The International Steam Pages

Once upon a time, long ago,
From Mallets to Rail-bikes on the Réseau du Vivarais

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.

Once upon a time there was a metre gauge railway in La Belle France and in its heyday what a railway it must have been. Totalling around 200 kilometres it linked a number of small towns in the mountains south of Lyon and at one time connected with the standard gauge at four different junctions. The railway ran passenger trains, freight trains, a combination of the two and from the 1930s increasingly used railcars to offer a faster and more convenient passenger service. By the 1960s though times were getting tough and due to lack of funds the government of the day decided to close the Réseau du Vivarais. The last trains ran on 31 October 1968 and there the story could well have ended. Due to the foresight and persistence of a team of enthusiasts though, less than a year after closure, a thirty two kilometre section between Tournon and Lamastre was reopened as a tourist orientated railway.

I spent two days visiting the railway in June 1980 and found it a delightful and typically French experience. A steam train would leave Tournon at ten in the morning arriving at Lamastre at noon taking two hours for the journey which included a refreshment stop, at the halfway point, for both passengers and locomotive. Once at Lamastre there was time for a lengthy lunch before joining the return service at four (I think) in the afternoon for the run back to Tournon. As well a railcar shuttled up and down the line as a local passenger service.

Saturday morning at 9.00am found 0-6-6-0 Mallet tank 403 simmering in the Tournon servicing area prior to running the day's train. 403 had hauled the last steam service prior to closure in 1968 and then, on reopening in 1969, ran the first steam hauled passenger service for the new operators.

Half way through the journey, at Boucieu-le-Roi, passengers pour off the well filled ten coach train to stretch their legs, take photographs and possibly sample the local wine from a bar set up in the station building whilst 403 heads for the water tower.

Late in the afternoon at Lamastre, prior to heading back down the valley, 403 waits for Billard railcar 314 to arrive from Tournon. Compared to the Mallet the railcar looks positively tiny: in working order 403 weighed in at 44 tonnes with a total length of 36 feet whilst the railcar weighed only 9.5 tonnes and was 33 feet long. Their respective heights would have made an interesting comparison but I haven't been able to find those figures. Built by the French company Billard of Tours in 1937 314 could carry thirty two passengers, on hard wooden seats, plus crew.

The following morning I walked a short way up the valley to what looked like a reasonable photo position. I'd been told there was a good chance of two steam trains running, the second about 15 minutes behind the first, but hadn't been down to the station to see if two locos were in steam. My intention was to photograph both trains, if there were two, and then hang around Tournon waiting for their return seven or eight hours later. The first train arrived with 414 doing the honours. An 0-6-6-0 Mallet tank, 414 had been built in France by SACM in 1932 and was a more modern variant of 403.

Whilst waiting for the first train to arrive an empty tour bus pulled up nearby and the driver got out clutching a camera. The train came along, we both got coming and going shots, and then a stroke of luck....the driver offered me a ride up the valley. His passengers were on the train and he was to pick them up on arrival at Lamastre.

Along the way we stopped to get a disappointing shot of the second train and then a short distance before Lamastre I asked to be dropped off in the hope of getting some steam photos in a rural setting. Although I didn't know it at the time we'd managed to get ahead of both trains so it was a pleasant surprise when 414 came into view.

I quickly found a position for the second train and was rewarded with 403 passing the passenger shelter at Monteil.

Now my luck deserted me! Shortly after the previous shot another, and this time totally unexpected, steam train came along and I was in a hopeless position. I did manage to find a reasonable spot to shoot the rather full railcar that was following close behind the third train though.

By the time I'd walked into Lamastre all three locos had been turned, serviced and their crews had disappeared for lunch. From the left is 404, then 414 and 403....three 0-6-6-0 Mallet tanks and all in steam! 

With the afternoon railcar from Tournon safely arrived the return procession back down the valley gets underway. First away was 404 seen here passing sister 403. Both these locos were built by SLM at Winterthur in Switzerland in 1903 and were part of a class of seven. Very few passengers actually seemed to ride the return services as most had already left Lamastre soon after lunch on tour coaches.

Next away was 403 while 414 readies to leave with the last train. It's interesting, in this photo, to compare the two classes of Mallet side by side. Their principal dimensions are identical in regards to power units, cylinders and wheels but otherwise there appear to be major differences with 414 having a higher pitched boiler, larger water tanks and an external coal bunker.

Regrettably these glory times were not to last and in a Continental Railway Journal from 2008 it was reported: 'Despite having issued the usual colourful timetable leaflet for 2008, this railway closed suddenly after services on 13 April, the last working being an autorail. The local authorities had decided that there were too many safety issues, including infrastructure and rolling stock problems, no steam loco was available for use, and finance was short.........The railway will definitely not run in 2008: whether it will reopen in 2009, or ever, is uncertain.'

James Waite was lucky enough to have been visiting the railway on what turned out to be that last working weekend. His illustrated story is on this site.

Despite periodic reports suggesting the railway could reopen, but that was always going to happen the following year, it didn't and the railway remained firmly closed. In researching this tale though I found the website of Velorail Ardeche ( link dead by 29th October 2017) promoting what could be a positive future for part of the railway. Twelve kilometres are reopening on 30 March with travel downhill by pedal powered rail-bikes. The return journey, uphill, will be in a restored Billard railcar towing the rail-bikes behind.

Now I wonder where those magnificent Mallets have got too...........  

(Try and RD.)

Rob Dickinson