform, I poke my head inside Bertie's to find a solitary customer munching a sandwich with a dram of whisky on the side. He does not look up as I enter; the sandwich has his full attention. I can see no barman. An 'Alice’s Wonderland’ fruit machine flashes wildly. Time seems to have frozen in the 1980s or 1970s, or maybe earlier still. For a moment I just stand and look about. The only movement comes from slow, steady chewing of the sandwich-eater. He has yet to touch his dram. He has yet to take his eyes off his food. It is a very strange setting. I give up on a drink of my own (still no barman) and leave him to it.

The train to the Kyle of Lochalsh is pretty peculiar, too - in a pleasant way. A handful of passengers joins the carriages, and I find a lilac seat with a jaunty pattern. A conductor checks my ticket. ‘OK bud,’ he says, before moving on to an elderly couple who have mislaid their tickets. ‘Don’t worry. You don’t look like our usual fare dodgers,’ he says. He disappears into the next carriage.

A whistle blows and the ScotRail train soon crosses a tea-coloured burn into undulating countryside, the land quickly turning gold and purple, khaki and mauve. Gorse and bracken cling to slopes by fields with chestnut horses. Piebald mountains tower above valleys. Lochs spread out before us, gloriously still and mirror-like. It's a sunny afternoon. Shards of light reflect off the water into the carriages of the train.

This is a blissful place.

The journey from Inverness passes through some of the most picturesque scenery in the UK. Photo: Tom ChesshyreThe journey from Inverness passes through some of the most picturesque scenery in the UK. Photo: Tom ChesshyreWe cut through pine-clad hills on a detour made necessary by a train-hating, 19th-century laird. Here, on the steepest section, there was almost a disaster in 1897. A locomotive lost power at the top of the ascent and hurtled backwards down the line. It is hard to imagine how terrifying the experience must have been. Luckily, no-one died.

We twist onwards beside a perfect loch. Gentle ripples and tiny eddies disturb the surface: salmon in the depths, perhaps. Prairies open up with sheep huddled round feeding posts. Black cattle swish tails. A bird of prey swoops above a ravine. Then an estuary widens into view, with folds of fog in silvery grey above the choppy turquoise water.

This is one ride you never want to end. But beyond little stations named Dingwall, Garve, Stromeferry, Duncraig and Plockton we pull into Kyle of Lochalsh, where we are greeted by a British Transport Police sign that says: 'BEWARE GADGET GRABBERS' TACTICS.' Apparently there are three types of thieves on the loose: 'grabbers, snatchers and pluckers'. Each has their own devious way of relieving passengers of their smart phones and 'devices'. It seems impossible that such characters could be lurking in such a gorgeous setting.

The Isle of Skye is just across a bridge over a channel of metallic sea. Two and a half hours after boarding in Inverness - with its dull shopping malls and traffic-clogged streets - the Inner Hebrides await.

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Tom Chesshyre is author of Ticket to Ride: Around the World on 49 Unusual Train Journeys (Summersdale, £9.99), published this month and available on Amazon.

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