History of the line

Early days

Back in 1850, when there was great hardship in the Highlands, the old Lord Dunalistair sank a coal pit on his land near Inverlochan that promised to be economically viable. Apart from the profit he would make for himself, he thought it would make more sense to use the coal to develop the local economy than evict his tenants and introduce sheep as was the harsh custom of the day. Thus, he applied for an Act of Parliament authorising him to construct a horse tramway to the coast. He had travelled in North Wales and had been much impressed by the Festiniog Railway, although he preferred the wider gauge of 2í3". When the tramway was finally built, the formidable drop down Glenclachan proved to be too much of an obstacle, so above Rae Bridge a winding house was built with an incline to lower the coal tubs down the hill to the village. From Rae Bridge another tramway continued through easier country, skirting Lochalastair and ending up at Dunalistair Pier.

Soon, horse-drawn rakes of coal tubs rattled down the tramway to Dunalistair, the tramway and the colliery providing many a job to the locals. Within a few years the success of steam traction on the Festiniog prompted His Lordship to propose introducing steam locomotives and passenger haulage over the lower division of the line. For his first locomotives and stock he had enlarged versions built of the Festiniog stock, because he didnít have to contend with the confined loading gauge of the Welsh line. One of these early engines survives as no. 6 Inveraray, and even one or two of the original carriages are still lurking at the back of the carriage shed. Soon more powerful locomotives like the Beyer-Peacock 4-6-0 Maid of the Loch followed as the lie of the land didnít allow gravity working and the coal had to be hauled over the gradients.

The Craigcorrie & Dunalistair is founded

Over the years the incline proved to be a severe obstacle to further expansion of coal production at Inverlochan and the idea re-surfaced of building a line through the Glenclachan Gorge to link up the two sections. The Act of Parliament applied for also authorised an extension to Craigcorrie at the far end of Inverlochan Moor, where His Lordship proposed to build a woollen mill. Thus, the Craigcorrie & Dunalistair Railway Company was founded and at considerable cost a connecting route was built through the Gorge, tunnelling through the hill spurs at the foot of Creag Dhubh and bridging the raging river at the bottom of the Gorge. Soon after the through route over the Moor to Inverlochan and Craigcorrie was opened in 1880, heavier power was needed to cater for the rapidly increasing coal traffic. No standard seemed to evolve however as new locomotives were acquired one by one if the market had one to offer at a reasonable price. By 1912 the traffic even required a Garratt to be put into service, which together with a 2-8-0 tender engine took over the coal trains.

Over the years the former industrial railway slowly became a general carrier as the local economy developed around it just like the old laird had intended. Apart from passenger traffic connecting with the steamer from Oban, small industries prospered such as the old distillery at Rae Bridge which now received all its peat, coal and casks by rail, and sent the matured product to the coast by train to be shipped to the nearest standard gauge railhead. Edwardian tourists came to see the delights of the Glenclachan Gorge by train, and sports fishermen obtained a licence from His Lordship's agent to fish the streams around Rae Bridge, staying at the newly opened Macdonald Arms Hotel behind the station.

The tramway and the Extension

The influx of tourists prompted a Glaswegian businessman to propose a scheme for a mountain tramway to the top of Creag Dhubh, which in fine weather claimed a view of the Hebrides stretching 50 miles away. His Lordship's son, who had succeeded the old laird, had been to the Isle of Man where he had travelled on the Snaefell Mountain line, and he applied for Parliamentary authorisation to build an electric tramway in 1905. This would start from a small timber-built depot built on a piece of wasteland between the railway station and the river, and run through the main road in front of the church until it turned off the road and started the climb to the top. The trams enjoyed a few years' prosperity before the Great War broke out and all tourism came to a premature end. The Royal Navy however took over the tramway to build a U-boat observation post on the summit which they kept manned until the end of the war.

Meanwhile a coal contract with the Royal Navy kept the railway in business and because of the danger of prowling U-boats to coastal shipping it was decided to have the Royal Engineers build a long branch from Rae Bridge to, of all places, Glenfinnan on the West Highland Railway. The branch started as a connection between the tramway and the C&DR station and shared the tramway metals until a short way beyond the village, where it went its own way into the wilderness. The route was completed only shortly before the Armistice was signed and although it never paid its way, it was kept open for timber and granite traffic, and later for fish traffic to be transhipped to the standard gauge. In C&DR days the coal was never sent over the branch as in peacetime it was more economical to ship it by sea and through the Crinan Canal. A twice-daily mixed branch train was worked by the oldest stock the C&DR had left, leaving the big engines and bogie stock to work on the main line.

What ifÖ?

In the mid-1920s the tourists started returning, but following the stock market crash in 1929, and competition from the motor lorry having increased since the end of the War, everywhere around the country narrow gauge and secondary railways shut down. Luckily the coal from Inverlochan saved the railway. Railcars were introduced almost at the same time as on the Irish 3ft gauge railways, and this 'official' history comes to an end around 1935 when the railway still had some life in it. By this time several locomotives bought up from other narrow gauge lines had taken over traffic from the ageing original power.

Now what if the railway had survived the Second World War like the Irish and Manx lines? Perhaps if the colliery had continued working it would have been taken over by the National Coal Board, and indeed I built one modern Bo-Bo diesel-electric loco to see what a diesel-powered coal train would have looked like. With the demise of coastal shipping, the branch might have been put back in service to take the coal directly to the standard gauge. Possibly more modern railcars might have been introduced, but I doubt this would have saved the railway as a public carrier. Preservation might have been an option, but it would probably have come too late to rescue a railway in a remote area such as the Western Highlands.