There is something rather special about a trip on France’s longest narrow gauge railway, particularly when it means the chance of a front seat view from a 1970s railcar, as it snakes along the banks of the picturesque River Var.
But such delights may be about to end, as the Chemins de Fer de Provence (CP) should soon finally take delivery of the six ex-Mallorca Railways two-car diesel units that were supposed to have entered service here three years ago.
Having taken 30 years to pay a return visit to the CP last November, I was keen to experience more of the vintage railcars before they are finally stood down, get some more value out of my Carte Zou railcard (50% fare reduction for €30 a year) and also to sample the popular summer steam service.
X304/6 (left) and X301 (right) wait their next turns at Nice CP on 22 June 2019
With Nice hotels a good deal more expensive in June than November, I opted to stay in the delightful town of Puget-Théniers, 80 rail minutes from Nice and base of preservation group GECP, which owns a fleet of historic rolling stock and operates the seasonal steam service from here to Annot.
One notable change to the CP rolling stock situation since my November 2018 visit has been a return to traffic for CFD-built railcar X307, which was in Lingostière works on my last visit and still carries the CFC loco at each end (pictured above), a reminder that it was acquired from Corsica (in 2009).
Even more noteworthy is the return to traffic of the former Alpazur set X351/XR351 (Soulé/Garnéro-1984), which was re-built after being damaged by fire in 2008 and was also in the works at Lingostière last November. With one of the newest AMP sets out of action on Tuesday (25 June) it is seen above with the 14.20 local service to Colomars.
Apart from these two changes, all seemed much as it had been at the end of last year, with the two historic diesel locomotives T62/6 (Brissonneau et Lotz-1951) still standing unloved outside the Lingostière works, along with working departmental loco 1200 (Henschel-1966) and dumped CFD railcar X302.
To the north of the station at Lingostière stands one of the long-awaited Mallorca units, seemingly abandoned, along with damaged AMP801 (pictured above), one half of the set that was hit by a fatal rock fall in February 2014 (the other vehicle AMP802 remains shrouded in a tarpaulin at Annot).
My latest CP trip left me with two burning questions, which no-one seemed able to answer. Firstly, why do the CP’s cheminots (workers) keep going on strike and, secondly, when will the northern end of the line from St André-les-Alpes to Digne-les-Bains re-open to traffic?
The recurrent strikes look like something the railway can ill afford. On Sunday (23 June) the only train running on the whole line was the 10.55 steam service from Puget to Annot. There were limited replacement buses, but nothing at all to replace the local Nice-Plan du Var trains, and another strike was scheduled for Sunday, 30 June.
A link with the past at Villars-sur-Var, where the restaurant L’Alpazur features a classic Renault railcar on its end wall (pictured above as AMP 807/8 pause with a service for Nice)
Passengers travelling from Nice to join the steam service were brought in by bus, and those on the train who had been anticipating a leisurely lunch in Annot were given the choice of an immediate return on the steam service, or a replacement bus at the time of the special train’s scheduled 16.15 departure from Annot.
The steam service is operated by Portuguese 2-4-6-0T Mallet locomotive E211 hauling a mixed rake of seven passenger coaches of differing vintage. It seems hugely popular with French senior citizens, although I did hear a fair number of English voices on board.
During the hour-long trip a guide provides a historic commentary on the line and there is a short stop en route at Entrevaux, a remarkable and historic town (pictured above) that is well worth taking the time to explore.
X307 arrives at Entrevaux on 24 June 2019 with the 12.38 departure for Nice
CP services to Digne have been suspended for almost a year, originally while an extensive programme of track replacement was carried out, but more recently due to the collapse of the Moriez Tunnel, just north of St André-les-Alpes, which tragically cost the life of a workman earlier this year. When services will resume is a question no one on CP seems able to answer.
For anyone contemplating a visit to the CP and the seasonal steam service I can recommend renting a mobile home on a camp site called Lou Gourdan, just across the impressive 2006 Var river bridge in Puget-Théniers and only a few minutes’ walk from the station and town centre.
Puget (pictured above) is a small and charming place with a number of good restaurants – I can personally vouch for seafood linguine at Le Coste de la Fontaine in the town centre – while close to the campsite are two great locations for photographing passing trains, as the railway line heads south from the town alongside the Var.
X307 departs Plan-du-Var on 24 June 2019 as X301 (left) awaits its 13.41 departure
My November 2018 account of a visit to the CP, including a number of photos from my 1988 trip, can be found here: https://railwayworld.net/2018/11/25/two-days-in-provence/
For details of CP services and fares go to www.trainprovence.com and for information about the steam services, including online booking, go to www.traindespignes.fr Camping Lou Gourdan can be found at www.campinglougourdan.fr