For what time did you order sunshine?
This was one of the trickier questions put to the attendant on The Jacobite steam train, also known as the Harry Potter Train (or Hogwarts Express). By way of a response, she merely smiled and continued her journey through the train carriage, her trolley laden with the inevitable Harry Potter souvenirs.
A sunny day on the Harry Potter Train in Scotland cannot be guaranteed. But one thing that you can be sure of is that this iconic rail journey between Fort William and Mallaig will defy all superlatives.
Here’s all you need to know about planning a trip on The Jacobite steam train and what to expect.
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What Is the Harry Potter Train?
The Harry Potter Train is a steam train that operates on the scenic route between Fort William and Mallaig in Scotland’s West Highlands. Its official name is The Jacobite.
For you train buffs out there, a vintage steam locomotive hauls British Rail Mark I carriages hailing from the 1960s.
Why is The Jacobite Steam Train Famous?
The 41-mile section of the West Highland Line travelled by The Jacobite steam train is considered to be one of the great railway journeys of the world, taking in lochs, mountains and the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct. In recent years, its popularity has soared due to its appearance in the Harry Potter movies.
What You Can Expect on the Harry Potter Train in Scotland
Settling into your comfortable vintage train carriage, the train chugs out of Fort William, crossing the Caledonian Canal to the cheery waves of onlookers. To the right is Neptune’s Staircase, a dramatic flight of eight locks on the canal. Built between 1803 and 1822 by Thomas Telford it is the longest staircase lock flight in Scotland.
The Harry Potter Train continues its journey west along the shores of Loch Eil. Forested valleys ablaze with purple rhododendrons herald the train’s approach to the superstar of the Fort William to Mallaig route: The Glenfinnan Viaduct. Crane your neck for an unforgettable view of the Jacobite Train puffing across the viaduct’s graceful curve against the majestic Scottish highlands backdrop.
This dramatic 21-arch railway viaduct soaring over River Finnan will be familiar to all you Muggles out there. Also known is the Harry Potter Bridge, this is where filming of the second and third Harry Potter books, Harry Potter and the Chambers of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban took place. Remember the scene with Arthur Weasley’s Ford Anglia swooping around the Hogwarts Express?
But long before it was used as a filming location, the Glenfinnan Viaduct was an icon in its own right. Opened in 1901, it was the first structure in Britain to be built with mass concrete, earning its designer, Robert McAlpine, the nickname “Concrete Bob”.
Although the train stops for a short while at Glenfinnan Station, you can’t disembark to enjoy the small museum or dining car there.
Clickety-clack clickety-clack. The Harry Potter Train makes its way uphill, vast plumes of steam enveloping the landscape. Passing small waterfalls tumbling down the hillside and carpets of bluebells and ferns, the train now follows Loch Eilt’s southern shore.
This freshwater loch, peppered with small wooded islands, wouldn’t look out of place in Japanese painting. For Harry Potter fans, this has been used as a location in many of the movies (one of the tiny islands was Dumbledore’s resting place).
The next landmark also has a movie connection. Polnish Chapel, built to serve the now deserted townships of Ardnish and Polnish, was featured in the classic Scottish film Local Hero.
Passing a lovely sea loch, Loch nan Uamh, the Harry Potter Train makes a brief stop at Arisaig to allow another train to pass. Arisaig is Britain’s most westerly railway station and boasts a striking old signal box.
The Jacobite steam train is now approaching its final destination. To your left is a sea loch and beyond that the islands of Rum, Eigg and Muck and the white sand beaches of Skye. Finally, the seagulls squawk their welcome as you reach Mallaig.
Things to Do in Mallaig on a Jacobite Steam Train Stop
The Harry Potter Train stops in Mallaig for 1 hour 45 minutes before making its return journey to Fort William. So what can you do in Malliaig during this short stop?
I say manage your expectations; Mallaig is a gateway to Skye and the Small Isles, rather than a destination in its own right. There is a handful of cafes, restaurants, hotels and gift shops (including one that sells Harry Potter merchandise) but that’s about it.
If the weather is favourable, the best option is to take a wildlife harbour cruise. These one-hour cruises, operated by Western Isles Cruises, guarantee to have you back in time for your return train journey. Their departures from Mallaig Harbour – 12:45, 14:15 and 15:30 – are timed to coincide with the arrival of The Jacobite steam train. In 2021, these cruises cost £13 for an adult.
