Every journey has a beginning, and regrettably in Glasgow that usually involves an overpriced bus. Allowing for some traveller’s artistic license, I could happily remember a journey to the Isle of Skye beginning here, at the tranquil Helensburgh Upper railway station. Maybe twenty miles from Glasgow, Helensburgh has two stations, one with a regular service on the electric line into Glasgow and the other a modest single platform in a cutting on the northern fringe of the town. Having skirted along the shores of the Clyde for half an hour or so, the West Highland Line begins here. We have left behind the grey tower blocks, littered streets and urbanised horizons of the city, and suddenly find ourselves rattling through rolling rural landscapes.
I have taken this train many times before, although not since moving to Glasgow last year. This line is no longer a component of a much longer journey from England to the remote west coast of Scotland, but a practical escape hatch from the city to the countryside. A couple of times a day an unassuming train of railcars departs Queen Street station for Fort William and Mallaig, normally with a portion to Oban detaching en route. After winding up steep hills past suspicious looking military bases, the train approaches Loch Lomond and begins a sharper and more screeching series of curves. Above us, only mountain. Below us, only trees, glimpses of a road and water. At Ardlui we’re held up for a short while, waiting for a southbound train to leave the single track ahead.
Being so remote, the West Highland Line has no traditional railway signals to control access to its portions of single track. A team of doubtless charming British Rail boffins developed a system in the nineteen-eighties that could satisfactorily replace the traditional tokens. Until then (and to this day on other remote British railway lines) an actual physical token, normally a large coin or loop that could easily be scooped from a signalman by the driver of a passing train, must be held by a driver before he or she can lead a train onto a section of single track. With only one token, it’s a relatively failsafe system to ensure that only one train enters a section of track at any one time.
The solution of the dynamic and pre-portable computer nineteen-eighties is a radio-controlled system. The token is virtual, transmitted by radio to an ungainly metal box in the cab of the train. On clearing a section of single track (normally at a station with a passing loop) the driver releases the token for the previous section of track and then awaits reception of the new token.
Don’t ask me how it works, but it does. And it permits an archaic but astonishingly beautiful railway to continue to exist, with daily passenger service and popular summertime tourist trains winding through the mountains of the West Highlands, perfectly framing any escape from the city with a rolling landscape of beautiful scenery and wildlife.