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Your Stories: The Harry Potter Train

We ask our members and readers to do this when they speak with the decision-makers who can help expand passenger rail service in Ohio and our nation. But sometimes "your story" can be the train trip you've taken. In this case two former TV journalists visited Scotland and took the train called "The Jacobite". You may also know it as the "Harry Potter Train". Here's their story....

By Belinda Prinz and Kristy Steeves

Close your eyes and just imagine: Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and Hermoine Granger sitting in a train compartment right next to you. We’re aboard the Jacobite Steam Train, also known to fans as the Hogwarts Express, used in the Harry Potter movies to transport young wizards and witches to their beloved school of magic. And there is something magical about this train. Its steam driven locomotive travels 84 miles round trip through the Western Highlands. It is described as one of the greatest railway journeys in the world.

We, the authors of this article, were on a two week trip to Great Britain. We set aside one day in our jam-packed itinerary to check out the Jacobite Steam Train. A choice had to be made: either board and go for a ride or photograph it as it crossed over the magnificent, 21-arched Glenfinnan viaduct, which was prominently featured in the Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets film. As photographers we were drawn into the impressive allure of the 1,000 foot-long stone structure. We were tempted to capture the 100-foot high cinematic icon from below with our cameras. The viaduct, a renowned feat of Victorian engineering, is the longest concrete railway bridge in Scotland. After much discussion we opted for the scenic ride instead and did not regret it one bit. The journey started in Fort William, the largest town in the Highlands, with a view of Mount Nevis, Britain’s tallest mountain. From there, the train rolled and clickety-clacked its way down the rails to the port of Mallaig, an historic fishing port.

Along the way, we passed visually stunning landscapes of pastoral countryside filled with blooming gorse and grazing sheep (Scotland has more sheep than people). We saw rolling green hills, sparkling lochs and lakes that seemed as old or timeless as our conveyance. As we approached Glenfinnan – a Highland gem with its historic viaduct bridge – there were people scattered on the hills waving, watching and taking pictures as the train chugged by. We passed Loch Shiel where in 1745, Prince Charles Edward Stuart stood on its shores, raised his standard and began the Jacobite Rebellion. The loch also, for a time, became the Great Lake at Hogwarts Castle.The steam train and parts of its route were shown in all 8 Harry Potter films. Scenes included exteriors, interiors, and scenery along the way.

The end of the line: Mallaig. After a breathtaking journey through the Western Highlands the Jacobite stops at this seaside port before its return journey back to Fort William. Passengers get an hour-and-a-half to explore the town and take in the atmosphere: there are shops, bars, restaurants and plenty of fish and chips to enjoy during the stopover. The village was founded in the 1840’s when the owner of the North Morar Estate, Lord Love, divided up his farm into parcels of land and encouraged his tenants who lived around the area to resettle in what became Mallaig. Today it is a thriving fishing port with ferry service to Skye and the Small Isles.

Passengers boarding the train have three ticket options. The Standard Class carriages feature refurbished vintage coaches. The Compartment Class Carriage seats up to six passengers in individual compartments separated by a sliding door to the corridor. First Class Carriages are open carriages with private tables decked out with traditional table lamps and old-fashioned upholstered seats. Unlike in the other coaches where travelers must go to the buffet coach for snacks and beverages, first class offers complementary tea, coffee and scones, giving you the option to comfortably stay in your seats. Yep, we opted for first class and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Inside all of the train’s compartments are large windows, which slide open to let in the countryside air, but they can be a mixed blessing. We were quickly treated to grit and smoke that went up our noses and in our ears while bits of coal particles settled in our hair. It was an authentic experience of a bygone era all right! Actually, all the coaches are Mark 1s from the 1960s that were retired from the British Railways but later refurbished for tourism.

If you are interested in this experience, especially the Harry Potter style compartments which are very popular, we recommend booking tickets well in advance. Tickets usually sell out months in advance. Or you can do what we did: take our chances at the last minute hoping for a bit of luck. The day of departure we arrived an hour early and were rewarded with a last minute cancellation. We not only got on the Jacobite train but had first class seating!

The steam locomotives currently hauling the tourist train are usually one of three Black 5’s (44871, 45407, or 45212). They were built by the North British Locomotive Company in Glasgow. The now famous train has been operating since 1984 under different names and operators as a way to boost tourism and to keep the scenic train route open. The Jacobite goes about 50 miles per hour and runs twice a day from April to October. The company running the Jacobite provided Warner Brothers the steam engine and carriages. It also allowed them use of the route for filming. The locomotive used to pull the Hogwarts Express in the films, the GWR 4900 Class 5972 Olton Hall, is presently on display at Warner Bros. Studio Tour in London.

A notice on the company website states that the operators reserve the right to use diesel in the event of mechanical failure or environmental risks with no refund in those circumstances. With climate change and fire risk in dry conditions, who knows what the future holds? Scotland tends to be cloudy, damp and misty much of the time, so we don’t know how likely that is to happen.

The Jacobite is operated by West Coast Railways and their website can give you more particulars on the locomotives and any other information you might want for these rail tours. Our trip to Great Britain also included a high speed train from London to Edinburgh which was comfortable. But that was about getting from Point A to Point B expeditiously. The Jacobite Rail Tour was one of the highlights of our trip. The past and present merge into a magical journey. It’s like stepping back in time to the golden age of travel.

It’s an adventure you won’t soon forget. There’s the breathtaking scenery to enjoy or, if you have an active imagination, you can just close your eyes and daydream. Imagine watching Ron and Harry in their flying car as the train you are in chases them across the viaduct. Perhaps a soul sucking dementor is clawing at your window and you are the one who saves everyone onboard. Or, you may opt for a more pleasant thought: tasting the mouth watering magical candy that arrives on a cart at your compartment. You may have to settle for a British scone, however, once your server arrives and snaps you out of your fantasies; but hey, scones can be quite tasty too!

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