The Jacobite Steam Train from Fort William to Mallaig (known to some as the real-life Hogwarts Express) is an absolute bucket list activity in the Scottish Highlands. Read on for advice on how to ride it and some alternative suggestions to see the train at various points on its journey, including the Glenfinnan Viaduct.
This post contains affiliate links which I may make a commission from. Find out more here. This experience was gifted to me and my friends by VisitScotland. All opinions are my own.
I feel like, in many ways, I grew with Harry Potter. I devoured the books, reading them in German translation and then also in their English original. Later, I found myself obsessed with the films, watching them over and over again. Maybe – subconsciously – that’s how I fell in love with Scottish landscapes.
When I found out that you can ride the real “Hogwarts Express” through the Scottish Highlands, I knew I wanted to try it.
And so – after hiking along the West Highland Way – I made my way to the train station in Fort William, ready to be bewitched. I can’t remember when I had ever been so excited to board a train. Probably never.
Finally, my letter had arrived – never mind, that it had come in the shape of a booking confirmation email, rather than being delivered by an owl.
You might find yourself in a similar position on your Scotland bucket list trip and wonder if taking the Jacobite Steam Train to Mallaig is really worth it. Here is the low-down and everything you need to know about getting the most out of this magical adventure.
The Jacobite Steam Train
The Jacobite Steam Train is often regarded as one of the greatest railway journeys in the world and is certainly one of the most scenic train journeys in Scotland.
It follows the West Highland Line from Fort William to Mallaig and travels from the foot of the Nevis Range to the beautiful west coast. Along the way, it passes dramatic mountains and a succession of white sandy beaches, and overcomes challenging gradients and tight tight curves that make the steam engines wrk hard.
The Jacobite is hauled by a variety of steam locomotives and consists of several refurbished vintage train carriages. Note that it cannot be guaranteed which locomotive will be operating on a specific day, and on extreme occasions, the steam train might be replaced by a diesel locomotive.
You might also like: 16 Things to do in Fort William
How long is the journey on the Jacobite Steam Train?
The train journey from Fort William to Mallaig is 84 miles. Each way takes approximately 2 hours. The train stops in Mallaig for about 2 hours which means that the entire journey on the Jacobite Steam Train takes about 6 hours.
Note that there are not single journeys (i.e. one-way tickets) available on the Jacobite.
When does the Jacobite Steam Train go?
The Jacobite Steam Train runs from early April to late October. It does not operate in winter.
Note that you can still ride the regular ScotRail train from Fort William to Mallaig during the winter months. It uses the same tracks and the journey is just as scenic.
There are two scheduled departures from Fort William per day, seven days a week. The morning service operates the entire season (April to October), while the afternoon service runs only from May to September.
The morning service leaves from Fort William at 10.15 am and arrives in Mallaig at 12.26 pm. It departs again at 2.10 pm and arrives back in Fort William at 4 pm.
The afternoon service leaves Fort William at 12.50 pm and arrives in Mallaig just after 3 pm. It departs again at 5 pm and arrives back in Fort William just before 7 pm. Note that the schedule for the afternoon service differs slightly on Saturdays.
Booking tickets for the Jacobite Steam Train
The Jacobite Steam Train is operated by West Coast Railways, who also run a few other scenic trail journeys in the UK. Tickets usually go on sale some time in mid-November for the following summer season.
Journeys during the busy summer months – especially on weekends, during school holidays or around bank holidays – can book out months in advance.
I recommend booking tickets as soon as possible if riding the Jacobite Steam Train is on your Scotland bucket list.
I’d also book directly with West Coast Railways to avoid any issues by booking via 3rd party companies.
You may be able to buy last-minute tickets on the day, but these are subject to availability.
Note that the Jacobite Steam Train journey is not included in any railway passes.
How much does it cost?
Adult tickets cost £79.50 in First Class or £52 in Standard Class. Children’s tickets are available up to 16 years old and cost £57 in First Class or £30 in Standard Class.
Children under 3 go free as long as they can sit on your lap and don’t require their own seat. You can only bring strollers on board that you can fold and store. Note that wheelchairs will have priority in the storage space though.
In First Class open compartment carriages, you can also book a private table for 2. This costs £180 for two people.
Or you can book an entire Harry Potter style compartment on a separate First Class carriage. This seat up to 6 people and is available at a set price of £349.
What are the different cabin options?
There are three types of carriages on the Jacobite Steam Train: Standard Class, First Class open compartments and First Class private compartments. The latter is only available on the morning train.
