Archive for November 1st, 2008

Vivarais Railway faces uncertain future

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Breach in the railway embankment in the parish of
St Jean de Muzois on 6 September, Photo V. Piotti

Robert Hall, a regular contributor to our Comments reports a news item in the October “Today’s Railways: Europe”, The Chemin de Fer du Vivarais officially went into receivership on 22 July and a receiver is now in charge of sorting out assets. The Ardeche ‘departement’ is apparently ready to buy some of the rolling stock while buildings will be taken over by the local villages and towns. A major task will now be to find an operator for the line. The good news is that national rail infrastructure manager RFF has agreed to extend the agreement on narrow gauge trains running over the section with three rails between Tournon and St. Jean-de-Muzols until 2020.

The SGVA, the Vivarais Railways supporters association clearly feel that the dispersal of the line’s assets to different bodies will be to the detriment of the long-term prospects of the line. The SGVA’s Vincent Potti published the following open letter on the Society’s web site on 12 September. Here is the full text. (Translation by BTWT)

No one can now deny the necessity of reopening the Chemin de Fer du Vivarais. It is clear that the railway is the premier tourist attraction not only in the Ardèche, but also the wider Rhone-Alps region. The financial consequences of the closure have already been felt in the local communities of Tournon and Lamastre, while the full impact of the closure of the line, especially on tourism, has yet to be seen. This new awareness is welcomed by railway enthusiasts, who have been involved in defending this line for forty years, with only symbolic support from the local authorities. The interest of the local authorities at all levels, should logically lead to the preservation of this heritage for posterity. Accordingly we feel that some points should be bought to your attention.

Far from being a crude funfair attraction, the railway has features which make it unique in Europe. These include the quality of the landscape traversed (e.g. the Gorges du Doux, typical of the Ardèche countryside) and the historic nature of the line’s rolling stock, locomotives, railcars civil engineering structures and stations. Many of these are listed as historic monuments and are especially valuable seen in their original setting and used for their original purpose.

These then are the many attractions that have drawn tourists from many different social backgrounds and far distant countries to visit and travel on the railway. The line is a living museum. The railway’s consistent character had enabled it to transport nearly two million passengers during the period that it was operated by volunteers. One must ask oneself, would these people have been interested in spending two times two hours in open cars simply to view the gorges?

Today, no one would dispute that the railway’s last operator did not adequately manage the specialised technical tasks involved in running a railway. Maintaining ancient equipment in good condition, requires skills and techniques which are themselves in danger of dying out. The retention of three paid employees is in this sense a positive development, but there is concern that the departure of those laid off will be very detrimental to the transmission of skills acquired through oral learning and practical experience.

Energy and safety considerations mean that it is ridiculous not to consider the restoration of the railway as a transportation undertaking, in addition to the tourism role it recently fulfilled. There are possibilities of carrying students travelling to educational institutions as well as transporting people living in areas close to the line to their place of work. The discipline involved in operating a railway, particularly with respect to the safety aspects, is itself an example of great educational value, which could benefit young people still at school.

Members of the Sauvegarde et Gestion de Véhicules Anciens (Preservation and Operation of Historic Vehicles Association) have demonstrated their ability to contribute their skills and manpower, as well as the loan of equipment to assist the proper operation of the Chemin de Fer du Vivarais. They are more than ever willing to help in order to save this living museum. They also wish to emphasize again that in order to appreciate the historic value of the individual heritage items on the railway it is essential that they been seen together – and not separately – in the context the entire railway and that the whole line should be classified as a historic monument.

The importance this railway, with its heritage, tourism and educational potential, as well as the potential for regular traffic, should lead to the involvement of all the local, departmental and regional authorities. However, it is feared that a dispersal of assets, especially land, would cause difficulties in managing the railway in the future because of the distribution of responsibilities and tasks. It could even be a major stumbling block to its long-term survival because of particular short0term interests.

A better solution than the partial sale of the line (particularly its stations) to different bodies, would be the creation of a Syndicat Intercommunal – a formula often adopted –
a single body to operate the line or the acquisition of all the assets by the department or the region, safeguarding the possibility of a future resumption of regular traffic.

If you share the SGVA’s concerns about the dispersal of the line’s assets you could drop a line to the Chief Executive of the local council:

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

You can search through our earlier articles about the Vivarais railway by typing “Vivarais” into the search box. (See the right hand side of the top of this page.)