“I raise my glass to Glenfinnan – the work of man and nature in perfect harmony” - Michael Palin, 2010
This sweeping view of the Glenfinnan Viaduct as it curves its way through the West Highlands captures the beauty and romance of the railways at the peak of their popularity.
Often cited as one of the most scenic railway lines in Britain, the single-track West Highland Line crosses the top of Loch Shiel by way of the Glenfinnan Viaduct, en route from Glasgow to Mallaig in the Western Isles.
Designed by Sir Robert McAlpine, the viaduct was one of the largest engineering works using un-reinforced concrete. At 380m long with 21 arches, some as high as 30m, it’s a huge feat of engineering. Completed in 1901, the 263 km route was recently voted the world’s top rail journey.
Travelling by train
Queen Victoria was a regular rail user. She popularised train travel as quick, efficient and pleasurable. The spread of railways physically opened up Britain and also helped to break down social barriers, creating a more equal society.
For a relatively small price anybody could travel by train. Journeys that had once taken days in a horse-drawn carriage could now be completed in hours. Train travel widened horizons and offered a new freedom; day trips and holidays to the seaside became increasingly popular for working class families.
History of the railway
British railways are the oldest in the world. The first public train service started in 1825. By 1830 ‘The Rocket’ locomotive had been designed, it travelled at 38 kph to the astonishment of the people of the time.
But even by 1837, when Victoria was crowned Queen, there were few railways in Scotland other than freight lines between Glasgow, Dundee and Edinburgh. By 1900 Scotland had a complete network, from the borders to the very north, linking main towns and many small villages.
In Britain as a whole, by 1900 there were over 30,000 km of railways and around a billion passengers were being carried each year. Many lines have since shut because they were considered not profitable.