The joys of the ‘Jacobite’
It began on March 30 and could end on December 29, with only a short break in between. The ‘Jacobite’ has grown into a major, yet easily overlooked, participant in the main line steam calendar, as explains.
The ‘Jacobite’ is now such a regular fixture in the main line steam calendar that by the end of 2018 it will have covered more miles between Fort William and Mallaig than the circumference of the Earth – and all that in just nine months. By any yardstick, 26,124 miles of unadulterated steam haulage is pretty impressive (that’s 1,223 more than a trip around the equator). But when you consider that it’s achieved by two or three 4‑6‑0s and a solitary 2‑6‑0, and over a particularly hard stretch of railway, it makes the figures even more remarkable. So popular is the repeat itinerary West Coast Railways train that the shoulders of its season have been increasingly pushed forward and back, so it now starts as the first daffodils emerge in March and, for the past two years, has ended under a blanket of December snow. It represents meteoric growth for the ‘Jacobite’. Established under BR’s ScotRail division in 1984, it has been operated under West Coast since 1995, following privatisation, through what is publicised as the ‘Outdoor Capital of Britain’. To give an indication of quite how rapidly the patriotically named service has grown, it shuttled between Fort William and the coast 77 times in 1998 and 124 times in 2008. Since then, the annual number has risen to 311, which assumes that the Christmas ‘Jacobites’ are repeated, but not including any ‘extras’. Either way, it’s a four‑fold increase in the last two decades. It’s a startling figure for steam‑hauled passenger trains on Network Rail metals, of which only the North Yorkshire Moors’ Grosmont‑Whitby operation comes close in terms of intensity and frequency. West Coast can expect to sell more than 100,000 tickets on the train this year, which would be worth approximately £3.5 million in ticket revenue. Not only is it big business for WCR, the train – and its hundreds of daily passengers – has helped change the fortunes of the diminutive village of Mallaig, which has gained guesthouses, cafés and gift shops in the last decade or so. Before, the list of ‘things to do’ extended to little more than the Marine Bar, used predominantly by local fishermen.
One of the biggest drivers behind this escalation was the introduction in 2011 of a peak summer season two-train service, which crosses at Glenfinnan during 16 weeks between May 14 and September 14. It is the only place on the national network where this habitually occurs with steam on an advertised basis, yet it happens with such regularity that it is almost taken for granted.
And it’s easy to see why the ‘Jacobite’ has become so popular. Awareness of the route and its famous train has grown since being featured in the 1988 BBC series The Train Now Departing, with an ever-increasing level of coverage in worldwide newspapers, magazines, websites and television travelogues. What was once something to do while you were in Fort William, has rapidly become a reason to go to Fort William. A major factor in the 21st-century spike in ticket demand is undoubtedly down to the Harry Potter film franchise. Several sequences of J.K. Rowling’s imaginary ‘Hogwarts Express’ were filmed on the West Highland Line Extension; promoting a new wave of interest in the railway from wizarding fans all over the world, eager to trace the same route forged by red-liveried ‘Hall’ No. 5972 Olton Hall, or, to Potter fans, ‘Hogwarts Castle’. Any disappointment for those who discover that the fictional ‘Hogwarts Express’ cannot actually be experienced in real life is compensated for by West Coast’s own promoted steam train. The Carnforth-based charter firm is quite happy to tap into this most lucrative of brands, even though it has no publicity licence for the Warner Bros franchise. Indeed, the train now has its own dedicated marketing arm, which taps into the far-reaching and influential world of social media, while online booking has made it more attractive to the worldwide market. Key to the interest from movie makers and the media at large is the stunning landscape through which the ‘Jacobite’ runs, strung together by an assortment of impressive engineering features which, combined with the romantic allure of steam, makes it a natural candidate for the title of ‘World’s Greatest Railway’.