Sadly, the day that I was in Mallaig, horizontal rain greeted the train and I hightailed it to a warm hotel lobby for a hot drink.
Harry Potter Train in Scotland: FAQs
How long does it take to ride the Harry Potter Train?
The journey between Fort William and Mallaig on The Jacobite train takes 2 hours 15 minutes. The return journey is slightly faster.
Does the Harry Potter Train operate year-round?
The Harry Potter Train operates between April and October only.
How many Jacobite Train services are there per day?
There are two Jacobite services per day, morning and afternoon.
How much does it cost to ride the Harry Potter Train?
In 2021, a day return in Standard Class costs £49; First Class costs from £69. These costs are subject to a minimum £3.75 booking fee.
Note that a day return is the only ticket type sold for The Jacobite. If you wish to travel on different days, you will need to buy two return tickets; one for your first day journey and one for your return journey. Equally, single tickets are not available on The Jacobite.
What are the differences between Standard Class and First Class on the Jacobite Train?
First Class carriages on The Jacobite are more spacious and feature traditional table lamps and the upholstered seats. Complimentary tea or coffee is also included.
First Class Compartment Carriages are also available on the morning journeys. These vintage carriages seat six passengers per compartment and have a door that leads onto a corridor that runs the full length of the carriage.
Do you need to book the Harry Potter Train in advance?
As this is a hugely popular train journey, it is essential to book in advance to avoid disappointment. When I went to book, a good two months ahead of my intended dates of travel, availability was limited and all of the First Class seats had been snapped up.
That said, there may be a limited number of seats available each day on a first come first served basis from the guard (cash only). But would you really want to leave this to chance?
How do you book a seat on The Jacobite?
Book your seat on The Jacobite via West Coast Railways here. Alternatively, book your ticket over the telephone on 0333 996 6720 between the hours of 9.00 am to 5.00 pm Monday-Friday.
Is the Harry Potter Train included in European train passes?
Sadly, the Harry Potter Train is not included in European train passes (e.g. Interrail or Eurail).
Is there a standard train that runs between Fort William and Mallaig?
A standard train runs between Fort William and Mallaig twice a day; one-way advance fares from £7.50. The journey takes around 83 minutes.
Can you choose your seats on The Jacobite steam train?
As seat allocation is automatic you cannot select your own seat. However, if there is more than one passenger on the booking, the automated system will allocate seats together.
Which is the best side to sit on The Jacobite?
Whilst there are sensational views from both side of the train, those show-stopping views of the Harry Potter bridge will be to the left as you travel from Fort William to Mallaig.
But don’t fret about on which side of the train you are seated. The clever seat allocation system forces everyone to switch seats at Mallaig so you will be sitting on the opposite side of the carriage for the return journey.
Can you bring dogs on The Jacobite?
Medium-sized family dogs can accompany their owners in the Standard Class section of The Jacobite for free (I had two adorable pooches opposite me on my journey).
Is there food and drink for sale on board?
In addition to a buffet carriage, there is a trolley service selling hot and cold drinks and light snacks.
If you’re travelling in First Class you can add afternoon tea to your booking for just under £20.
Tours That Feature a Ride on The Jacobite
It’s also possible to take a trip on the Harry Potter Train by booking a day trip or multi-day tour. This can be useful if your chosen departure dates are sold out or you want to bundle the experience with more of Scotland’s attractions.
Here are a few options that I have found through GetYourGuide, which offers free cancellation up to 24 hours before your tour date.
Why You Should Ride the Harry Potter Train in Scotland
I’ve been lucky to take some of the world’s greatest train journeys, including Switzerland’s Glacier Express, Norway’s Flam Railway and, closer to home, the Settle – Carlisle Railway. The Jacobite can hold its head high amongst all of these.
Yes; you could take a cheaper, standard train between Fort William and Malliag. But this would be a mistake.
Much of the enjoyment of Scotland’s Harry Potter Train is derived from its slower pace, allowing the country’s spectacular landscape to reveal itself to you, and the hiss of the steam engine and the toot of the whistle. This is an experience to be savoured, not rushed.