The Branch Line Society

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Chemin de Fer Touristique du Sud des Ardennes
Saturday 8th August 2015

Having neglected France since 2010 because of the combined negative experience of SNCF grèves (strikes) and the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud fiasco, this surprise entry in the BLS fixtures list provided an ideal chance to become reacquainted with at least a small part of this ever attractive but sometimes perplexing country. A quick 'fancy this one?' discussion and it was agreed; we were ready for the Challerange challenge. More in hope than expectation, we made our application for the tour and started to examine travel and hotel options available for a long weekend style visit. Virgin and Eurostar train travel was quickly discounted on cost grounds, as were flights to Paris from our North West base. To get the best value for money a longer stay would be required enabling a more relaxing schedule with a 'normal' holiday as a Plan B, should the projected tour not run. After a quick shufti at a faded 1991 Ian Allan European Rail Atlas for France and an eye watering length of time examining SNCF TGV and the more localised TER web sites, several route options were plotted and evaluated. After much procrastination, a decision was made to keep it simple. Therefore the plan was: drive to Gatwick, fly Easyjet to Strasbourg (a winning airport), TGV Est to Reims and return. Hotels suitably identified for Gatwick, Strasbourg and Reims, it was now a case of hope and wait for the thumbs up from the organisers that the trip was a definite runner.

A week or two later came the welcome 'good to go' email confirmation that we had hoped for. So it was quickly back to the web to finalise arrangements: Book the flights (less than £100 each return), confirm the hotels with an excellent value Park & Fly option at Gatwick Premier Inn and Novotel Aparthotel adjacent to the main station in Reims. Last but not least order the TGV tickets for collection in France, a €22 each outbound second class mid-week journey into Reims but a rather chingy €103 return weekend journey (a first class Duo fare gave a better price then second!). As part of the clear and comprehensive tour instructions, a crib sheet with additional hints and tips was provided by the tour organisers for newbies to France plus the offer of a €10 Euro packed lunch option ('Paniers- Repas'). Yes please, sounded like a bargain and it was!

Following the obligatory nightmare southbound Sunday drive to Gatwick (in true UK style we left home a day early just in case) and an overnight stopover at Gatwick, it was onto the South to North terminal transit shuttle (right hand track as it was required) then into the Airbus (G-EZBJ for the plane spotters out there). A nice smooth flight with particularly good aerial views of Monceau Yard at Charleroi, Luxembourg Gare, the Saarland line through Dillingen and Völklingen and on final approach Strasbourg locomotive depot. Disembarking at Strasbourg Entzheim airport, it was a short walk to the adjacent TER ticket machine where we provided assistance to an elderly Spanish couple battling with the rotary controls that seem to confound all but the seasoned visitor and locals. Tickets issued and validated ('composter' = punch) by inserting them in one of the ubiquitous bright yellow machines at platform entrances, it was a short wait for the local TER diesel service (Unit 866611) and a 10 minute run into Strasbourg central where there was a good selection of Class 25, 26, 67 locomotives visible amongst the inevitable BiBi, TGV and other modern traction units.

After our two-night stay in Strasbourg, complete with 30°C+ temperatures and a day trip via Offenburg to cover the Gäubahn route from Stuttgart to Singen, it was time to head off on the TGV Est to Gare de Champagne-Ardenne-TGV and the short run from bay P7 into Reims. Fortunately, we arrived the day before the total closure of the TGV connection into Reims necessitated by bridge replacement work just south of the main station over the river Vesle. [Replacing a major double-track river bridge in 4 days was very impressive though.] Then it was a couple of days to relax and enjoy this pleasant and welcoming city, cover the tram system (apart from the short 'Gare' to 'Vesle' section which was subject to the inevitable 'travaux', installing a new extension junction, but only a six week closure, could well have been six months in the UK). This did result in use of a rare 'pocket' line and crossover.

At last Saturday arrived. A quick breakfast at the hotel and a five-minute stroll down to Reims station where our Jacqueson provided coach was waiting. Two Committee Members were busy welcoming participants, issuing tickets (suitably branded 'Société de la Ligne Secondaire') plus, for those who requested them, lunch tickets. With one no show, who was given 5 minutes grace, we departed at 07.50 already grateful for the coach air conditioning. Heading through the quiet streets of Reims, we saw the railway bridge replacement works as we took an anti-clockwise turn to the south of the city ring road and drove through pleasant, undulating farmland towards the second advertised pick up point at Rethel SNCF station for six more eager travellers. A short drive through country lanes brought us to the village of Attigny. Crossing the quite narrow Pont D'Europe (aka 'The Bridge of Invasion' by the locals), we turned into the station yard, base of CFTSA. There was a disconnected siding into a former milk-factory (powdered milk) off the 'main' line, containing some veteran Citroën road vehicles. It was the original CFTSA headquarters before they moved into the station area.

