Invergarry and Fort Augustus Railway
The Invergarry and Fort Augustus Railway was a branch-line railway built in Scotland, connecting the named places with the main line at Spean Bridge. It opened in 1903.
Serving exceptionally sparsely inhabited areas it was never commercially successful, but it rekindled hostilities between larger railways over a planned railway connection along the Great Glen reaching Inverness; however this scheme never materialised.
Passenger train operation ceased in 1933 and the line closed completely in 1946.
The Great Glen is a natural rift valley that runs from diagonally across the Highlands of Scotland from Fort William on Loch Linnhe in the south west to Inverness on the Moray Firth in the north east.
It forms an easy communication route and as well as roads, the Caledonian Canal was constructed along it by linking natural lochs with canal sections. It opened to sea-going vessels in 1822 but the limited size of the canal sections proved inadequate for general merchant shipping.
In the railway age, Inverness was an important commercial centre, and from 1854 it was the focus of railway communication, and from a company amalgamation in 1865 the Highland Railway was dominant in that area. Agriculture and industry was active in the eastern side of the country and railway development there was more vigorous. By contrast the western side of the area was backward and depressed. The first railway to attempt to reach the west coast was the Dingwall and Skye Railway, authorised in 1865 to build from Dingwall, north of Inverness, to Kyle of Lochalsh, close to the Isle of Skye. In fact the line opened only as far as Stromeferry on Loch Carron, a more difficult anchorage than Kyle of Lochalsh, in 1870. (The Highland Railway later absorbed the Dingwall and Skye Railway, and in 1897 it extended the line to Kyle of Lochalsh.)
An approach to the west coast further south was attempted by the Callander and Oban Railway, by extending from an existing branch line from Dunblane at Callander. Oban was already an important hub of communication with the islands and coastal towns. The construction of this line was also difficult, passing through rocky landscapes with a thin population density. There were serious money problems, but with the considerable support of the Caledonian Railway Oban was at last connected to the railway system in 1880.
Widespread attention was given to the depressed economic conditions in the West Highlands, and in the 1883 Parliamentary session the Glasgow and North Western Railway was proposed. It was to leave the North British Railway at Maryhill (on the north west margin of Glasgow) and run by Loch Lomondside and Glencoe to Fort William and Inverness. This was an ambitious scheme, but the Highland Railway saw it as a threat to its supremacy in its area, and it opposed the scheme vigorously; the result was that the Glasgow and North Western Railway was rejected in Parliament.
It was a more modest proposal that actually provided the third link to the western coast: the West Highland Railway, which built a line from Craigendoran, opened in 1894 and extended to Banavie, on the Caledonian Canal, the following year. The West Highland Railway had intended to build their line to Roshven, in the Sound of Arisaig. Major difficulties had arisen with landowners' objections to the Roshven line, and the West Highland Railway contented itself with extending instead to Mallaig from Fort William, and that section opened in 1901.
The West Highland Railway was sponsored by the North British Railway, and hostility flared up between the NBR and the Highland Railway; both companies proposed lines along the Great Glen in 1893. In fact both companies reviewed their intentions and withdrew their schemes, and agreed not to promote further similar schemes for a period of ten years, the so-called "ten year truce".
The contractor and entrepreneur Charles Forman had been active in encouraging the various Great Glen schemes, and now he proposed the Invergarry and Fort Augustus Railway; it was to run to Fort Augustus from Spean Bridge on the West Highland Railway. The scheme attracted considerable local support and it obtained its authorising Act of Parliament on 14 August 1896.
The population of Fort Augustus was less than 500, and it was widely assumed that the line was a speculative bid to reach Inverness.
Work on construction began in 1897 but the process was very slow, in part due to an exceptionally high standard of specification for the architectural and engineering assets. Elaborate stations with spacious goods yards were provided. Invergarry had four goods sidings and separate loading banks for cattle and goods.