LIFE OF RILEY
Locomotive owner Ian Riley readily admits that he dotes on the line that interlaces lochs and mountains (or rather munros) and which is the driving factor behind his countless journeys between his home in East Lancashire and Fort William to man his engines. “It’s just about the best railway journey in the world,” he says. “It’s the views really. They’re second to none.” Ian, who has supplied motive power for the ‘Jacobite’ since September 2005, is one of its regular drivers, having gained promotion from firing duties in 2012. He will be at the regulator of one of his ‘Black Fives’ to Mallaig more than 100 times in 2018, so perhaps it’s no surprise that people question his sanity. “People ask me: ‘Do you ever get bored with doing that every day?’ My reply is always the same: ‘Do I heck?!’” Ian adores it so much that he has traded traditional accommodation in the support coach at Fort William depot for his own property overlooking Loch Linnhe. He considers the town to be a home from home for both him and his locomotives. And yet for all that driving of the ‘Jacobite’ in what some might see as a dream job, the combination of checkrail curves and sharp gradients (like the two-mile ‘twisty-turny’ 1-in-48 Beasdale bank) is heavy going on the engines. The wee 5ft 2in driving wheels of the North Eastern Locomotive Preservation Group’s Peppercorn ‘K1’ No. 62005 make it an ideal machine for coping with the ‘Road to the Isles’. The Stanier 4-6-0s on the other hand, with their 6ft drivers, feel the full force of the arduous topography. The class was deemed so unsuited to the line by British Railways Scottish Region – once teeming with LNER ‘Moguls’ – that you would have had just about as much chance of copping a ‘Black Five’ at Mallaig as seeing the Loch Ness Monster. “It’s hard work. We get a lot of tyre wear, but it pays off with the daily hire fees,” Riley counters. “We run a business out of it.” It’s demanding work for the carriages too, which are rotated throughout the season. Then there is the question of train weight… six Mk 1 coaches was deemed the limit for the LMS engines until the view was relaxed around five years ago, when it became apparent that demand for seats was outstripping supply.
YOU WOULD HAVE HAD JUST ABOUT AS MUCH CHANCE OF COPPING A ‘BLACK FIVE’ AT MALLAIG AS SEEING THE LOCH NESS MONSTER
“Seven coaches is right on the limit for a ‘Black Five’, but a decent driver copes quite admirably. We’ve been taking seven for about five years and never failed to get to Mallaig. It slows the engine down, but if you’ve got good sanders you’ll be fine.” Riley’s Nos. 44871 and 45407 are currently holding the fort, so to speak, until the planned arrival of the ‘K1’ in May… OPTIMAL NUMBER ‘5MT’ No. 45407 currently masquerades as St Rollox veteran No. 45157 The Glasgow Highlander, in recognition of the unit’s 150th anniversary in 2018. Appropriately for an engine that will spend the majority of the year north ’o the border, the 1937 engine also carries blue-backed smokebox plates. Riley may yet also send a third ‘Five’ in his care, Keighley & Worth Valley Railway-owned No. 45212, to Fort William later this year as cover, but only following its engagements as stand-in for other engines in the south of England. He adds that approaches by other locomotive owners to take their engines on holiday to the Highlands are likely to be turned down. “To be fair to David Smith [WCR’s majority owner], he always says ‘Riley’s and NELPG don’t let me down’. It’s not a train for clean-and-polish locomotive gangs.” More than 250 of the 311 return trips in 2018 will be in the hands of Ian’s engines but, despite the intensity, does he think that there is room to further expand the services into January, February or early November? After all, this year’s First Class seats are already sold out and other dates are already booked up. “It’s at its optimum. You can’t lengthen the trains any more than they are already and we are already running at capacity between the ScotRail services. Plus we need those three months to maintain the locomotives, while the businesses in Mallaig shut down. They need a break too!” Is an evening train to supplement the peak trains an option? Again, Ian is cautious. “To run a third train, you’d need a third rake of coaches. You couldn’t use the morning set because it takes three or four hours to clean. “Getting the locomotives and crews is not a problem but we’d need the exclusive use of Fort William depot to do it, which is in the hands of DB Cargo.” DON’T SPEED Moving the Riley locomotives north, quite literally, brings a change of pace for the engines, which are ostensibly limited to 60mph on the network. On the ‘Jacobite’ 40mph is the limit between Fort William and Milepost 13¼ (the first tunnel before Glenfinnan), where it drops to 30mph for the remaining 27 miles to the coast. In a world where 75mph is the limit for the vast majority of main line engines, Ian says that steam in the West Highlands at the slower end of the scale has its own merits: “The 30mph speed limit is good for the public, so they have a chance to view the scenery properly.” Moreover, the craggy nature of the line dictates that the regulator often has to be ‘in the roof’. The two-cylinder roar that echoes off rock-lined cuttings and gorse-lined valleys reflects the challenging nature of this fascinating line. One that certainly deserves another look.
‘K1’ No. 62005, in the absence of ‘K4’ The Great Marquess, is the most ideally suited engine to the West Highlands. The 1949 engine passes Kinloid, near Arisaig, with the Hebridean islands clearly visible.
When the second daily ‘Jacobite’ train was introduced, it departed Fort William in the evening rather than the afternoon, affording rare photographic opportunities. No. 44871 crosses Lochy Bridge, with the ruins of Old Inverlochy Castle and the lower...
One of the first ‘Festive Jacobites’ heads for Glenfinnan in December 2017, seen from the footplate of No. 45407.