The International Steam Pages

A Garland of Islands, Part 1, Europe

Robert Hall writes about island railways of the world in a series of articles:

Click here for the other parts:

In the final and wrapping-up chapter of his “The End of the Line”, Bryan Morgan – hypothesising on further gricing travels which he might do – writes of possibly making “a garland of islands”. This is in a context of islands off Europe; but, our own continent or further afield, there is for many enthusiasts something special, and specially attractive, about island railways. Will attempt here (starting with Europe) a written making of something akin to Morgan’s “garland”, worldwide – dealing with islands none of which I have visited, and some of which once had railways which were abandoned very long ago; but which exert a pull on my imagination. I’ll claim “author’s prerogative” – will tend (without rigorous consistency) to eschew the bigger-and-more-metropolitan islands with denser rail systems; and railwayed or once-railwayed islands which simply “don’t do it for me”. And – while not wanting to disparage industrial-railway buffs – the “industrial bit” is not my personal scene, so will confine self to islands which had railways in public passenger service.

A number of islands in the Mediterranean Sea are, or have been, served by public rail systems. Among this number are Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica; whose railways, fascinating though they may be, I will bypass – considering these scenes too main-line-ish and/ or too well-covered elsewhere.

A considerable amount of helpful information for this piece – for which I am duly grateful – has been derived from P.M. Kalla-Bishop’s 1970 book, “Mediterranean Island Railways”. Nonetheless, the late Mr. Kalla-Bishop and I, would seem to be not far from polar opposites in our styles of railway enthusiasm. He was a “main-line-and-busy-transport-arteries” man, contemptuous of railway byways – witness the passage early in his “Railway Holiday in Italy”, in which he launches into a brief but scathing rant against light railways of the “Colonel Stephens” kind, proclaiming his disdain for them, and by implication, for those who like them. I, conversely, am turned on above all by such railways, and tend to be in comparison turned off by the main-line-metropolitan stuff. It would seem revealing that Kalla-Bishop in his “Mediterranean” book, gives nine chapters and 133 pages to Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, which locations I choose to exclude from this piece; and one chapter and 17 pages to the other three Mediterranean islands with public railways of a sleepier and more rural kind, which appeal to me. Mallorca, Malta and Cyprus – I suspect that had he dared, Kalla-Bishop would have done a “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” job on these islands and their railways. Instead of seventeen pages, one sentence: “These were / are complete rubbish; I spurn them.”

Proceeding from west to east, first comes Mallorca. Will try, in an “old dogs and new tricks” way, to use here the nowadays current and approved Catalan spellings re this island and places on it, rather than the “bog-standard” Spanish equivalents which obtained when I first learned of Mallorca’s railways, and which I grew used to. Mallorca has always struck me – mass-tourism stuff quite aside – as a place of character, with pleasant and sometimes spectacular scenery, and apparently a birdwatcher’s paradise. And at any rate has been, a narrow-gauge-lover’s paradise, if you are a glutton for punishment after reading this page then there is a whole website dedicated to the subject - (link broken, 1st November 2019)

One of Spain’s – to my mind – many railway delights, is its one-time enormous variety of different narrow gauges. It would seem to be a needle-match between Spain and Sweden, for world champion status in this field. In Mallorca only in all Spain, there featured the – globally not very common – 3ft (914mm) gauge. The reason for this, being the involvement of British enterprise, in the initial development of railways in Mallorca – among Spain’s earliest narrow-gauge ventures. The first lines, starting from the island’s capital Palma, opened in the 1870s. The island’s system was completed (“final touches”) in the 1920s. The shape of the network seems so marvellously crazy – with routes closely paralleling each other, and (on an island which is so much “about” seaside holidaying) nearly all lines almost reaching the sea, but not-quite; that a Mallorca map to accompany this article, is irresistible.