The building of the line was the signal for a resumption of the fight for a railway along the Great Glen: the I&FAR itself as well as the Highland Railway and the North British Railway proposed lines linking to Inverness, but the Highland gained the ascendency. However it was excluded in the Commons from running powers over the I&FAR, and the Highland Bill was subsequently thrown out in the Lords.
The Invergarry and Fort Augustus Railway did not wish to operate the line itself, and contrary to expectations, it made arrangements with Highland Railway to work the line. The line had no physical railway connection to the Highland Railway system, and certain logistical difficulties were incurred by the arrangement. It required Parliamentary authority, and the NBR represented to the Parliamentary Committee that it was prepared to work the line at cost—no mean offer considering the negligible income to be expected—but not at a loss. The Highland was given the right to work the line, and this was authorised by Act of 30 June 1903, for an annual payment of £4,000. Mutual undertakings were given about not forming a connection to Inverness (by the NBR) or Fort William (by the Highland Railway).
By the 32nd section of its Act of Incorporation, the railway was, for the benefit of the owners of the Glengarry estate, required to construct, a permanent station at within 2 furlongs of the South-West end of Loch Oich, "to be called Invergarry Station, for passengers, animals and goods, with separate waiting-rooms for ladies and gentlemen and other usual and necessary accommodation therein" and to "stop all ordinary trains other than express or special or excursion trains at such station daily for the purpose of taking up and setting down traffic of any kind."
The Fort Augustus Pier station was on Loch Ness and tourist traffic was contemplated. However the dominant steamer operator on the loch, David MacBrayne Ltd, declined to use the railway pier and it saw very little use. The extension to the pier involved a hand-operated swing bridge over the Caledonian Canal and a viaduct over the River Oich. Passenger traffic on the pier extension was suspended from 1 October 1906,[note 1] although occasional goods trains ran until July 1924 when the extension was finally closed permanently.
In March 1906 many areas of the western Highlands experienced exceptional rainfall and flooding. Describing the dislocation to railways in the Lochaber area the Scotsman reported
The most serious damage reported, however, occurred on the Invergarry and Fort-Augustus Railway, in the neighbourhood of Letterfinlay, where tow large sections of the line have been washed away by the enormous rush of water down the hillside. In consequence of this mishap, no traffic occurred over the line on Saturday.
Running at a loss
In fact the entire line was heavily loss-making, due to the sparse population and the availability of a direct alternative in the steamers on the parallel Caledonian Canal. The Highland Railway decided to cut its losses: confident that its supremacy at Inverness was no longer at risk. It withdrew its trains from 1 May 1907.
The abandonment of the Invergarry and Fort-Augustus Railway by the Highland Railway Company will surprise no-one who knows the conditions under which that line is at present worked. The railway ought really to be a branch and feeder of the West Highland Railway. Beginning at Spean Bridge on the latter system it is laid through a beautiful but sparsely-populated country to Fort-Augustus, midway between Inverness and Fort-William. For a considerable part of the way it runs alongside the chain of lochs forming the Caledonian Canal, and is thus in direct competition to the steamboat traffic on the Canal. Fort-Augustus is a small town of very inconsiderable importance except as a tourist centre, and none of the other villages tapped by the line is large or busy.
The North British Railway took over on 1 May 1907; there was a three-year agreement to work the line for 60% of gross receipts, with a minimum take of £2,000.
From 1907 the NBR operated two trains each way daily, but increased this to four in the summer.
The North British Railway proposed to close the line down from 31 January 1911, but the wealthy sponsors of the I&FAR persuaded them to persevere for one more summer, which they did. The financial situation did not improve and the NBR withdrew its trains from 31 October 1911.[note 2]
The line was now closed, and for the time being it avoided the operating costs that led to the huge losses, while the company contented itself with taking in small sums of non-railway income. A huge movement of public opinion now took place urging retention of the line, notwithstanding the extremely low usage of it when it was operating. A request for Government support was put forward, though without success, and for the time being the line remained closed.
