A day trip to Oban on the Highland Explorer

It was a nice sunny day when the Highland Explorer arrived in Oban. I was looking forward to returning after almost a year. The last time I visited was in July 2020. Spending a few days mapping and test riding gravel biking routes from the stations we had passed along the way was a welcome change to my routine last year. This time I was excited to arrive in the Seafood Capital of Scotland in a train carriage that signalled a much bigger change. 

I used the journey from Glasgow Queen Street to look at the finer detail in the new Highland Explorer carriage, which has room for up to 20 bikes. Running twice daily in each direction from Glasgow to Oban and once on Sundays, it has more than tripled the capacity for taking bikes to Scotland’s Adventure Coast. That in itself is a very positive change. For as long as I remember the trains on this line provided space for six bikes already, which is unheard of on most trains in Scotland, and in the UK too.

But it’s not just the dramatically increased capacity that impressed me, it’s that fact that whoever designed this, had thought about the fact that bikes have evolved over decades. While often that evolution isn’t mirrored in bike spaces on trains, on the Highland Explorer it is. Next to 16 spaces for ‘regular’ bikes it has four spaces for larger bikes, like tandems, cargo bikes, recumberants and hand cycles.

Going on a gravel ride with a hand cyclist just a few days ago really changed my perception. Cycling is one of the most inclusive activities I can think of, but the facilities for people on more unconventional bikes are often very limited. Any train that requires a bike being hung vertically on a hook excludes a larger number of people. Ultimately the only alternative to travel is a car, or a very long journey on a bike.

And even though the one socket in the carriage will soon become the reason to arrive very early to board the train with an ebike, it is something that I hadn’t witnessed in any train carriage even on the continent, often much more progressive when it comes to public transport infrastructure. eBikes will very soon become a very common sight across Scotland, and a journey that lasts about 3 hours provides a perfect opportunity to charge the batteries.

Plug sockets could also be found on each seat in the new carriage, as well as tables, which make it much easier to use the train journey productively. While the scenery along the line from Glasgow to Oban is outstanding and worth a train journey by itself, I often choose the train over a car as it allows for catching up on emails etc. While travelling in a car often might seem a cheaper and more flexible alternative, it doesn't allow for anything more than driving. Working as a freelancer, I often offset the increased cost of train travel by working on my journeys, and soon the train becomes the more cost-effective mode of transport on solo journeys. 

 

But I didn’t just come to experience a change in the right direction to enable people to explore Scotland by bike. Even though I only had about four hours in Oban, I still managed to sample the stunning scenery, the outstanding cuisine and friendliness of the people.

I was met by Steven and Moira from North Argyll Cycling Club, who organise the annual Oban Sportive at the train. As I recently converted the gravel bike I had used for two films, Wild About Argyll  and Distance, into a singlespeed rig, I was keen to follow up the maiden journey on the Highland Explorer with a maiden journey on the bike. 

Cycling the 19km-long Glen Lonan Gravel Loop with Steven gave me the opportunity to sample some of the best scenery Scotland has to offer. Quiet roads and gravel tracks lined by lush green and hills that are rewarded with stunning views - the route, which can be found on the newly created Wild About Argyll Komoot profile, was a perfect mini adventure. And gave us enough time to eat the exceptionally tasty and fresh seafood from the Green Shack at the pier before the ride. Crab, langoustines, mussels and salmon, washed down with a cold drink on a hot summer day with sunshine back to back. There is nothing better I can think of when it comes to refueling.

But Oban isn’t the only cycling destination along the route. Helensburgh is the start of the Wild About Argyll Trail and John Muir Way, two wonderful bikepacking routes that take you far off the beaten track. The Three Glens Loop from Arrochar & Tarbet or Ardlui offers some of the best gravel riding I have experienced in Scotland on a good day, and the Fearnoch Loop from Taynuilt is a hidden gem, easily accessible from the Caledonia Way, which runs across Argyll from south to north. 

There are much more pre-planned routes to explore in Argyll, but there’s also a lot of magic in getting on the train, getting off at a random station and picking your own route. Argyll is ideal for this, and the increased bike capacity hopefully allows for much more spontaneous journeys in the future, on whatever bike you ride. So far it often needed a car to provide for that spontaneity. With a Highland Explorer Scotrail is offering a much greener alternative, so that future generations will hopefully be able to sample the beauty of Argyll too. 

Markus Stitz

 

Markus has cycled around the world on a singlespeed bike, is the co-author of Big Rides: Great Britain & Ireland and the founder of Bikepacking Scotland

 

Discover more about Rail & Trail adventures across Scotland’s Adventure Coast