Standard Class passengers travel in refurbished vintage carriages. They have tables with 4 seats around them on either side of the aisle.
First Class passengers who travel in open compartments benefit from more comfortable seats, more legroom and more luxurious furnishings including vintage table lamps. There are private tables for 2 and bigger tables 4 on either side of the aisle. Each passenger receives one complimentary tea or coffee per direction of travel.
First Class passengers who book an HP style compartment travel on a separate carriage. These must be booked as an entire compartment and your party will be guaranteed exclusive use of your compartment. Note that no food or drink is allowed inside the compartment.
Find out more about facilities on-board the train further below.
Unfortunately, it is not possible to choose your seats on the Jacobite Steam Train. All seats are allocated automatically. For parties of 2 and up, you’ll get at least one window seat and parties are always seated together.
Tip: If you’re travelling with more than 2 or 3 people and can’t find tickets, try booking separate tickets (2 at a time). You might not all sit together, but at least you may find tickets.
Food packages and extras
If you travel First Class in an open compartment you have the option to book Jacobite High Tea to be served at your seat. This is not available in Standard Class or in a private compartment. High Tea is usually served on the return journey on the morning service and on the outward journey on the afternoon service.
High tea includes a selection of freshly prepared sandwiches, savoury & sweet scones, and a selection of homemade cakes. Vegetarian, gluten-free and vegan options are available but you must give 7 days notice for GF and vegan options by emailing West Coast Railways with your booking reference number.
Other extras include a whisky tasting kit with four miniature bottles, a bottle of champagne, a box of chocolates or a bouquet of flowers.
You can also purchase a souvenir tour guide which contains an 8-page booklet and postcard.
What about one-way tickets?
Single journeys are not available on the Jacobite Steam Train. All tickets are return journeys from Fort William to Mallaig and back.
If you don’t want to return to Fort William right way – maybe you intend to cross over to the Isle of Skye, one of the Small Isles or spend a few days around Mallaig and Knoydart – you still have to purchase a return ticket.
If the expense doesn’t matter to you, consider appointing a designated driver who drives your car to Mallaig. You can also return to Fort William aboard the regular ScotRail train at a later time – it uses the same train tracks as the Jacobite Steam Train. There is also a bus service operated by Shiel Buses.
How to fit the train ride into your itinerary?
I advise to spend the night before your journey on the Jacobite Steam Train in Fort William – especially if you plan to take the morning service. If you travel on the afternoon service, you may arrive in Fort William on the same day, but should consider staying in the area that night to avoid driving late.
If you travel by public transport, you should make your way to Fort William the day before your Jacobite Steam Train journey. The morning train from Glasgow arrives in Fort William with about 15 minutes to spare before the afternoon service departs – which would be cutting it a bit short to my taste.
If you’re coming from further afield, you could combine riding the Jacobite Steam Train with an overnight journey to Scotland aboard the Caledonian Sleeper!
Arriving at Fort William station
There is no hard and fast check-in time for the Jacobite Steam Train, but the train won’t wait for you if you are late.
I recommend arriving at the train station 20-30 minutes before departure time to check-in and find your seat. In addition, allow extra time to find parking near the train station.
There is very limited parking at the train station, but there are several long-stay car parks in Fort William. They are located at West End, the Transport Centre (opposite the Belford Hospital, and at the side of the Railway Station), An Aird No.1 (opposite the Nevis Centre) and An Aird No.2 (adjacent to the Shinty Club).
West Coast Railways advises not to park at the Morrison car park by the station as this is only for supermarket customers and not suitable for long stays.
The check-in desk for the Jacobite Steam Train is located on the platform at Fort William train station. The train guard will meet you, check your tickets and direct you to the right carriage.
Fort William train station has toilets and showers, a waiting room and kiosk for snack. You can check all facilities here. There are also luggage storage facilities at the station.
There is a big Morrison supermarket across the road.
The journey on board the Jacobite Steam Train
All passengers have access to the buffet carriages that offers hot and cold drinks and light snacks for purchase. Each carriage has toilets.
Medium-sized dogs are allowed and travel free – but only one dog per booking (not per person).
There is space to store luggage or bikes on board the train – the train guard will show you where. Note that this space is also used for wheelchairs and strollers. Wheelchairs have priority access to this space.
Unfortunately, the Jacobite Steam Train is not fully accessible – it’s a vintage train with narrow doors and steps. Wheelchair users can travel on the train as long as they can step on the train with the help of a carer. Their wheelchair must be foldable and can be stored on-board the train.
