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The Biggest Little Railway in the World

Last year, a team of British railway enthusiasts got together to engineer the longest miniature railway journey in the world. The tracks that were laid for this purpose stretched for 114 kilometers across the Scottish Highlands from the town of Fort William to the city of Inverness. Their effort, and the model train’s maiden and only journey was televised over a 5-episode series by Channel 4.

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The tracks follow the length of the Great Glen, a straight narrow valley that runs along a large geological fault known as the Great Glen Fault bisecting the Scottish Highlands into the Grampian Mountains to the southeast and the Northwest Highlands to the northwest. Since prehistoric times, the Great Glen has served as a natural travelling route across the highlands. Sections of the modern Caledonian Canal also takes advantage of the natural lochs, or lakes, through the Glen, and the A82 road, which link the city of Inverness with Fort William, follows the same route. In the early 20th century, an attempt was made to run a railroad through the Glen but it was commercially unsuccessful and the railroad closed in 1947. In the past few years, the “Great Glen Way” has become very popular among cyclists and hikers because of the challenges it provides.

Indeed, the Great Glen’s landscape can be very challenging for any hopeful builders, especially for a tiny rail engine just over a foot long and weighing 3 kilogram. To transport the little steam engine across water, through forests and over hills, the team of fifty volunteers built dozens of miniature bridges, viaducts and spiral loops to overcome the Glen’s challenging terrain.

The scale of the engine is so small, about 46:1, that it made the entire trip from Fort William to Inverness equivalent to half the distance of the Trans-Siberian railway.

“One of the hills we went up, to scale, we were taking it up one-and-a-half times the height of Everest,” said Dick Strawbridge, a British engineer and television presenter who headed the project.

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Sky Vision , who handled the production and distribution of the program, wrote on their website:

The logistical issues of building a world-record breaking model railway in the real world are considerable. Rain, steep gradients, power and finding or making enough track are just some of the challenges. But our experts are convinced that the collective expertise of Britain's army of 100,000 train hobbyists will be more than up to this micro-Herculean task. While the army of hobbyists lay the tracks and their miniature steam trains start to wind their way through some of Britain's most stunning scenery, we will weave in the stories of how Britain first built its great train lines. Everything our team encounters has a parallel in the full-size history of train building. And at a scale of 1:43 the task of building an 80 mile layout in miniature is a bigger challenge than anything attempted by the Victorians.

The team reused rails, dismantling the tracks over which the locomotive had passed and carrying them further up to lay new tracks. This kept costs down but it also lengthened the journey. It took 12 days for the tracks to lay, with the train departing on the fourth day, 23 June 2017. Travelling at under 5 kilometers per hour, the train arrived at Inverness Castle on 1 July 2017, where a crowd of more than 150 people broke into celebration. A model railway station in the likeness of the 1950s Inverness railway station and a miniature of the castle was created to greet the train.

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