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RyPN Briefs January 26, 2009
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Endangered: France's most beautiful railroad!

Scott Anderson .:|:. All photos from the collection of the author

A view of the railway in fall colors

What started in 1870 as a means of transporting coal northwards from Alès in the Cevennes to Paris, has become a vital life-line for the peoples who still populate France's most remote mountain region. Yet a country that is rightly envied worldwide for the quality of its public services, is in danger of wielding the axe that would not only destroy a national railroading gem, along with the livelihoods of all those dependent on it, but also explode any pretensions France might have towards a commitment to sustainable development.

The Cevennes railway, or 'Le Cévenol' as it is affectionately known, is located in south-central France. It links Nimes to Clermont Ferrand, a distance of around two hundred miles, in five hours. The railroad is a cross country, non-TGV route, and forms part of the longer Paris to Marseille line along which trains run daily to the Mediterranean port. It took between six and seven thousand men a total of six years to build, at a cost of 520 million francs (120 million USD). That sum is almost impossible to equate to modern-day values, but was considered staggering by commentators of the day.

This enormous investment of resources and time, not to mention the future economy of the vast area it crosses, needs to be weighed up against any economies that the SNCF, the national train company, are likely to make. Operational cost savings can be added to the estimated fifty million Euros (approx. 68 million USD) required for the line's repair and maintenance. Much of this sum relates to work that has been willfully neglected for years, the results of which manifest themselves daily in rolling stock that trundles along at an ever slower pace due to concerns over line safety. A maximum speed of 47 miles per hour is often reduced to speeds of 19, and sometimes as slow as 6. Despite this, The Cevenol's users, be they regular, occasional or tourists, have only good things to say about the service and the enjoyment it brings.

The current historical conjuncture sees real interest in the issues of sustainable development, alternative energy sources, getting back to nature and cleaner transport. Furthermore, and not without irony, French rail freight volumes have just exceeded those carried by lorry for the first time since the hey-day of rail transport. Under these circumstances, any talk of abandoning The Cevenol to short-term economic rationality would surely be a national scandal of international proportions.

Some of the more modern equipment currently running in shuttle service

So what are we seeking to protect and preserve for future generations? Firstly, the railroad itself. The first part of the north-south line is dual directional, from Clermont to Arvant, after which it becomes uni-directional until its arrival in Alès. Thereafter it becomes two-way once again. With regard to rolling stock, locomotion is ensured by diesel engine for its entire length, steam engines having been phased out in 1964. Whilst some older engines take on the work of the full Paris-Marseille run, newer rolling stock is found on the more frequent 'shuttle service' between Nimes and Langogne.

What makes The Cévenol so special is that it does not follow the course of any particular valley, but incessantly crosses from one to another, cutting through the mountainsides, and stretching out over rivers and gorges on the way. It would be an immense technological feat if it were built today, which puts the immensity of the challenge, and its realization, into its true historical context.

La Madeleine, the only bridge on the railway not made of blocks of stone

Nicknamed the "line of 100 tunnels," the line boasts 106 tunnels in all, numerous bridges and galleries, and some spectacular viaducts that merit classification (and protection) as veritable works of industrial art. At Villefort, lying at 2063 feet above sea level, a 843-foot viaduct crosses the River Altier at a height of 236 feet, the highest stone viaduct in France. The Chamborigaud viaduct, a little further to the south, is even longer, at 1342 feet. Both viaducts offer heart-in-the-mouth moments and memories (and photos) you will cherish for the rest of your life. All of the viaducts are made of stone bar one, La Madeleine, which was one of the first in France to me made of iron placed on stone plinths.

The highest point of your journey is at La Bastide, an altitude of 3339 feet, confirming the line's status as arguably France's last remaining working mountain railroad. La Bastide is where the line crosses the watershed between The Atlantic and The Mediterranean. It is a junction of historical standing, where The Cevenol meets the medieval Regordane Way and the 131-year-old Stevenson Trail. The railway line splits here, with the westward bound trans-Cevenol heading to Mende over the remarkable Mirandol viaduct. During his seminal hike across the Cevennes in September 1878, Robert Louis Stevenson stayed a night in Chasserades, south-west of La Bastide, where he slept in a room with some French railway engineering surveyors working on the Mirandol viaduct. The line they were building finally opened 24 years later.

The Chamborigaud viaduct, a classic work of art

From Langogne to Villefort, the Cevenol crosses the department of Lozere, and some of the most remote parts of France. Boasting the lowest population density in France, the railroad links together a series of linear settlements dating back to the Middle Ages. Formerly dependent upon the Regordane for their livelihood, its subsequent demise, and the sheer difficulty of access by road, makes The Cevenol the key to the well-being of each and every town, village and hamlet stretched out along its length. The rural exodus that started with The Industrial Revolution has carried on apace ever since. Agricultural employment is at an all-time low and the only real source of hope for the future is tourism. The sight of numerous boarded-up hotels bears sad testimony to mass tourism's bygone, halcyon days; but with an ever-decreasing number of viable sources of accommodations, the SNCF risks condemning a remarkable region, that possesses everything the modern-day independent traveler values, to the historical garbage bin at the very moment that its product is becoming more and more valued and sought after.

Fears that part of the Cévenol railway was facing imminent closure led the local population and numerous stakeholders to hold demonstrations late last year. They won a temporary reprieve, but for how long is anyone's guess. Take away the only real and sustainable means by which today's eco-friendly travelers can access the region, and you condemn it to a short and painful death, with enduring consequences of national significance. The writer is reminded of a poignant moment in his childhood, when his home town of Reading, England, reluctantly decided to follow the 'idea of progress' and close the UK's last remaining trolley bus service that had ferried him to and from school for the previous three years. That was in 1974; and a matter of weeks later, the first Oil Crisis had Town Hall officials wondering if they had made an error of historic proportions. The SNCF risks a similar debacle, the consequences of which will be monumental in terms of the nation's heritage and the means to survival of a whole region, its customs and its way of life.

Further details on Le Cevenol can be found at The Cevennes Railway.

The Enlightened Traveller is proud to play an active role in the Cevenol's preservation via an eco-friendly hiking tour complemented by short rides along the railroad. See Walking The Cévennes Railway.