In a bit of, to me, wonderful “Isle of Wight / Man syndrome”: the “majority” Mallorca Railways have been accompanied for the past hundred years, by a separate, independent 914mm gauge railway on the island – the Ferrocarril de Sóller (henceforth named in English) running 27 km from Palma north through the mountains, involving a long summit tunnel, to Sóller on the coast; with the line itself not quite attaining the coast at its northern terminus (a “steep descent” situation contributing), a 914mm gauge electric street tramway, 5 km long, was inaugurated to link the station with the port. The Sóller Railway was steam-worked for its first seventeen years; was electrified in 1929, with motor coaches and trailers. This railway – and the connecting tramway at Sóller – have continued in use right through from 1929 to the time of writing, continually on the 914mm gauge (which gauge has ceased to be, elsewhere on the island). New rolling stock has been acquired from time to time. The Sóller line sounds utterly splendid – a kind of Mediterranean Manx Electric; it would seem immensely worth a visit. There are some wonderful pictures on its website

Returning to the main Mallorca Railways – until some half-century ago, they used a variety of delectable steam tank locos. Originally, Nasmyth Wilson 4-4-0Ts and 0-6-0Ts; later supplemented with enlarged 4-6-0T versions of the 4-4-0 tanks, particularly for use on the system’s quite-steeply-climbing “main trunk line”, the 30-km-plus between Palma, Inca, and the junction at Empalme, where the routes to Sa Pobla and Artá divide. In 1931, this section was even made double-track. From the World War I era, locos began to be acquired from Spanish and German, rather than British, builders – 2-6-0T and 2-6-2T were the types favoured. The Mallorca Railways were originally equipped with four-wheeled coaches; corridor passenger stock was introduced in 1930.

The system ventured into internal-combustion railcars, quite early. From 1930-odd, most passenger services on the Felanitx and Santanyí branches were railcar. These lines were instances of the thing often found in railway history, “last in, first out”; opened in 1897 and 1917 respectively, they were Mallorca’s first lines abandoned, in the latter half of the 1960s. Total dieselisation of the Mallorca Railways was accomplished by 1962 or so; the system is thought to have ceased to carry freight in the mid- to-late ‘60s.

As at the just-above-mentioned era, Mallorca Railways had long been in decline; basically, since about the Spanish Civil War period (1936 – 39). With the lines becoming unremunerative, they were taken over in 1951 by the State organisation FEVE, charged with taking under its wing narrow-gauge railways no longer financially viable, but seen as socially necessary. The Sóller Railway remained in private hands. Henceforth on the Mallorca Railways, passenger services became sparse; the island’s assuming the role of a big tourist destination for sun-seeking Britons was no help for the railways, what with meagre and inconvenient schedules, and the lines’ mostly falling short of getting to the coast. And, no doubt, the Brits’ being sick of their own weary and war-worn railways, and having zero desire to get involved with a nasty small-scale foreign equivalent of the same thing.

In the later ‘60s, passenger services did improve in frequency on the two remaining routes to Sa Pobla and to Artá. This situation continued for a while. Services were suspended on the Artá route in 1977, supposedly following from a couple of accidents; this suspected to have been a pretext for closure, more than a genuine emergency. In 1981, suspension of services also took place between Inca and Sa Pobla. From this very low ebb for the Mallorca Railways, there ensued a remarkable and cheering renaissance-cum-transformation. At some point, the system had passed out of the hands of FEVE, and come under the aegis of local-government authority. A rail-minded administration, which sought to achieve positive turning-around for the railways. During 1981, the then only remaining active section, Palma – Inca, was converted from 914mm gauge to metre. This could be done without interrupting rail services, because of that stretch of line being double-track; the eastern track was widened, leaving the 914mm western one disused when the job was done. The more modern of the system’s railcars were altered to metre-gauge. Over the following years, more railcars – of increasingly up-to-date designs – were acquired new..

