The railway line made famous by the Harry Potter films and voted the world’s most scenic train journey is ScotRail’s fastest growing route, official figures reveal.
A doubling of trains on the West Highland line between Glasgow, Oban, Fort William and Mallaig helped boost its passenger numbers by nearly 14 per cent to 454,000 in 2014-15.
A new school service transporting pupils from Dalmally, Taynuilt and Connel to Oban is also thought to have contributed to the increase.
A stretch of the line between Fort William and Mallaig featured in many of the Harry Potter film series, including the Glenfinnan viaduct. Further fame came when the route was twice voted as “best line” for scenery by readers of Wanderlust magazine for its views of some of Scotland’s finest lochs and mountains.
ScotRail hopes to attract yet more passengers when it upgrades carriages to become “scenic trains”, with seats better aligned to windows, tourist information and improved catering, from 2018.
The Friends of the West Highland Line said it was now used more than at any time since the 1950s.
Chairman Doug Carmichael said: “For years, we pushed for more services above the three a day which had been running.
“A major step was our meeting with the then transport minister Keith Brown [now infrastructure secretary], who took on board our argument for more trains.”
Mr Carmichael said further growth was expected with the Scottish Government extending ferry fare cuts to CalMac’s Oban-Mull route, along with extra sailings.
Dr John McCormick, chairman of the Scottish Association for Public Transport, who lives in Glenfinnan, said: “The growth of passengers on the line reflects the new, more frequent timetable.”
The growth comes amid a passenger boom for ScotRail, fuelled by the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Total journeys increased by 7.3 per cent to 92.7 million, more than twice the rise in each of the two previous two years.
However, the popularity of train travel has placed a severe strain on ScotRail’s fleet, made worse by the closure of the Forth Road Bridge leading to trains across the Forth Bridge being lengthened by switching carriages from other routes.
Worst hit have been Glasgow-Falkirk Grahamston services, which have been replaced by buses between Cumbernauld and Falkirk.
Ironically, the line saw ScotRail’s second largest growth - of 12.1 per cent to 143,000 passengers in 2014-15.
Third-placed Glasgow-Paisley Canal enjoyed improved punctuality after the line was electrified.
A spokeswoman for ScotRail said: “In 2014-15 we saw a marked increase in the number of customers, with passenger journeys up by 7.3 per cent from the year before.
“Six routes which saw the largest increases benefited from timetable improvements in 2014, such as seven extra services on the West Highland Line, the addition of Sunday services between Glasgow and Aberdeen, and a new timetable on cross-Glasgow services which run through Argyle Street and Glasgow Central Low Level stations.
“Another factor was the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. We carried over 1.1 million passengers – many of which will have used these routes to travel to and from venues.
“Furthermore, for the third year in a row, off-peak fares have been frozen, meaning trains continue to offer customers an attractive travel option.”
The Scottish Government’s Transport Scotland agency, which funds ScotRail, said: “Last year we saw a marked increase in rail passengers, partly due to the effect of the Commonwealth Games which saw the execution of an unprecedented public travel plan, but also due to the fact that we are listening to the needs of the travelling public and revising timetables to suit more of people.”
Top 5 ScotRail lines for passenger growth, 2014-15
1. Glasgow-Oban/Fort William/Mallaig: +13.7 per cent, total 454,000 passengers
2. Glasgow-Falkirk Grahamston: +12.1 per cent, 143,000
3. Glasgow-Paisley Canal: +10.3 per cent, 895,000
4. Glasgow-Aberdeen: +10 per cent, 3,019,000.
5= Dalmuir-Glasgow-Motherwell: +9.5 per cent, 12,608,000.
Glasgow-Gourock: +9.5 per cent, 3,829,000
Source: Transport Scotland