The Leadhills & Wanlockhead Railway is Britain's highest adhesion (i.e. driven by the friction of its wheels on the track) railway, reaching a maximum height of 1,500 feet above sea level. It operates at weekends through the summer half of the year and makes for a highly unexpected and thoroughly recommended part of any day out in the beautiful and remote upland villages of Leadhills and Wanlockhead.
The railway operates from Leadhills Station, which is reached up a minor road that climbs above the south end of the village of Leadhills. Visitors can view the exhibition in the small station, see the engines in the nearby engine shed, or take a look at the signal box. Or, of course, you can take a train ride. Trains depart fairly regularly when the railway is operating and travel from Leadhills for the three quarters of a mile steady climb to Glengonnar Halt. After a short stop there the train then returns to Leadhills Station.
Glengonnar Halt is just short of the border between South Lanarkshire (in which Leadhills stands) and Dumfries & Galloway (in which Wanlockhead stands). This is about half a mile short of Wanlockhead, and visitors can travel by train before completing the journey to Wanlockhead on foot, returning by the reverse route later. There are plans in place to reopen the disused track between Glengonnar and Wanlockhead, Scotland's highest village, and build a station and a run round loop there. This will mark a major achievement for a railway that has been growing incrementally since work began in 1986.
A railway was first laid here in 1900 by the Caledonian Railway Company. A standard gauge branch line left what is now the West Coast Main Line at Elvanfoot, 4½ miles north-east of Leadhills, then climbed the 530ft or so up to Leadhills before continuing on to Wanlockhead. The aim was to provide a convenient and economical means of transporting the lead mined in these two villages to markets in Scotland's central belt. Most of the area's lead mines had closed by 1938, and closure of the railway quickly followed. You can find out more about the industry in the excellent Museum of Lead Mining in Wanlockhead.
In 1983 the Leadhills & Wanlockhead Railway Society was formed with the aim of constructing and operating a 2ft narrow gauge railway along part of the old track bed between Leadhills and Wanlockhead. The first track was laid in 1986, and in 1988 the first services were operated along a quarter of a mile stretch of track from what is now Leadhills Station.
Leadhills and Wanlockhead stand in the heart of the Lowther Hills and the surrounding landscape is a truly beautiful one. The villages themselves are more about character than beauty and traces of their industrial past can be seen pretty much wherever you look. This is certainly true along the line of the rebuilt railway, which passes between two long disused lead mines and their spoil heaps, which have left significant scars on the hillside. It is no longer obvious, but the mine on the uphill side of the railway line once operated a tramway which transported lead ore direct to a terminus close to where Leadhills Station stands today.
As the railway has been reconstructed from scratch rather than preserved, almost everything you see has had a previous life elsewhere. The signal box was built using bricks reclaimed from the Risping Cleuch Viaduct which once carried the lower reaches of the railway across a river, and all the signalling equipment in use came from the West Highland Line between Fort William and Mallaig.
Meanwhile, the half dozen or so engines used by the Leadhills & Wanlockhead Railway all came here from previous lives in which they probably had to work rather harder and certainly gave less enjoyment to those using them. The train shown operating in the images on this page was pulled by "Clyde" or Engine No6. This was built by Hunslet Locomotives in Leeds in 1975 before working at Eppleton Colliery in Country Durham. It has been based at Leadhills since 1990.
Five of the railway's locomotives, and all of those currently in use for services, are diesel powered. Their previous working lives included spells hauling goods at Leith Docks, working on the building of the Mersey Road Tunnel and on the construction of dykes in East Anglia, and more than one worked in collieries. The railway does have one steam engine, "Charlotte" or Engine No9. She was built in Germany in 1913 and is currently being restored for eventual use hauling passenger trains.