A long time had to elapse before it was possible to achieve the desired objective of reinstating on metre gauge, some of the closed sections. Inca – Sa Pobla was reopened thus at the beginning of 2001. There have been hopes of extending this route, in the shape of a brand-new line, from Sa Pobla to the very popular seaside resort of Alcúdia; but this project would seem not to have got beyond the drawing-board stage. The portion of the Artá branch from Empalme to Manacor was reopened on metre gauge in 2003. Work was commenced on reinstating the Manacor – Artá section, in a new electric “tram-train” guise – initially at any rate, to be physically separate from the rest of the system, owing to the right-of-way through Manacor town having been built over during the decades of disuse. At the time of writing, this project has been stalled for a while, because of financial difficulties. And it would seem that the Felanitx and Santanyí branches are irrevocably “dead and gone”.

The past decade has been one of continuing transformation for the Mallorca Railways. In recent years, the main line between Palma, Inca and Empalme has been re-doubled, on metre gauge of course; and electrified, with new EMUS. At the time of writing, the Sa Pobla and Manacor branches are still DMU-worked (all passengers to / from the branches need to change at Empalme); the railway administration plans to electrify these parts of the system too. The Mallorca Railways would seem to be in the process of losing the last of the quirky and antique glamour (with its decayed and run-down “obverse side”) which they possessed decades ago. But despite this, it is a very rare and unusual thing in modern Europe, for a narrow-gauge local rail system to have its fortunes dramatically reversed – and for long-closed sections to be reopened – in a commercial-and-public-service, not a “preservation”, context. Surely a cause for rejoicing for any enthusiast who is not a completely fanatical votary of the “nostalgic” side of the hobby. The “new” Mallorca Railways have had, and continue to have, their ups and downs – with financial worries prominent among these – but it can be expected that most, will wish them well. Furthermore, recent times have also seen the inauguration of a 20 km. “Metro” metre-gauge electric line, serving Palma and its suburbs. (Nostalgia-fans may take comfort from the Sóller Railway and its attendant tram remaining independent and busily active, in all their splendour, now as Spain’s last representatives of the 914mm gauge.)

An article describing in great and enthusiastic detail, Mallorca’s railways (both the main system, and the “Sóller and tram”) was published in the “Railway Magazine” for April 1936 (, link dead 25th October 2016) recommending Mallorca in glowing terms, as a holiday destination. As things were shortly to turn out history-wise, strong irony here; pace extremely narrow and doubtful time-windows, virtually no Brit would be able to get to Mallorca for at least a decade thenceforth. Maybe one or two “consular” types assigned there after the end of the Civil War...

These Pages have a link to the site “Mike’s Railway History”, one piece on which is titled “Island Railways”. It gives a short paragraph to Mallorca and its attendant island group. Strangely, it tells of (as an accomplished fact as at the mid-1930s) a railway on Mallorca’s neighbour to the east, Menorca – supposedly running from end to end of the island, approximately 40km between western extremity Ciutadella and eastern ditto Maó. Such a railway on Menorca was planned and projected, in the early years of the 20th century; would have been metre-gauge and steam-worked; I gather that some preliminary route-sorting and earthworks were accomplished – however, the thing never came to be. In this matter, the author of Mike’s “Island Railways” article clearly seems to be “taking the will for the deed”.

The next eastward, is Malta – biggest island of its small archipelago, and the only island of the group to have had a public railway. To me, a delightful one – an absolutely classic British-type steam narrow-gauge line, except that it was on the metre gauge. To Kalla-Bishop, clearly an abomination, which he ridicules as “a railway...employed for the wrong purpose in the wrong place, and in any case being wrongly equipped for the task it was supposed to perform”. Don’t hold back, PMK-B old boy – tell us what you really think... There is also a modest volume (in both size and price) published by the Oakwood Press. ( link broken by December 2021)

The line ran through the middle of the island, just one route for 12 km due west from the capital, Valletta. Original plans for considerably wider coverage of the island were never followed through. This was a passenger-only concern, never carrying freight; opened in 1883, and abandoned (its fate sealed by the burgeoning of road motor transport) in 1931 – “a long time after it should have been,” in K-B’s predictable words. Corresponding oddly --not exactly, but within a very few years -- to the life-span and dates thereof, of England’s 3ft (914mm) gauge Southwold Railway. It would be nicely fulfilling if – as with the Southwold – a Maltese cartoonist had used his art to poke affectionate fun at his local narrow-gauge railway.