Our CFTSA hosts and volunteers were waiting on the platform, where we were given a warm welcome in almost accent free English by 'Nicholas', our informative conductor and host/compère for the day. The President of the CFTSA, an elderly gentleman, greeted us in the time honoured English fashion with a French accent lilt that is so engaging. Two preserved Picasso units (No.3850 & 3943) in red and cream livery then entered the very low platform. These were thoughtfully coupled engine to engine /cockpit to cockpit, giving passengers at each end a splendid outer end view. With the front vehicle adorned with a blue miniature BLS headboard (BR Scottish Region blue obviously!) it was like home from home. It was at this stage that a BLS Officer wandered over and asked if we would like to provide some input to the visit report for the day. Gulp, never done that before, but OK then we will have a go.

We opted for the rear vehicle on departure from Attigny which is 9.9km from the branch junction at Amagne-Lucquy (map BLN 1234.1028). With the train windows opening on one side only (a French tradition to prevent drafts) in the fully down position, and a little extra ventilation from the gap between the train doors, we were away more or less right time with 50 passengers on board. Soon we passed, on the left, the remains of lengthy military platforms that once dispatched 121 trains of troops and equipment in a single day during WW1, when the line was double track. With the local canal intermittently visible to our left we rolled onward to our first photo stop of the day at Vrizy-Vandy station (23.8km) passing intermediately through Rilly-sur-Aisne (15.7km) with its short 5m platform and Voncq (19.0km); the track alternately runs alongside the canal and the River Aisne. The station buildings are all built in a similar house style and mostly privately occupied or disused (the line CP in 1969). Track condition on the 40km, 25 mile branch is perhaps best described as 'variable' with one section in particular causing the Picasso units to demonstrate their excellent suspension characteristics by gently rolling side to side as if travelling in a dinghy caught on a wave. SNCF Reseau (the equivalent of NR) plan to replace 2,000 of the wooden sleepers, (some disintegrating) but that is actually just a drop in the ocean. Nicholas explained that a major attraction of using the Picasso units for the railway was that they were a simple, cheap mechanical design using 1950s technology with a 300 HP diesel engine, 4 gears and clutch that were easier for the CFTSA railway staff to maintain than more modern digitally controlled vehicles. The front unit (No.3943) was running with a gearbox fault that caused rough running in fourth but we did not need to go above third gear because the line speed is 20 kph!

The train then ran past a large area of stored tree trunks and timber that resulted from a major storm in 1999 downing many trees in the immediate area and well beyond back towards Paris. We wondered if the French weather man predicted that there was no Hurricane coming? Carrying on through to Vouziers-Port (27.1km), large disused grain silos and rusting, partly lifted sidings were observed right of the train. The silos are now too close to residential property to be used following a recent by-law change specifying a minimum distance! A few minutes later we reached Vouziers-Sur-Aisne (28.2km) where the village was to our right and a former narrow gauge line once crossed. Continuing our journey south easterly with wooded countryside close to the running line we came to Savigny station (30.3km) and another photo stop. Then the violent history of the region, as a front line during modern mechanised warfare, was evidenced by the large concrete bunkers alongside the track as we ran down the line towards Monthois. German artillery was used these during WW1 to shell Reims, some 50- 60km away. Further on Nicholas pointed out some low foliage close to the track concealing rusting German steam locos which provided shelter for military personnel from aerial attack. Further still on the right, was a small stone memorial flanked by two isolated trees in a field honouring the pioneer aviator Roland Garros, shot down and killed here during WW1. Next stop (34 km) was adjacent to the field where the locals hold an annual 15 August fête for the 'Assumption Day' national holiday.

At Monthois (37.7km) we passed some very large grain silos, sidings and the resident shunting loco, (ex SNCF Y6431) that provide about half of the 120 freight trains per year off the branch. Typically, each train of 20 cereal wagons is 1,800 tonnes and hauled by a Cl.75 diesel loco. Empties from Charleroi are loaded, taken to Challerange in portions, assembled and forwarded. The rest of the freight is from Alland-Huy (seen later, 6.2km from the junction). These trains keep 8,000 lorry loads off the local roads, but the main reason farmers send grain by rail is vastly less paper work is involved!

