The International Steam Pages

Space Centre Railways in French Guiana, 2014

Thomas Kautzor has been to Caribbean islands and other countries in the region to check out what is left of their railways and industrial heritage.

For the full general index, see Railway Relics (and more) in the Caribbean,

Thomas Kautzor reports on his visit with Torsten Schneider to French Guiana (Guyane), 11th - 18th September 2014.

See also:

Guyane’s three operational railways (aside from the hand-operated Decauville network at Dégrad Corrèze sawmill) can all be found at the ‘Centre Spatial Guyanais’ (Guyanese Space Centre, CSG, in Kourou and are very unusual. The CSG is operated by Arianespace S.A. for the European Space Agency (ESA).

Two of the railways at CSG, both 1435mm gauge and double track, serve the Ariane 5 program. Ariane 5, an expendable launch system, made its first flight on 4th June, 1996. Since then and until our visit in September 2014, it had been launched another 74 times. The elements for Ariane 5 are brought by road from the port of Pariacabo, 15 km away. The main launcher is assembled at the ‘Bâtiment d’Intégration Lanceurs’ (BIL). A 900 m railway reaches this building from the south, starting at the ‘Banc d’Essais des Etages à Poudre’ (BEAP), the powder stage test bank, and serving the ‘Bâtiment d’Intégration Propulseurs’ (BIP), the building where the cryogenic main stage as well as the two boosters are assembled, and the ‘Bâtiment Stockage Etage’ (BSE), the building where they are stored. The platform used to transport the elements runs on double track spaced a truck-width apart. The 180 tonnes (510 tonnes with load) platform is equipped with two double bogies on each side (for a total 16 axles). Traction is by road trucks, formerly a MAN 8x8 was used, now a TITAN 8x8 (blue vehicle below), and the maximum speed allowed during transfers is 4 km/h. This is an overview from an official illustration at the space museum showing the BIP to BEAP section:

At the BIP, the launcher is assembled on top of a much larger platform which runs on double track spaced wider apart. The track runs in a semi-circle to the east and passes the junction with the line to the launch pad area before entering into the ‘Bâtiment d’Assemblage Final’ (BAF), where the payload is placed onto the rocket. Between one and three satellites can be transported. From the BAF, the line crosses the Route de l’Espace (formerly Route Nationale 1 until a new road around the CSG was built in the mid-1990s) at level and runs to the ‘Ensemble de Lancement Ariane 3’ (ELA-3, Ariane Launch Area 3). Ariane 5 is transferred from the BAF to ELA-3 one day before the launch. Between the junction and the level crossing, a siding allows the storage and maintenance of the second platform. The total track length of this railway is 1600 m. The two platforms were built by MAN and have eight bogies on each side (for a total of 32 axles). The platforms are used to transport Ariane 5 to ELA-3 as well as launch pads. They were designed with a 25-year life-expectancy, but have suffered so little from the launches that they are now expected to last twice that time. During movement of the platform, a “train” of three generators is attached to them, one of them a standard bogie freight car, the other two mounted on small-wheel bogies. Here too, the same MAN and TITAN 8x8 are used for traction, with a maximum speed of 4-5 km/h.

Tracks to ELA 3

Looking back from ELA 3







This shows flight VA-218 at ELA-3 a few minutes before launch on Sep. 11, 2014, with the ELV to the right)

This is a downscaled model of Ariane 5 in front of the Space Museum

‘Ensemble de Lancement Ariane 2’ (ELA-2), which was used as the launch site for two Ariane 3 launches (V17 in 1986, V25 in 1988), the second Ariane 2 launch in 1987, and all 116 Ariane 4 launches between 1988 and 2003, was also served by the wide-spaced double-track railway. Following the retirement of Ariane 4, it was deactivated and in September 2011 the pad’s mobile tower was demolished using explosives.

‘Ensemble de Lancement Vega’ (ELV), formerly ‘Ensemble de Lancement Ariane 1’ (ELA-1), which was formerly used as the launch site for Ariane 1, 2 and 3, and since 2012 for the smaller Vega launcher, is not served by rail.

The Russian Soyuz was adopted by ESA in 2002 as an intermediate-size launcher. Arianespace has ordered a total of 23 Soyuz rockets from Russia, enough to cover its needs until 2019 at a pace of three to four launches per year, and between October 2011 and August 2014 there have been nine launches so far. The ‘Ensemble de Lancement Soyouz’ (ELS) launch complex is actually located in Sinnamary municipality 35 km from Kourou, and the Russian technicians who on average arrive one month before a launch and depart directly thereafter, usually stay in a hotel in Sinnamary rather than in Kourou. At ELS a 650 metre single track 1520mm gauge railway links the integration building (MIK) with the ‘Zône de Lancement Soyouz’ (ZLS) launch pad. The Soyuz rocket is transported horizontally on a transporter wagon, which also erects the rocket to the vertical position at the pad, where Soyuz is suspended by four support arms, after which the transporter wagon is withdrawn. Once vertical, a mobile gantry moves in and encloses Soyuz. Following that the encapsulated Fregat upper stage and payload is lifted vertically by a mobile gantry to be mounted on top of Soyuz. A siding gives access to the fuel depot (liquid oxygen / kerosene), from where a four-bogie tank car is moved to the launch pad for fueling the day of the launch. Fueling takes place from T-04:00:00 until T-01:45:00. Traction is by Mercedes-Benz Unimog 4x4 road-rail truck. The railway was built by Vossloh in 2008 and the track equipped with UIC 60 and A 120 rails.

Most of the CSG is in a restricted area, however bus tours are offered once or twice daily on weekdays (Mo-Fr 08.00-11.30, Mo-Th 13.00-16.30) by appointment and are free. These visits are however suspended from one day prior to until one day after a launch. When possible, the visits take in all three launch sites, as well as the control centre. They start from the Space Museum at the entrance to the CSG (open Mo-Fr 08.00-18.00, Sa 14.00-18.00, EUR 7/4). During our tour we were very lucky because that day the platform from which flight VA-218 had been launched a few days earlier (on 11th September, 2014) was due to be moved back to the BAF, and our visit was timed to be able to see it coupled up to the Titan 8x8. Most photography was through windows of the bus, but we were allowed out at the ELS.

Rob Dickinson