The photographs taken of the Malta Railway in action – surprisingly numerous, considering “how long ago, and out-of-the-way” – are to my mind lovely, and promoting of “if-only” feelings. It had a total of ten locomotives – very properly British-built, mostly by Manning Wardle and Beyer Peacock. An assortment of 0-6-0Ts and 2-6-2T / 2-6-4Ts, with one solitary 0-6-0ST, uniquely by Black, Hawthorn – subsequently converted to an 0-6-0 side-tank. With tall chimneys, and typically graceful British lineaments. The coaches were all four-wheelers. 

The railway underwent competition over the eastern part of its route from 1905, when an electric tram system was inaugurated , spreading out from Valletta. A situation not altogether infrequently met with in earlyish-20th-century Europe – Emmettesque non-electric light railway, versus newer electric tram network: come savage internal-combustion road competition, “last in, first out”, as ruminated on earlier – the trams die a little before the “hopeless Kleinbahn”. Thus it was in Malta: trams finished in 1929, railway two years later. How wonderful to have had the chance of a visit to Malta pre-1929..

The Malta Railway gets an approving mention in Nicholas Monsarrat’s novel, “The Kapillan of Malta”, about the island’s World War II ordeal. The novel’s hero – Father Salvatore, a priest with some reassuringly human failings (not of the kind which have been obsessed about in this context, in recent years) – turns out to have known well, and been very fond of, the late Malta Railway; whose demise he muses about, and much regrets. Father S. thinks of the railway by its colloquial name in the “mongrel” Maltese language, “Xmundifer” – a corruption of the French “chemin de fer”.

Further east still, is Cyprus. Its railway outlasted Malta’s by twenty years; still, from a 2012 perspective, feels for most of us as though “before Noah’s flood”. Various enthusiasts from the generation now closely on one side or the other of the Pearly Gates, or expecting at any time a summons for same, knew the Cyprus Government Railway in its last years – their not-so-distant juniors feel glad to have briefly if unwittingly, shared its space on Earth – at the time of its abandonment, I was all of three-and-a-half years old.

The CGR was 762mm (2ft 6in) gauge, opened in stages between 1905 and 1915 – essentially one east-to-west route through the approximate “north-middle” of the island, 121 km at maximum length. Route Famagusta on the coast in the east, 59 km to Nicosia the capital, thence 38 km to Morphou, thence ultimately 24 km onward.

Like the Malta Railway, a beautifully British outfit, though geographically far from Britain. In earlier times, equipped with lovely, graceful tall-chimneyed locomotives from Nasmyth Wilson – 4-4-0s, 2-6-0s, and a couple of 2-6-2Ts – mostly in a crimson livery. Locomotives were fitted with cowcatchers; and had commodious cabs, offering shade from the Mediterranean sun – the coaches, bogie saloon jobs, were likewise constructed with sun-protection – wide overhanging eaves, with vertical boards hanging down to shade the windows.

The line’s final extension at its western extremity, was hoped to tap mineral deposits (copper and chrome) at that end of things; for which four impressive 4-8-4Ts were ordered, built, and delivered, from Kitson & Co. Matters so worked out, concerning competition and other factors, that this mineral-traffic scene basically did not take off – the “ultimate-mineral-extension” last few kilometres, closed in 1932. 

As on other islands – road motor transport, eagerly-grabbed-onto-early, was bad news for the railways. In 1932, the passenger service was withdrawn west of Nicosia. In the mid-1930s, internal-combustion railcars plus trailers were brought in on the surviving Nicosia – Famagusta passenger route. This greatly speeded services up vis-á-vis the previous steam schedules, and passenger services were mostly handled thus (World War II maybe excepted) until the railway’s abandonment. Some steam mixed trains continued between Nicosia and Famagusta; and a variety of public special trains for various purposes, ran with steam haulage.. Freight still ran west of Nicosia, but if I get things correctly, only “as required and rather infrequently” – as from before the mid-1920s, the mines’ output had been going to its destination without using the Cyprus Government Railway; whose freight facilities west of the capital, ended up mostly handling only unusually heavy and cumbersome mining gear.