Sale to the North British Railway
In 1912 the NBR offered to purchase the line for £22,500 but the I&FAR company refused the sale. In 1913 Inverness-shire County Council offered to contribute an additional £5,000 and the sale was agreed at £27,500; by an Act of 28 August 1914 the transfer was authorised by Parliament. The line had cost £344,000 to construct.
The NBR resumed working the line on 1 August 1913, as contractors to the I&FAR for the time being; formal transfer to the North British Railway took place on 30 August 1914. There were three trains daily in summer and two in winter. Through trains to and from Fort William were later operated.
Passenger trains continued until 1 December 1933, when the very poor patronage caused the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER, as successor to the North British Railway) to close the service. Weekly coal trains continued running until they were withdrawn and the line closed on 31 December 1946.
Fort Augustus Railway
The line had a ruling gradient of 1 in 66 and was single throughout, although land had been acquired for double track. there were passing loops at all the stations, which were
- Spean Bridge (West Highland Railway station);
- Invergloy; opened June 1904;
- Letterfinlay; crossing place only;
- Fort Augustus;
- Fort Augustus Pier; passenger service in summer only; closed 1 October 1906.
Fort Augustus station had three platform faces.
There was a short tunnel near the end of Loch Oich, but there were several spectacular bridge structures: a four span lattice bridge crossed the Spean, with spans of 60, 60, 120 and 50 feet; there was a lattice bridge over the River Gloy with spans of 50, 100 and 50 feet; at the Calder Burn there was a five-span skew girder bridge; and between the two Fort Augustus stations there was the swing bridge over the Caledonian Canal and the bridge over the River Oich, with spans of 50, 100 and 50 feet. These last two structures were removed in 1944.
The line was 23 miles 13 chains in length to Fort Augustus station; the Pier extension was 73 chains. A crossing place was installed at Letterfinlay but never brought into use and subsequently dismantled.
Description of a run on the line
A writer for the Railway Magazine had a run on the line in 1940:
Passenger and parcels traffic on the Fort Augustus branch was suspended in November, 1933, and there is now only one weekly coal and petrol train, leaving Spean Bridge at 10.30 a.m. on Saturdays, all other traffic being dealt with by L.N.E.R. motor lorries and David McBrayne’s buses and steamers, the latter in summer only. The locomotive working the branch is an ex-North British 0-6-0 goods, No. 9663, which runs out and home light from Fort William, and makes up its train at Spean Bridge; the latter usually consists of twelve to sixteen wagons and a brake... The branch presents a rather neglected appearance, for several sidings, passing loops, footbridges, signal boxes, and all signalling except for a fixed distant just outside Spean Bridge, have been removed. Leaving Spean Bridge I travelled in the brake, having, in addition to the guard, a bicycle, two passengers, some newspapers, three or four bags of coal and a large consignment of cakes, as companions. We stopped at Gairlochy. the first station out, where the guard’s wife is station-mistress, and I was very interested to see the way in which all of the station buildings have been converted into a camping hostel, similar to the camping coaches, but with fireplaces telephone, water laid on, and "Mrs. Guard” to minister to one’s wants. Similar arrangements have been made at Invergarry and Fort Augustus, the charge averaging £2 to £3 per person per week.