Does the train stop anywhere?
The Jacobite Steam Train usually slows down as it crosses the Glenfinnan Viaduct and if time permits may even halt briefly to allow passenger to enjoy the view a bit longer.
The train stop at Glenfinnan Station – just a little after the viaduct. This is only a short stop, but you can step off the train to stretch your legs, get something from the station cafe or visit the small West Highland Railway Museum.
The train stops in Mallaig and you get 1.5 – 2 hours there before the return journey.
What to do in Mallaig
Mallaig is a busy harbour, but a relatively small village. There isn’t an awful lot to do, but it’s a scenic location and if the sky is clear, you can see the Isle of Skye and two of the Small Isles (Rum and Eigg) on the horizon.
There are several places to eat in Mallaig. You can find cafes and seafood restaurants in the village, or buy fish & chips for takeaway. If you eat outside, be aware of seagulls as they will literally steal food out of your hand. Really!
If you’d like to make the most of your brief visit to Mallaig, hop aboard a 1-hour wildlife cruise with Western Isles Cruises. The boat trips are timed with the train schedule, so you won’t have to worry about missing your train back.
Is the Jacobite Steam Train worth it?
Riding the Jacobite Steam Train is not cheap – especially if you are travelling with your family and/or want to travel First Class. So, is it worth the expense?
There is of course no right or wrong answer to this question – for some people it will be worth it, for others it’s not.
Personally, as a Harry Potter fan, I loved the journey.
We had a slight hiccup with our seat reservations, but after some panicked moments, the train guard was able to help us find our seats. I was frazzled by the new seats – I wanted to sit on the left to see the train bend as it crosses the viaduct, but we sat on the right. This put a bit of a downer on the experience at first, but I soon found a door with a window that could be opened, so I still got my views and pictures.
Back when I took the train, single journeys were still available and we took the regular ScotRail train back to Fort William. While the views are the same, the experience of riding a steam train was definitely special!
If you are into Harry Potter or trains (or both), I think the Jacobite Steam Train is absolutely worth the expense.
If I could do it again, I’d definitely splurge for 1st class tickets and High Tea, just to make it an even more special experience – you might as well make it as unique as possible.
The best places to see the Jacobite Steam Train
That said, there are many places where you can see the Jacobite Steam Train without actually riding it – and in some ways, I prefer my pictures of the train taken from outside over the pictures I took on-board the train.
Arguably the best place to see the Jacobite Steam Train is as it crosses the Glenfinnan Viaduct. This is where the iconic scene from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was filmed.
There are two viewpoints at the viaduct. One at the eastern end, above the visitor centre, and one at the western end behind and above the viaduct. I would walk to the one that allows you to face the train as it crosses the viaduct – so it depends on whether you catch it on its outbound journey to Mallaig or on its return journey to Fort William. Go to the viewpoint above the visitor centre for the return journey, and the further viewpoint above the viaduct for the outbound journey.
The train crosses the viaduct approximately 30-45 minutes after leaving or before arriving in Fort William. The approximate passing times are: Morning Train 10:58 outbound and 15:00 return / Afternoon Train 13.25 outbound and 17.45 return.
Here is a trail description to reach the western viewpoint behind the viaduct. It takes approximately 20 minutes to walk up there and you’ll want to arrive with plenty of time to secure a good photography spot.
In front of the Glenfinnan Viaduct, you’ll find the Glenfinnan Monument, which was erected to commemorate the Jacobute army. The top of the monument gives you a great view of the entire viaduct. Note that you have to pay to enter the monument. The top might get crowded at train passing times and you should arrive early to set up.
Steam Train Cruise with Crannog Cruises
Crannog Cruises runs four daily cruises on Loch Linnhe from Fort William. On the 10 am cruise you can see the Jacobite Steam Train drive along the shore of Loch Linnhe near Corpach. It’s a great way to see the train from a different perspective.
Note that Crannog Cruises are not operating in 2022.
Steam Train Canoeing with River to Sea Scotland
River to Sea runs Harry Potter-inspired canoe trips on Loch Eilt. Throughout the day, you’ll visit different film locations around the loch and you’ll see the train on its return journey on the remote lochside train tracks.
Another company with a similar offer is Rockhopper Scotland. They can take you kayaking on Loch Linnhe to see the steam train.
There are several places along the journey where the train tracks aren’t too far from the road. Look for under- and over-passes – i.e. where the train tracks crosses the road – as these are often great spots to watch the train. That said, park responsibly and take great care along the road and tracks.
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