The International Steam Pages
C.F. du Vivarais, 2013
Thomas Kautzor writes of his visit to the 'new' CF Vivarais. As you will read, the railway appears to need some more time to find its feet. If it cannot become more sensitive to the needs of its customers then there must be a real danger that it will fail again which in turn would imply a further infusion of funds from the départment which has bankrolled the rebuilding.
In early July on a Tuesday I paid a visit to the C.F. du Vivarais. The idea was to ride the Tuesday only market railcar (“Rail-car of market” according to CFV’s new English webpage) and then chase the afternoon steam train. I got to talk to a lot of people on and besides the railway, including CFV employees, SGVA volunteers, locals and tourists, and my first impression is that the new CFV has nothing to do with the old one.
A first stop was made at Tournon station. The passenger part of the station, which belongs to SNCF, is abandoned and overgrown. The 3-rail section, which according to RFF was such a strain on their resources to maintain, hence the high track access charges, is still in place. The depot yard, which has been fenced off with some sort of electrical alarm system (just for show?) still contains some rolling stock, including Billard trailer No. 3 (without bogies), wrecked Petolat diesel shunter PE5 and three long lines of passenger coaches, including most if not all of the historical CFD coaches. The three four-wheel coaches with side-doors had at some time been covered with tarpaulins, but these have been partially blown off by the wind.
The old loco shed is still used as a carpentry shop by SNC CFV for restoring some of the Réseau Breton coaches. At least two of those standing outside looked like they had been recently restored, the business plan mentions a total of six which will be used during September/October, when the weather gets cooler. Most of the points in front of the shed had been lifted to be used elsewhere on the line. C.F. du Morbihan 0-6-0T 103 (CL 167/1905) is still plinthed by the Rhône riverside in Tournon. It is a heavier type of the CM loco that is plinthed in Bamako, Mali. No. 103 is owned by SGVA.
At St-Jean-de-Muzols station, at the other end of the 3-rail section, the points had also been lifted, but the station was still standing. Construction was ongoing.
The new Tournon-sur-Rhône St-Jean-de-Muzols station is located just before the Douce Plage camp site shortly before the large Middle Ages road bridge across the Doux river. The new station, already termed “Mastrouland”, consists of two platforms, three through tracks, a siding and the two-track loco shed connected to a turntable. There appears to have been some miscalculation when the turntable was installed, as it does not allow through running, there is a small gap. The station building contains the ticket desks and a large souvenir shop. Behind it is what appears to be a bar. Another large building which looks like a goods shed is the future museum, with space for two tracks inside and one covered track outside (none of which will be connected to the running lines). The CFV manager told me that the future displays (April 2014 according to him) have not yet been determined and are still under debate, but there will probably be a Mallet (404) and some rolling stock outside and small displays inside the building. The whole station area is fenced-off and one will have to buy a ticket to gain access to the platforms and the future museum, but photography is possible over the fence on both sides.
When I got the station around 08.30 for the 09.00 departure a large group of prospective passengers was already waiting in line to buy their tickets. When I called on Friday I was told that the CFV does not take reservations for the market railcar, but that there was always space available. Obviously that was not the case on that day and I decided to switch my plans and chase the railcars instead of riding them. Both Billard A150D 213 and 214 were already present, they are normally used on the railbike operation out of Boucieu-le-Roi. Centre-cab CFD diesel BB 404 (ex CF Corse, ex CFD Viv. 040-003) was then turned and proceeded to switch Billard trailer 11 behind the two railcars to increase capacity, but with ever more passengers arriving shortly before 09.00 it was decided to substitute BB 405 with five of the eight open coaches to the railcars. The coaches were all converted from 1979-built Josef Meyer covered bogie wagons from the RhB. Each can seat 66 passengers (528/train).
One positive point is that a new municipal bus service connects the new station with Tain l’Hermitage train station and Tournon bus station, allowing connections with both the Tuesday morning and daily afternoon trains. The buses are operated by Courriers Rhôdaniens, who have a minority share in SNC CFV.