Leaving Gairlochy we passed Invergloy platform, also two sidings put in for timber traffic during the 1914-1919 war, and pulled up at Invergarry. A stationmaster-clerk is in charge here and a similar arrangement obtains at Fort Augustus... A short distance ahead a tunnel is passed, and speed rose to 35 or 40 m.p.h... Passing Aberchalder, the station buildings of which are now let to a fruit merchant, about 20 min. journey brought us to Fort Augustus. Here all the passenger tracks have been removed, except a through line which ran down to the Pier station (closed in 1907). ¾ mile further on a swing-bridge over the Caledonian Canal and a viaduct still remain, together with a few hundred yards of track, but when the Glasgow-Inverness road was reconstructed in 1934-1936 part of an embankment of the pier extension was removed completely and the rails are thus severed. The two-road engine shed is derelict, but the turntable is still in use by the engineer’s Department Ro Railer, which comes up from Fort William occasionally... About 12.15 p.m. the train commences its return journey, which has no stops, save one, at Gairlochy, to pick up the guard's dinner, and Spean Bridge is reached about 1.30 p.m. Gairlochy, Invergarry, and Fort Augustus stations have recently been repainted and numbers of men were at work renovating several bridges: a sleeping van was stationed at Aberchalder for them.
The present day
Some of the line today has been built over by roads and holiday parks, although it mostly survives in a reasonably good, if overgrown, condition. The many bridges and single tunnel are in particularly good condition. Some of the line along Loch Oich has been incorporated into the Great Glen Way, and a further section is proposed to become part of National Cycle Route 78.
A restoration project is (2016) under way at Invergarry Station, the last remaining station that is largely intact. The Invergarry Station Preservation Society plan to create a static museum, with a short length of track and several freight wagons.
In March 2015 480 ft of track was laid in platform 1. Work then commenced in constructing the replica signal cabin on the platform.
Video 125 made a video documentary about the line, using the sub-heading: The line that should have never been built.
- In Forgotten Railways page 202 Thomas says "On 30th September 1907 the I&FAR closed its pier and station at Fort Augustus, and abandoned the expensive and little-used approach. In the following year the Highland withdrew its trains and the NB moved in to work the line..." The date 30 September 1906 is used by other authorities (Vallance, Clinker and Lambert; Quick) and in any case the NBR took over in 1907, not 1908. It was of course the Pier station, not Fort Augustus station that was closed to passengers. The approach line and Pier station remained in use for goods purposes for some years.
- Ross has this in reverse in The North British Railway: he says that the Invergarry and Fort Augustus Railway "directors had proposed to close [their line] down from 31 January 1911, rather than share half the company's deficit with the North British, but the NBR persuaded them to hold off." It is difficult to follow how that can be accurate.
- A D Cameron, The Caledonian Canal, Birlinn Ltd, 2005, ISBN 978-1841584034
- H A Vallance, C R Clinker and Anthony J Lambert, The Highland Railway, David and Charles, Newton Abbot, 1985, ISBN 0 946537 24 0
- John Thomas, The Callander and Oban Railway, David & Charles, Newton Abbot, 1966
- John McGregor, The West Highland Railway—Plans Politics and People, John Donald, Edinburgh, 2005, ISBN 9780859766241
- David Ross, The North British Railway—A History, Stenlake Publishing, Catrine, 2014, ISBN 978 1 84033 647 4
- David Ross, The Highland Railway, Tempus Publishing Limited, Stroud, 2005, ISBN 0 7524 3479 9
- John Thomas, Forgotten Railways: Scotland, David and Charles (Publishers) Limited, Newton Abbot, 1976, ISBN 0 7153 7185 1
- "Brunel Redivivus", New Railway in the Highlands: Opening of the Invergarry and Fort Augustus Railway, in Railway Magazine, September 1903
- The Story of the West Highland, published by the London and North Eastern Railway, 1944 (written anonymously by George Dow)
- M E Quick, Railway Passenger Stations in England Scotland and Wales—A Chronology, The Railway and Canal Historical Society, 2002
- The Scotsman, 19 March 1906, accessed through the British Newspaper Archive, subscription required
- Dundee Evening Telegraph, 15 March 1907, accessed through the British Newspaper Archive, subscription required
- V Boyd Carpenter, Fort Augustus Branch, L.N.E.R., in Railway Magazine, February 1940
- "Invergarry Station Preservation Society". Retrieved 16 June 2013.
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