Towards midday we finally rolled through the left side of Challerange station loop to the headshunt, the remains of the line on to Grandpré. At 40km (25 miles) we halted just before the tall vegetation in time honoured BLS fashion, beyond the normal limit of line operations; the first passenger train here in over four years. Track continued to a powdered milk factory, but we were not insured nor covered by SNCF to pass this point (and the track deteriorated). More photo opportunities followed and closer inspection of the sleepers at the line extremity revealed some to be in an almost fossilised state. A quick reversal and it was back into the other side of the loop (of course!) and a half hour lunch break. Bang on time, 'Krystal' was on hand, sensibly parked in the shade ready to dish out 20 pannier reaps. Fully expecting un mite and un jus de fruit it was a delight to peer into the paper bag and discover: a cheese and bacon quiche, a potato salad in mustard vinaigrette with white pudding (boudin blanc cf our black pudding) and cereals, sausage, cheese, bread roll, an apple or two and a bottle of water. Just in case that was not enough, an ice-cold bottle of cider (The Ardennes Bubbles from the Captain Orchards) was provided, very welcome on a hot, sunny day. Finding some shade to set up camp we paused to savour lunch, for a look around the immediate station environs and to take some more photographs. L'hotel de Gare was long since boarded up, passenger services at this once junction of four lines finally finishing in 1969. In the station area there was rusting evidence of former activity and overgrown loading bays or platforms to the northern side with a severed curve that used to go to the local factory now run by Nestlé. This produces powdered milk capsules and suchlike, some distributed by lorry to Telford. Rail traffic from the factory ceased when a United Nations contract for Iraq and Algeria expired suddenly some years ago. Now in the facing Picasso unit we retraced our tracks northwards ready to count down the fifty level crossings along the lightly engineered line. Many were open farm track or property access crossings with barriers deployed where vehicular traffic traversed the line. The barriered crossings were preceded by the only signalling equipment on the line which displayed a double green when they were down. These were track treadle activated by the train or worked by the train crew dialling a special number for each. All level crossings in France, previously maintained by SNCF, are now the responsibility of a support company based in the Netherlands! The whole branch was 'one train working' with prominent 'S' instruction signs (Siffler = whistle). The width of the trackded provided clear evidence of the former two track line and we were able to see some of the track deviations necessitated through historic, conflict related, damage. The line was singled by the occupying forces in 1941 with one track removed for use on the Russian front. Sinuous track slews were made to retain the 'better' of the two tracks and still present 74 years later! After further photo stops we arrived back at Attigny, where Krystal reappeared on the platform, this time to dispense complimentary coffee and cake with bottles of Byre Blanche for €2. Nicholas invited us for a quick walk to the station sidings to view generations of Caravel Autorails (8508 and 4719), diesel shunter Y6610 and a further two Picasso units X3898 and X3838. Of 261 Picassos built, about 60 are preserved, we were told only 12 remain in France, the CFTSA being rightly proud to own four of these historic units.

On 'new track' for most, the tour departed north towards Amande-Lucquy, passing the impressive MGR style loading hopper and grain silos at Alland-Huy, the line's other surviving freight traffic source. The track appeared to be in slightly better condition than further south. As we approached the end of our journey the site of the former locomotive depot, with two turntables, and a long gone curve toward Charleville-Mézières, was pointed out. Shortly we halted at the 'S' indicator post declaring 'Arrêt de Train Touristique' the limit of CFTSA operations, within sight of the electrified main line. A few metres beyond a double red signal protected the connection. Expressing our thanks and farewells to our hosts, the party mostly disembarked, to be escorted along the railway to the road accessing the SNCF station; the more intrepid travellers staying behind to take the Picassos back to Attigny.

It was a short walk to Amande-Lucquy SNCF station in good time to connect with the 15.37 train to Reims. A couple of locals waiting on the platform were amazed to find the station so busy as were the incumbent passengers and ticket checker when we boarded unit 76691 ('Ah, l'anglais, qui explique tout!'). The CFTSA president waved us off, a very nice touch. Given the relative remoteness of the location and apparent lack of local interest for the railway, it is hoped that it will survive. At Reims it was time to split up, via the usual diversity of homeward or further afield routes that demonstrated the ingenuity of our members. For us it was another night in Reims and then back the way we came, except this time using the bus replacement service (impeccably organised by SNCF) from Reims to the impressive, temple like facade of the Champagne-Ardenne-TGV station. A couple of Infra class 67 diesels (253 and 273) were stabled in the bay platform, duly photographed along with a cracking shot of a Black Redstart chick calling for food. Then it was onto the on time TGV from Bordeaux to Strasbourg via a stop at Lorraine TGV (a winning loop and platform for us).

In conclusion, this was a really enjoyable trip with good company and extremely welcoming and accommodating hosts. Many thanks are due to Bert Blissett, Geoff Blyth and Paul Griffin for the organisation and execution of this excellent fixture that delivered on all advertised aspects. A worthy 100th fixture and another country visited for our Diamond Jubilee year!


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