What it’s like to drive a train on Britain’s most beautiful railway line

My route is the West Highland Line between Fort William and Glasgow. I live in Fort William and can see the station from my house.

My normal job would consist of driving the sleeper from Fort William to Helensburgh [on the north side of the Firth of Clyde] or from Helensburgh to Fort William, so I have the pleasure of riding the sleeper on one of the most beautiful routes in the world, and certainly in Britain. I also drive special charter trains that can depart anywhere in the country.

I started working for British Rail at the age of 20 as a traction trainee, as they were then called, in August 1979 and passed my driving test in August 1982. So I have been working on the sleeper for almost 45 years. Many drivers don’t like the night shift, but it’s never bothered me. I’m not someone who sleeps a lot.

Driver John Hynd has been working on Scottish sleeper trains for almost 45 years

Driver John Hynd has been working on Scottish sleeper trains for almost 45 years

I have always enjoyed working on the sleeper. There’s something special about boarding a train in the heart of London at night and being transported overnight to wake up in one of the least inhabited places in the country.

The highlights are the long hours we spend in the Highlands in the summer, when it is light from about 3.30am until 11pm and we can witness spectacular sunsets or sunrises from the locomotive. Even a frosty winter morning with snow on the ground can be just as spectacular.

Travelling through the Highlands in the driver’s seat gives me so many advantages over passengers. We get the chance to see animals or birds that the passenger can’t see because the noise of the train makes them hide: sea eagles, otters, badgers, pine martens, red squirrels and hundreds of red deer are spotted quite regularly. At night we see lots of owls, deer and shooting stars.

The driver’s vantage point probably has 270 degrees of visibility, while the passenger has maybe 140 degrees at best, so we have an uninterrupted view forward and to both sides.

I’ve seen some strange things. One evening a man cycled down the line in front of me. On another something came towards me, a little way off the track, and I thought it was a microlight. It turned out to be a huge drone, perhaps 10 or 10 feet wide. I assume it has something to do with the military.

Trains travelling through the Scottish Highlands enjoy stunning views of the lochTrains travelling through the Scottish Highlands enjoy stunning views of the loch

Trains travelling through the Scottish Highlands enjoy stunning loch views – Alamy

The only thing I don’t like is delays. Anything can cause them, like points failures or locomotive failures. The other day the lines were broken and a train was stuck on the platform at King’s Cross for two hours. But sometimes we run ten sleeper trains a night for a whole month and have no problems.

I have been interested in trains from an early age. My father was a signalman for many years. He transferred from Dumfriesshire to Fort William in 1968 to work as an assistant signalman and when I wasn’t at school I would go with him to some of the signal boxes along the line, even working the occasional night shift. My grandmother lived in a house overlooking the railway line and I often stayed with her and stood on the railway bridge for hours watching the trains shunt or rush past.

My favorite locomotive to drive is the Class 37. That’s not surprising really, as I’ve worked on them for most of my career and they’re about the same age as me. You just can’t beat the sound they make. Although most are gone now, there are still a few left and I still get to drive them on charter trains occasionally. My favorite trains are the sleeper and the Royal Scotsman – which is basically the same as the Orient Express, but in Scotland – both of which I ride regularly. I also enjoyed riding the steam train for a few years when it was reintroduced between Fort William and Mallaig in 1984.

I am fortunate to work on two of the most beautiful railways in the country, the West Highland and Kyle of Lochalsh lines. As I work mainly on the West Highland line I would say that is my first choice, particularly the Mallaig line which is beautiful. The Kyle line is a close second for me, the Strathcarron to Kyle section is stunning. The lines from Perth to Inverness and Inverness north to Wick and Thurso are also very beautiful.

I don’t endorse the West or East Coast Main Line routes, but I have been in a taxi for sections of both. When I travel as a passenger I usually choose the West Coast route as I think there is more to see on the West Coast, but I am sure many would disagree.

The Mallaig Line is one of driver John Hynd's favourite routesThe Mallaig Line is one of driver John Hynd's favourite routes

The Mallaig line is one of driver John Hynd – Scotrail’s favorite routes

During the Covid lockdown the sleeper was cancelled. In April 2021, myself and a colleague were offered the opportunity to volunteer for two weeks on a special project on the North York Moors Railway. We weren’t told what it was, but we signed up anyway. During a Zoom call a few days later, the boss said, “Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is…” For two weeks we used our locomotives to set up some stunt scenes in Mission Impossible and to film. Tom Cruise was there the entire second week. He talked to us every day.

I don’t want to brag about myself, but I won the Train Driver of the Year award in 2006. I haven’t had a day’s sick leave in 45 years and I’ve only gone on strike once, in 1982, for flexible rosters. That was Mrs Thatcher’s time. Of course, we’re all on flexible rosters now.

On day trains, when I run multiple units where you can see the driver, I have been known to stop so passengers can take photos of the Glenfinnan Viaduct – the one from Harry Potter.

Sometimes when the train splits to Oban and Fort William I have had passengers stay on the wrong route and go all the way to Oban. About ten times I have driven them to Fort William in my car. When the train came into Fort William at a quarter to one in the morning I have had the passengers stay overnight at home.

I feel really lucky to have worked as a driver. I’m 65 in August, but you don’t really have to retire if you pass the medicals. We had a steam engine driver who worked until he was 78. I think I’ll continue until the sleeper contract ends in 2029, when I’ll be 70.

It is a common expression in the Highlands that the landscape is different every day, but it is true: the light and shadow change the contours and definition of the landscape. I love my job, rain or shine. People pay to see the things I see from the taxi every day.

As told to Chris Moss

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