Invergarry & Fort Augustus Railway
Sunday 5th August 2018
Report by Tom Scott
A full party of 26 met for 12.30 (mostly!) at Invergarry station; some had started much earlier exploring the remains of this fascinating branch from Spean Bridge further south thanks to the guidance of local member Nick Jones. Quite a few had been on our Western Pickston railtour the day before. The time was convenient for buses from Fort William and Inverness, although most came by car.
I was the only one to arrive late (by half an hour) as travelling on CityBus 919 from Fort William I had mistakenly alighted at Invergarry Hotel - three miles further on, instead of Laggan Swing Bridge, a few minutes' walk from Invergarry station on the east side of Loch Oich. It is also the entrance to Great Glen Water Park, the area's main leisure attraction. Luckily staff at the Invergarry Hotel kindly drove me back avoiding a 45 minute walk along the busy A82 road, but it did show how inconvenient the station was for the village. Talking to the staff and locals in the bar I was pleased to hear that they knew all about the station restoration/museum.
'The Invergarry & Fort Augustus Railway Museum' project, inaugurated Aug 2012, is supported and funded by the Forestry Commission, MacLeod & MacCallum (legal specialists), Glengarry Trust, NR and Sustrans. At Invergarry station I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by the clearance work since my previous May 2009 visit, part of a week of trackbed walking with Railway Ramblers led by the late Brian Slater. The final day was a little different; we climbed Ben Nevis! By then it had been over 60 years since track lifting and station buildings were demolished, leaving just the fine long wide island platform and its access subway but without its original roof. By 2009 heavy vegetation had taken hold leaving access almost impossible. Indeed two sizable trees had grown through the platform surface! The reasonably clear trackbed was, and still is, used by the Forestry Commission for logging elsewhere on the branch route. Sustrans Route National Cycle Route 78 (Caledonia Way North) now takes in most of the 4 mile Loch Oich trackbed section north of the station - a fantastic walk. In 2009 the goods yard area west of the station was overgrown, occupied by abandoned road vehicles and fly tipping.
This 23 mile long standard gauge single track branch was built to main line standards (it was to have been a through line to Inverness with the potential for double track). It had a short passenger life, less than 30 years (1903-1933), and closed temporarily between Oct 1911 and Aug 1913 due to financial difficulties. Freight continued until the very end of 1946, a Saturdays only trip from Fort William to Fort Augustus with coal and oil. This was usually worked by ex-NB 0-6-0 No 9663. In WWII timber was also carried. The branch, built to generally lavish standards, was surprising given the sparsely populated area it served. Fort Augustus had a mere 500 residents at the time. There were passing loops at Gairlochy and Invergarry stations and a loop with a signal box that was never commissioned at Letterfinlay Crossing between the two. Three platform faces were built at Fort Augustus with a sizable goods yard and the branch engine shed. Leaving the then comparatively recently built main West Highland Railway line at Spean Bridge, a short bay platform was built there. The branch curved away right in a north westerly direction for two miles where, at Gairlochy, it curved again sharply right to form a diagonal southwest to northeast alignment all the way to Fort Augustus alongside Loch Lochy, Loch Oich and the Great Glen Rift Valley also serving the other three intermediate stations of Invergloy Platform, Invergarry and Aberchalder on the way. Inverness would never be reached from here by rail despite the promoters' dream of their 'Great Glen Trunk Route'. From Fort Augustus the line only continued 73ch to Fort Augustus Pier on the west side of Loch Ness; steamers connected for Inverness but (some) branch trains were extended to the pier only during the summer months. This was an elaborate and costly affair with a swing bridge over the Caledonian Canal, a fine castellated viaduct over the River Oich supported by two stone arches and a bridge over the main road. Passenger trains survived only three seasons until 1906; freight lingered to the Pier goods yard until Jul 1924.
The Highland Railway, using their 4-4-0s with three coaches, operated the Fort Augustus service from the start to 1907, followed by the North British Railway 1907 to 1923 and finally the LNER from 1923 to 1946. The line was lifted in 1948. The initial service was four trains daily (SuX) but for a time there were just two. At the times when four trains a day operated on the branch, generally two of them ran through to/from Fort William by reversing at Spean Bridge.
Invergarry station was built close to Invergarry House (now the prestigious Glengarry Castle Hotel) - the home of the Lairds of Glengarry - King Edward VII visited in the royal train. A private waiting room was provided for visitors to the house; the Stationmaster's House survives as a private residence. Members initially explored the site (many walking the trackbed footpath, north and south), the rolling stock and railway museum. Relics therein included hand lamps, flags, traffic notices, rule books, Permanent Way and signals tools, photographs and timetables, all with a Scottish flavour. Tyndrum Upper signal frame was donated by NR. The platform has two replica nameboards and concrete foundation base for a signal box; the passenger subway/underpass has been repaired and painted. The Forestry Commission as landlord has agreed to a 48ch south extension and a shorter one north.
Track, laid in 2015, is available alongside P1 (Down/to Fort Augustus) and continues north for a similar distance totalling 480ft. When more track is delivered it will be laid in P2 and linked at the north end. An isolated siding parallel to that at P1 is for the static display of wagons. Rolling stock is a 1947 built 0-4-0 Rushton diesel shunter. It spent almost its whole life at Lincoln and came to Invergarry by road three years ago. Following minor repairs and a 'clean up' on site it became 'live' a year later. In the aforementioned display siding were two 1910 built Caledonian Railway Pig Iron wagons with LMS bogies and Highland Railway buffers from GCR Ruddington in 2016. A Lowmac Swift platelayer's trolley is used for track installation/maintenance. An area in the former goods yard now used as a Forestry Commission staff car park, will, in time, have track again with a shed for locos and other rolling stock.
At 13.45 hot soup, generous sandwiches, cakes and hot drinks, all included in the price, were provided at the neighbouring Loch Oich restaurant. Back at the station from about 14.15 onwards footplate rides for 6-7 at a time operated from the south end of the platform. Running at up to 4mph, skill was used to traverse the maximum amount of track. This was the finale of a great day at this very friendly embryo railway; we came away having learnt a great deal, including future hopes and aspirations.
Members, who never imagined that they would ever do any of the Fort Augustus branch, dispersed at 15.00. Our thanks to Kev Adlam and the railway for all the excellent arrangements.
The south end of the island platform, looking northeast; the former lower level goods yard was to the left of the path; off picture to the far left is Loch Oich.
[© Ian Mortimer 2018]
The loco is at the southern extremity of the line, looking south west. Behind the group of members, beyond the platform ramp, is the entrance to the pedestrian subway under the trackbed.
[© Ian Mortimer 2018]
Looking south from the north end of the long platform, again the loco is at the far south end.
[© Ian Mortimer 2018]