Wars – a pain in the neck overall, but tending to have positive effects for railways – World War II was without doubt helpful for the CGR and its steam fleet, including in the context of oil shortages. Kalla-Bishop mentions troop trains giving plentiful work to the 4-8-4Ts, which had been somewhat under-employed owing to the mineral traffic’s being essentially “still-born”. He writes, “Many of the troops were accommodated in open wagons on occasion, which must have caused a certain amount of muttering in the ranks.”

Concerning this – and a minor “find of my own”, of which I feel a bit proud: some three decades ago, I heard an anecdote from a chap, briefly a work colleague, who was at least twenty years my senior, and had as an army conscript been sent to Cyprus some time in the 1940s. He recalled travelling on just such a troop train between Famagusta and Nicosia, in open wagons, as a result of which he and all his fellows had to be issued with new kit, because of what they’d been wearing having been ruined by smuts / hot cinders from the loco. The chap was pretty relaxed about this – just took the basic view (likely held, ever since people first invented war) that “armies are extremely incompetent”.

Post-war, things returned to normal for what proved to be the CGR’s last few years. Those in authority considered plans and options for modernising the railway, including complete dieselisation – and reached the conclusion that no way would it be worth it: the line closed down for good, at the end of 1951 (a bad year for branch lines and minor railways worldwide). There is a for me highly affecting photograph of two of the 4-8-4Ts at Nicosia locoshed in 1952, very shortly after abandonment: thoughts were then being entertained, of transferring them to the 762mm gauge rail system of Sierra Leone (which in the event never happened – the locos were scrapped.)

I have elsewhere on this site, toyed with fantasies about Cyprus’s railway miraculously lasting, at least in part, beyond 1951 – total dieselisation no doubt the price of survival. Even had this come about, 1974 and the island’s splitting into Greek and Turkish parts, with an “iron curtain” division, would have meant the end of the railway – it ran right along the divide between the unloving neighbours. There are some evocative historic pictures (and even some cine) in a 2003 documentary film on the railway - (Link broken by December 2023. RD) For those interested in what is left today there is a 2006 report and a 2011 update on this site, the latter contains a list of books on the subject. 

Somewhat closer to British shores: immediately off France’s Bay of Biscay coast between Brittany and Bordeaux, lie a number of -- from the map -- enticing islands. A couple of these once played host to island-encompassing rail systems. The islands concerned are near neighbours of each other, and their railways were under the same ownership; which also had lines in abundance on the nearby mainland. We are dealing here with the Ile d’ Oléron, and the Ile de Ré; respectively about a third, and a quarter, the size of the Isle of Wight; both reasonably describable as tending to the shape of “long and thin”. Nowadays, the two islands are linked to the mainland by road bridges; but in railway times and for long after, it was ferries-only. Each island had a main line running basically from the ferry port near the mainland, to the island’s other extremity; with a couple of branches / main-line reversals, en route. 

The islands’ lines were – highly suitably – of France’s very greatly predominant narrow gauge, i.e. one metre. They belonged to the Chemins de Fer Economiques des Charentes (CFEC) – independent undertaking, never part of France’s National railways (SNCF) or the big private companies merged in 1938 to form the National system . This metre-gauge local-lines system served, generously, the départements of Charente Inférieure alias Charente Maritime – on the coast, including the two islands which concern us – and its neighbour to the east, Charente; clocking up a remarkable maximum-extent total of 770 km. Its first line opened in 1894, and its last closed in 1947 – life thereof prolonged by the hard times of World War II. It was a system of a kind from which Kalla-Bishop would have recoiled with loathing; mostly roadside, of minimum-earthworks light construction, stiff gradients, initially using small steam locos of restricted power, and light axleloads for all stock, expected average speed 15 km per hour at best. (In its later decades, the undertaking made considerable use of internal-combustion railcars.)

