The International Steam Pages

Once upon a time, long ago,
The 950mm Gauge in Sicily, July 1980
(and their connection with New Zealand)

Wilson Lythgoe has been circulating friends with some steam pictures taken some time back and with his permission and encouragement they are reproduced on these pages and will be added to from time to time. Click here for the index.

A few months before leaving England on my Grand Tour of Europe there was an article in an English railfan magazine about one of the last remaining sections of 950mm gauge railway in Sicily. There had once been a large 950mm network on the island and the article focused on the line from Castelvetrano to Ribera: a 72km section with a number of railcar services and a steam hauled goods. The goods was enough to gain my interest and to ensure Sicily was firmly on the Grand Tour!

I reached the railway via Agrigento. The 950mm line from there to Ribera (62km) had already been closed but the railways were operating a bus service connecting with the railway at Ribera. A railway guard even travelled on the bus checking tickets and selling them to passengers who joined along the way.

Once at Ribera it was off the bus and onto the train or that was the theory! In fact the railcar was still down at the loco shed.........or at least I think the building was the shed. It may have been used to stable the steam engine that came through from Castelvetrano on the goods.

Nothing ever happened very fast in Sicily and once drawn up at the station platform it was time for the train crew to have a lengthy chat! This was my first look at the Fiat RALn 60 class railcars which ran the passenger service. Twenty-five had been built in 1949/50 for the narrow gauge.....not a bad looking little machine but I felt the colour scheme made them look a lot older than they actually were! 

In trying to find more information about the railcars I came across the comment, translated from Italian, that they were 'the first to use the flat engine'. Checking my pictures I surmised this meant they had an underfloor engine and as an ex-Kiwi wondered did Fiat use a similar engine in New Zealand's 88 seater railcars. Colin Perfect wrote a series of articles on the 88 seaters for New Zealand Railfan magazine commencing in the December 2007 issue and these provided the answer. 

Apparently the RALn 60 were the first railcars built by Fiat using a horizontal motor: the 700(137.9kW) type with New Zealand ordering the more powerful 700.40(156kW). The order for the thirty five New Zealand railcars was signed in early 1950 at which stage the RALn 60 were still being built and entering service. The New Zealand railcars arrived between 1955 and 1957 and revolutionised provincial rail travel. They quickly became popular with the travelling public offering speedy services six or seven days a week to towns and cities that had previously only been served by twice weekly express trains. Right from the start though all was not well with engines, cooling systems and gearboxes all proving unreliable. By January 1967 the government had had enough and the decision was made to reduce railcar services and to withdraw the cars. The first were 'stopped' almost immediately and by 10 September 1978 it was all over. I wonder had the RALn 60 already been in service for a number of years (and well tested) would New Zealand have still used Fiat engines? Another interesting point is whether the Sicilian railcars were reliable or experienced similar problems: certainly they managed a longer life than their New Zealand counterparts.

From Colin's articles I also learnt that ten of the RALn 60 were single engined and the remainder two. More internet searching, and providing I'm understanding Italian correctly, gave the RALn 60 a maximum speed of 70km/hr although they were apparently restricted to 35km/hr between Castelvetrano and Ribera due to track conditions.

I based myself in Sciacca for the next two nights which was only a 20km trip from Ribera. Later that afternoon another railcar plus trailer climbs one of the hills outside Sciacca. 60.16 was twin motored with obviously enough pulling power to be able to handle a trailer. The unit in the first two pictures, 60.09, was single engined so probably had insufficient power to manage a trailer over the lines grades. 

Just after 7pm the goods turned up hauled by what I described in a letter home as 'the most ugliest, squat looking tank engine I have ever seen'. The loco is R302.19, a 2-6-0T built in Italy in 1922, and the only steam engine I saw working on the line. Today it's preserved at the National Railway Museum in Naples 

Same time the following day and the goods is seen on the outskirts of Sciacca. Behind the loco is the guards van complete with three guards (a slight matter of over-staffing on Italian Railways), two narrow gauge wagons and trailing behind a standard gauge wagon.

The going away shot shows how the much larger standard gauge wagon was able to be carried on the narrow gauge. Sciacca rises on the hillside behind the train. 

Golden light as the train shunts Sciacca yard! The guards van is a four wheeler and likely to be a rough rider at any sort of speed. Sciacca was a much larger town than Ribera: compare the size of the loco shed in the background to that in Ribera.

Engine and van in open country between Selinunte and Castelvetrano. Definitely not a profitable load that morning! To the right of the loco are some of the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Selinunte.

The largest train I saw on the narrow gauge gets underway at Castelvetrano. The two tracks on the left are standard gauge. 

A search through back copies of Continental Railway Journal revealed that by the end of September 1981 steam was no more and the goods service had been dieselised. The line from Ribera to Sciacca was said to be under repair for a year or so and no services were running leaving only the 50km between Sciacca and Castelvetrano operational. A final report said that the line was closed by the end of 1985. 

Rob Dickinson