‘Do not let the Vivarais die’

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PO-Correze Mallet was overhauled by the CFV and returned to service on the Vivarias in 2003. (Click for story. Translation available.) But can the the Vivarais Railway, which itself was closed down again in April 2008, be resurrected a second time?

April 2008 was a bad month for European narrow gauge. Two weeks after the Mayor of Krosniewice closed the Krosniewice Railway in central Poland, we were shocked to hear of the closure of the Vivarais Railway in the Ardeche in France. Both railways are absolutely central to the railway heritage of each country. The Krosniewice Railway is a surviving fragment of a 1,500 km regional network of public and private narrow gauge railways that included the Kujawskie Koleje Dojazdowe lines and many hundreds of kilometres of narrow gauge private sugar beet railways. The Vivarais Railway, the flagship ‘preserved’ narrow gauge railway in France, is a wonderful example of the many narrow gauge light railways that once wended their way through rural France.

Just like the Krosniewice Railway, the Vivarais is fighting back. A letter writing campaign has being organised, targeted at the chairman of the local authority, and a ‘buy a sleeper’ fighting fund appeal has been launched. BTWT is a campaigning blog, we don’t charge you for accessing our pages or bombard you with irritating ‘pop-up’ ads, but we do ask you from time to time to put pen to paper to defend railways in distress. If you have not already done so, why not write a similar letter to the President of the Ardeche Regional Council and the Mayor of Krosniewice and help rescue both railways?

The following appeal has been published by the SGVA, the Vivarais Railway – or as it is known by its friends, the Mastrou – supporters’ association website (Translation available.)

Do not let the Vivarais die

by Christian Périllon

On 10 April, the Ardeche Regional Council, the majority shareholder of the Vivarais Railway took the decision to suspend the operation of the ‘Mastrou’.

How did we get here?

Following the closure of the CFD network in 1968, a handful of enthusiasts decided to rescue the 33 km section of line between Tournon and Lamastre. Without any outside assistance, we managed to save a unique heritage: 9 steam engines, and a hundred items of rolling stock. Over the years, we created one of France’s leading tourist railways. This museum railway also became one of the last bastions of steam in France and one of the last representatives of the light railways that once criss-crossed our country.

In 1968, there was no statutory basis for a tourist railway. The Vivarais Railway had to purchase its rolling stock, track, stations… The CFV is today one of the few railways that also owns its infrastructure and its equipment, with sole responsibility for carrying out all maintenance and repairs.

While the operation of the CFV generated a positive cash flow, our meagre profits only sufficed to pay for the routine maintenance of equipment. They were insufficient to cover some of the capital investment needed by 100 year old equipment and rolling stock and the increasing financial burden of more and more regulation.

After operating without any assistance from government or local authorities for 35 years, the department of Ardeche became a shareholder of the CFV in 2004. However, this did not bring about any change to the operation of the ‘Mastrou’. Some investments were made, but these were mostly financed by loans secured on the on the capital of the railway company, thus creating an operating deficit. In any case these were insufficient to secure the railway’s future. While 7km of track were relaid, the steam locomotives are not in a state to start operating this season and the rolling stock is in urgent need of overhaul.

For 40 years, volunteers of the SGVA association have bravely fought to keep the railway arrive. They cannot bear to see this magnificent museum railway disappear. It is, after all, the principal tourist attraction in the Ardeche attracting 60,000 visitors to the region each year.

The Chemin de Fer du Vivarais is viable economically. But, for the railway’s operation to be sustainable, the railway should operate on an identical basis to that of other tourist railways; namely:

  • that the infrastructure and its maintenance becomes the responsibility of local governments;
  • that the operation of trains and maintenance of locomotives and rolling stock is entrusted to a competent operating company.

We now have reached the stage whereby only if we mobilize everybody (local elected officials, and railway enthusiasts) will we be able to rescue the ‘Mastrou’. It is still not too late.

That is why we invite you to write to the president of the Regional Council:

Monsieur le Président du Conseil Général
Hôtel du département
Quartier la Chaumette – BP 737
07007 PRIVAS cedex
FRANCE

For BTWT readers who still remember their school French, the SGVA provide a model letter (pdf download) here. For those who haven’t yet written to the Mayor of Krosniewice with a copy to the Minister of Infrastructure, our whole Krosniewice file, complete with relevant addresses, can be read by clicking here.

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