The British consul in those parts wrote a long and interesting report to his superiors, concerning the first lines opened of the then brand-new CFEC. Having in mind Britain’s shortly-to-be-passed Light Railways Act of 1896, the consul cites the above-set-out characteristics of these lines, as a textbook example of how not to “do” light railways, and recommends that Britain inaugurate such in a more robust form. The entire text of this report is reproduced in W.J.K. Davies’s book “Minor Railways of France”.

This perception of the matter makes sense, especially with hindsight vis-à-vis future road motor competition, hardly imagined in 1894 (perhaps the consul was clairvoyant?). Nonetheless; from a “DAA* ” rather than a sensible point of view, the CFEC must have been a delight, if one is the kind of person who delights in such things; and presumably their travelling public found them, for their first couple of decades, an improvement on what had been available earlier. (Pace the famous “peasant, donkey, and light railway” tale.) In time, the CFEC spread out to include Oléron and Ré in their net. There is a, to me, delectable probable very-early-20th-century photograph of a Corpet Louvet 0-6-0T with a substantial train of four-wheeled coaches having just arrived at St. Trojan, the island’s ferry-port, with a throng of passengers disembarking.

As with much of the French narrow gauge, Oléron and Ré’s railways were abandoned before World War II. Hard to imagine anything otherwise, short of a sci-fi / alternative-history scenario where the internal combustion engine was impossible; but oh to have been able to sample them during their lifetime.

There has been established on Oléron, from the mid-1960s, a few-kilometres-long “pleasure” line from St. Trojan, “beach to beach” and not following any of the long-abandoned real railway’s route: 600mm gauge, and diesel-worked. For me – nice if one happens to be there anyway; otherwise – Guide-Michelin-speak, “Ça ne vaut pas le déplacement”; Internet-speak, “meh”.

Author’s prerogative, as mentioned earlier, also allows a certain amount of cheating. “Island-related”, sort-of: concerns Mont St. Michel, on the north coast not far from Britain’s Channel Islands – whose long-gone railways I feel are too well-documented already, for inclusion here. The monastery-citadel on its Mount – a former just-offshore island – has been linked to the mainland by a causeway since very long before railway times; however, I’ll include it rail-wise – largely because of a fleeting reference by Bryan Morgan in “The End of the Line”.

Mont St. Michel was once served by a 1435mm gauge light railway / steam tramway, mostly roadside, from Pontorson on a still-active route of the state-railways network . The minor line ran some 7 / 8 km to the coast and the foot of the great tourist-and-pilgrim-magnet, just short of the “island link” causeway. Always independent of the French main-line railways, it belonged to various of the light-railway concerns in France, which organisationally and administratively waxed and waned and periodically “ate each other” during the first half of the 20th century. Opened 1903, abandoned 1938. For long, steam-worked; in its last years, mostly railmotor-operated.

One learns that the local authorities are nowadays pondering on some kind of reinstating of the Mont St. Michel tramway, in order to counter the evils and inconveniences of the private car. Given a weakness for “alternative history” – in a British-type context, this would be a cue for thinking “if only the line had survived till World War II – then, it could have lasted through the war (petrol shortages, French and Germans likewise eager to visit the Mont) – then only a few years till the preservation era dawned” – sadly, in the crucial years things thus went differently in Britain, and France. There was no way that the M-St-M tramway could have happily run on for half-a-century-plus, to finally come into its own as an environmental saviour.

*“DAA”: mildly lewd gricer expression, explained here for those not familiar with it, and hoping to cause no offence: originating from 1967, with British Railways steam in rapid decline. A railway enthusiast was doing his thing in the last months of steam on a particular route; a “real person” travelling on the same train to get from A to B, enquired as to what he was up to. Gricer tried to explain. “Real person” responded: “well, I think you’re daft as a***holes”. This was thought a wonderful, and “right-on-the-money”, expression – quickly spread throughout the British enthusiast community, and was eagerly adopted and abbreviated to “DAA”.

Rob Dickinson