After photographing the diesel train cross the road under the bridge I drove to Boucieu-le-Roi. This is the base of the railbike (vélorail) operation. Initially the railbikes were to operate (downhill) between Lamastre and Boucieu, but the section was insufficiently graded and required some effort, so it was decided to operate them between Boucieu and Troyes, the first siding after the train enters the Doux gorges (from Tournon). There are a total of 26 railbikes, each with four seats. At Boucieu an extra two sidings have been installed by CFV to store some wagons, as well as diesel Y, freshly-restored Réseau Breton coach 103 and Billard A80D 316. Boucieu is also the base of SGVA, the volunteer society which saved the Tournon – Lamastre line in 1969. All SGVA has left is a small compound which used to be the station’s freight yard, where they store and work on the few pieces of rolling stock left with them (most of the CFV rolling stock was owned by the départment). Their only building is small shed where they keep their tools. When the station tracks were renovated, SNC CFV took out the points connecting their storage tracks to the station tracks. Stored here were:
According to an SGVA volunteer, they own another four of the coaches at Tournon, while two ex-Mines Orne ballast wagons are on loan to the MTVS for use during construction of their new line. Currently, SGVA a trying to restore enough stock to have a display train for visitors to the railbike operation (the market railcar doesn’t stop at Boucieu and there are no plans for the Sept./Oct. Lamastre steam train to stop either). SGVA doesn’t have an official statement on their being kicked out, they just focus on restoring what little they have. On weekends some volunteers are working on the double-cab, which will then be available for use on any metre gauge railway. SGVA wouldn’t mind it operating on the CFV, however they don’t believe SNC CFV will allow them to do so as it is not of any interest to them, so they rather see it visiting other more friendly lines once it is again operational.
Once the diesel market train had run through, I proceeded to Lamastre, where the loco was turned. The whole station looks like it has been dug up, with new platforms replacing the old historic ones. All tracks except No. 1 were clogged up with wagons, as well as CF Corse BB 405 (CFD), Billard A80D 314, track car No. 1 (Campagne 1932), Mallets 401, 403 and 413, and an ex-Corse MATISA tamper. After BB 405 had been turned on the turntable (in order for the radiator to be upfront, as the engine would otherwise overheat), diesel No. X was used to pull the train back and release BB 405. Coupled to it were Billard parcels trailer No. 10 and Billard trailer No. 22. While in the past visitors could freely roam the station yard, together with a Dutch enthusiast and his son we were at that point kindly asked to leave the yard and get back onto the platform, because “the railway’s insurance does not cover anything that could happen to us in the yard”. Present inside the new three-track workshops was the new boiler of Mallet 414 (the frame was probably still in the old Tournon shed), while saloon coach ASfv 1005, which had been used during the inaugural ceremony and was looking good, was parked outside. SNC CFV has a total of 32 full time employees, including eight steam fitters from Tarnow in Poland who work in the workshops at Lamastre and the depot at Tournon-St-Jean. The Poles work for periods of three months, after which they get 15 days of leave, and as I didn’t see any around I guess they were back in Poland with their families.
Back at the station, shortly before departure there was lots more complaining from some passengers about the lack of toilets.
It was then back to Tournon-St-Jean, were railcars 213 and 214 were still waiting for the diesel train crew to get back to go to Troye and wait for the first consignment of railbikes of the day. Shortly thereafter at ca. 13.30 Mallet 403 was brought out of the shed to take water, before being put at the head of the 15.15 departure to Colombier. At the site of the new station the line used to run on a gradient and in order allow the buildings to be built the whole area was leveled at the lowest possible level below the road. As a result the loco is now faced with an even steeper gradient just after leaving the station, and with all eight open coaches in tow just as on inaugural day the loco struggled and slipped a lot to get out (even the diesel with only five coaches in the morning found it difficult to get out of the station). This will certainly put a lot of strain on the Mallets and I wonder how they will be cope once the tracks start getting wet in September.
