It was 50 years ago this week that Scotland’s former Caledonian Railway branch from Connel Ferry to Ballachulish closed for good.
The origins of the branch date back to the rivalry between the Caledonian-backed Callander & Oban Railway and the North British Railway to exploit the sparsely populated West Highlands. Over the years a number of schemes were proposed to access the region but it was the NBR’s opening of the West Highland line to Fort William in 1894 that sparked a response by the C&OR.
In September 1894, despite opposition from the Caledonian, the C&OR promoted a bill to Parliament for the construction of a line from Oban to Inverness via Fort William. However, the bill was untenable given the CR’s opposition and it was withdrawn. Two years later, on 7 August 1896, two schemes were authorised by Act of Parliament: the C&OR line from Connel Ferry to Ballachulish and an NBR line from Fort William to Ballachulish. In the event, the latter line was not progressed; ironically, however, in the decade before the Ballachulish branch’s closure consideration was given the extending it for the some 15 miles through to Fort William as this would have enabled the closure of the West Highland line across Rannoch Moor (this was similar in concept to the diversion of C&OR services south of Crianlarich over ex-NBR metals that permitted the closure of the ex-C&OR line eastwards and thus offered Oban a faster service to Glasgow).
The authorised capital of the new line was £210,00, of which the CR agreed to fund £15,000. There were two major engineering structures required: the viaducts over Loch Etive and Loch Creran at Creagan. The former, constructed by the Arrol Bridge & Roofing Co, was started in 1898. The cantilever bridge that resulted was the second only in length to the Forth Bridge and was the longest steel single-span bridge in Britain. Although a triangular junction was authorised at Connel Ferry to permit direct Oban-Ballachulish services, in the event the north-west curve was never constructed. Originally both the viaducts had footpaths alongside; however, in order to counter a proposal by MacAlpine Downie to operate a ferry across Loch Etive in 1913, the C&OR decided to make the railway bridge capable of handling road traffic. This was completed in June 1914 and saw the railway charge tolls for road users crossing the bridge; special signalling ensure the safety of the arrangement.
The 27½-mile long branch opened throughout to passenger services on 28 March 1903. There were intermediate stations at North Connel, Benderloch, Creagan, Appin, Duror, Kentallan and Ballachulish Ferry that opened with the line. Barcaldine Siding (Halt from 1960) followed in 1914; this station was closed during World War 2 and was used for summer services only for a period after reopening postwar. Ballachulish Ferry was to be closed between 1 January 1917 and 1 March 1919 as an economy measure during World War 1. The population of Ballachulish when the line opened was less than 2,000 but quarried stone represented a useful source of freight traffic.
During the summer of 1910 there were three return workings over the branch each day, making a connection with the ferry to and from Kinlochleven. Services ran to and from Oban, with reversal at Connel Ferry. Down services departed from Oban at 8.20am, 11am, 5pm (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only) and 8.30pm (Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays only; this was the only working that did not connect with the Kinlochleven ferry). Up workings departed at 7.15am, 11.15am and 3.45pm. A single journey from Connel Ferry to Ballachulish took about 70 minutes. There was no service on Sundays.
By the summer of 1947, the final year of the line’s operation by the LMS before Nationalisation in January 1948, there were still only three return workings per weekdays. Departures from Oban were at 8.10am, 12.5pm, 4.pm (except Saturdays) and 8.50pm (Saturdays only). Services departed from Ballachulish at 7.30am, 10.50am, 3.50pm (Saturdays only) and 4pm (except Saturdays). There was no Sunday service. A revised pattern of service was operated by British Railways (Scottish Region) during the period from September 1964 through to June 1965. There were two down departures from Oban, departing at 8.15am and 5pm with a third service starting at Connel Ferry at 12.30pm. The station at North Connel was a request halt for both the 8.15am and 12.30pm services. In the up direction there were departures from Ballachulish at 7.14am (to Oban), 10.40am (to Connel Ferry), 4.20pm (to Oban) and a Saturdays only 6.57pm (to Oban). For all, apart from the 7.14am, the station at North Connel was a request halt.
In terms of motive power over the line, the early years witnessed the operation of three generation of 4-4-0s specifically designed for the C&OR — the ‘Oban bogies’. During the war Class 5 4-6-0s are known to have operated troop trains to Benderloch. In the later years, steam passenger services were dominated by Macintosh-designed ‘19’ class 0-4-4Ts. By the end of 1961, three of the class were based at Oban — Nos 55204/217/260 — but before the final demise of steam over the branch, these were replaced by ex-LMS or BR 2-6-0s. With the dieselisation of the C&OR main line and its branches to Killin and Ballachulish, 45 steam locomotives were replaced by 23 Type 2 diesel-electrics plus four diesel shunters. It was the diesel-electrics that operated the final passenger services over the line to Ballachulish.
Whilst both the Crianlarich-Oban and Crianlarich-Fort William-Mallaig lines were not listed for closure under the Beeching Report of March 1963 — albeit a number of intermediate stations on the former were — the line to Ballachulish was not so fortunate. Passenger traffic ceased over the on 28 March 1966; with freight having ceased in June the previous year, the line was closed completely from that date.
Today many of the structures that once served the line are still extant or have been reused for new purposes. The station at Ballachulish remains, having been converted into a medical centre. Platforms remain extant at Ballachulish Ferry with a section of the line westward having been converted by Sustrans into a cycleway. At Kentallen, the platforms of the station have been incorporated into a new hotel. At Duror, the station has been converted into a private house. The station at Creagan, which was overgrown for many years, has now been restored. The piers of the bridge across Loch Creran at Creagan remain, having been used in the late 1990s for a new bridge for the A828. The bridge at Connel Ferry also survives; following the closure of the line it was converted to take road traffic exclusively.
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