As you can see from the pictures, security fences have been put up on all masonry structures (bridges, culverts, retaining walls) all along the line, not only where the railbikes run to prevent passengers from toppling off, but also where only the steam trains run. Maybe to prevent passenger who fell off the train from toppling off?
The “Train of Gorges” excursion (EUR 14) is said to take 2 hours, yet it took the train only about 25 minutes to get to Colombier, where the whole station area has again been fenced off to prevent the customers from getting access to the bar opposite the station building. Here the big show was the turning of the Mallet on the new fenced in turntable – as quoted on the website “In destination, locomotives must have returned on a bascule bridge, before being replaced at the head of train. Two men are enough for the operation in the strength of arms. A show not to be missed! ! “ After that, there was…nothing left to do for the passengers, as neither the bar nor the gift shop or the toilets were ready. Some uncooperative characters who just did not want to wait until the train returned to Tournon were again complaining about the lack of toilets. In the past, locals would bring local products such as fruits, sausages, honey and jam to the station to sell to the passengers at both Colombier and Boucieu, but all this is now over with the station fenced off at Colombier and the train not stopping at Boucieu. Instead, passengers should make sure to buy enough junk food at Tournon’s gift shop before getting on the train.
With little else to do at Colombier once the loco had run around, the train went back to Tournon and the whole fun was over within 1½ hours. Within ten minutes off getting back to Tournon, the loco had been taken off the train, turned and put away and locked inside the shed.
As all of the restoration work to the line and rolling stock has been financed by the Ardèche Conseil Général and the local communities, operator Kléber Rossillon (KR, http://www.kleber-rossillon.com/) has had to invest very little of its own funds. KR has a 25-year concession for the line and operates both the ‘Vélorail des Gorges du Doux’ and SNC CFV as the ‘Train de l’Ardèche’, for which it pays 6% of the fares (for example EUR 0,84 on a RT to Colombier) back to the Conseil Général.
Given the fact that tourists in Ardèche and potential customers are mostly foreigners (mainly NL, but also GB and DE), SNC CFV in the last few days/weeks had the bright idea to put up an English version of its website: http://www.trainardeche.fr/welcome.html, which was either written using Google Translate or was translated by a 10 year old (“Contact we!”, “Train of Gorge”, etc…). It reminds me of English language signs and instructions in Chinese hotels.
When I was talking with the SNC CFV manager I asked him about the original CFD coaches and realized that he had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. When he told me that some had already been restored, I realized that he was actually referring to the Réseau Breton which I had seen at Boucieu and Tournon. I don’t think there will be any chance to see an authentic-looking steam train operate over line ever again.
The fact that the railway has reopened, if only over part of its former route, is a positive thing. The fact that Mallet 403 has been repainted in black and that the two Billard A150D railcars are also still in original livery is also good. The view from the train while riding through the Doux river gorge is still magnificent. However, for those who have known the railway before it cannot compare in its present state. To me, the “Train of Gorge” is a joke, with a less than 30 minute train ride one way and nothing to do at Colombier. The “Rail-car of Market” is also a joke, now that it doesn’t stop anywhere along the way anymore. I remember riding it in the past, when locals would actually use it to get to the market at Lamastre to do their shopping. Now it is Dutch tourists from the camp sitea around Tournon who use it. And given the high number of passengers it will probably be turned into a diesel-hauled market train in the future, with the railcars reserved for the railbike operation. To me the only trains worth riding would be the Tuesdays only steam trains to Lamastre in September and October.
As for chasing, most of the photo points are now spoiled by the barriers along the track. As you can see in my pictures, there are only two good photo positions for the afternoon trains from Tournon to Colombier and both are spoilt by barriers. As for the TuO Lamastre train, it is generally never in good light as it travels west in the morning and east in the afternoon. All very sad, but what can one do?