HOLIDAY plans for many of us have been thrown into disarray by the pandemic, so this seems like a timely moment to look back at two memorable July holidays from years gone by, when I was able to sample and photograph one of Europe’s most remarkable railway networks.
32 years ago this month I paid my first visit to the fabulous metre-gauge system on Corsica, and over the course of a two–week touring holiday with my future wife contrived to travel in stages over the entire 232km (144-mile) Y-shaped rail network, connecting the northern towns of Bastia and Calvi with Ajaccio on the west coast.
Having recently re-discovered photographs and slides of that memorable July 1988 trip, and a return family visit in July 2007, this is a look back to a time before modernisation, when there was still regular freight on the principal Bastia-Ajaccio axis, when trains still ran to the port at Ajaccio, and when marvellous 1949-vintage Renault ABH railcars were the mainstay of passenger services.
For those unfamiliar with this large French island in the Mediterranean, the Chemins de Fer de la Corse (CFC) comprises a 158km (98-mile) main route from the port of Bastia in the north-east to the island capital of Ajaccio, from which a 74km (46-mile) branch diverges north-west from a junction at Ponte-Leccia to L’Île-Rousse and Calvi.
These are some of the most scenic railway routes in Europe, with the mountainous central section between Vizzavona and Corte particularly memorable, along with the coastal route between the towns of L’Îlle Rousse and Calvi, where I once stood close to the driver of an over-crowded afternoon railcar from Calvi as he paused the train so that he and his guard could admire a lady undressing on the beach!
During the peak summer season, the busiest section of the CFC network is the 22km (13¾-mile) long Tramway de la Balagne linking Calvi with L’Île-Rousse and serving a total of 15 intermediate stations and halts, many of which are adjacent to the beach.
Calvi station on the evening of 22 July 2007, with X2001/2004 left and X206 right
Services were first launched in 1965, and by the late 1990s journeys on the Tramway de la Balagne accounted for almost 40% of total CFC traffic. At the time of my July 2007 visit there were a total of nine return trips a day, in addition to two Calvi-Ponte-Leccia services.
Early evening re-fuelling for X201 at Calvi on 22 July 2007 with X204 on the right
During the summer of 2007, just two years before their final withdrawal in 2009, services on the Tramway was in the hands of Renault ABH units X201, in a maroon livery, and X206, in an attractive bright red livery.
The coast at Calvi as X206 pauses at Tennis Club with a Tramway service in July 2007
Each was paired with a driving trailer, with 201 coupled to 1938-vintage Billard trailer XR113 and 206 working with a later Billard vehicle dating from 1947 (XR526) that was the last working vehicle still in commercial service from the famous former Réseau Breton metre-gauge network in Brittany.
In addition to this pair, Renault ABH X204 was parked out of use at Calvi, while I also later noted two further ABH units – X202 and X207 – dumped outside the main CFC works at Casamozza, south of Bastia.There are some wonderful photo-spots along the Tramway de la Balagne route, as these photos, showing views at and around Calvi station and at two intermediate stops – Tennis Club and Giorgio (pictured above and below) – will illustrate.
L’Île-RousseRegular freight along the route to Calvi had ceased in 1986, but two years later, in July 1988, I saw freight action at L’Île-Rousse in the form of loco 114 hauling a single wagon towards Calvi.This remarkable machine was created 30 years before my visit (in 1958) from the remains of a former Billard railcar dating from 1938 that had been destroyed in WW2 and was also numbered 114. It is seen in July 1988 (above) with its short train at Ponte Leccia and then approaching L’Île Rousse station (below). For fairly self-evident reasons it was nicknamed the “sous-marin” (submarine) and, although not in action when I returned to the island in 2007, was on the depot at Bastia, and was sporting an early SNCF roundel on one side, as seen below, suggesting that it had secured a preserved future.
BastiaAt the northern extremity of the CFC, the port city of Bastia saw its railway station unnecessarily destroyed by an allied bomb on 4 October 1943, the day Corsica was liberated after the final German forces left, and its citizens had to wait almost four decades until a new station building opened in 1981.
This is the main station of CFC and, in addition to the long-distance services to Ajaccio and Calvi, sees use by a suburban service first introduced in 1973. This initially ran as far as Biguglia but was later extended to Casamozza (22kms or 13¾ miles) where there is the main CFC works.Alongside the extensive station area is a depot that I visited on my 2007 holiday which, in addition to the “sous marin” pictured above and below, was also home to a variety of aged rolling stock, including the Billard trailers pictured below.On leaving Bastia station, trains immediately enter the 1,422m long tunnel de la Torreta, from which they emerge at the first halt along the route, Lupino, seen below as CFD Montmirail unit X2005 (built 1976) approaches with a Casamozza suburban service. This railcar has since been sold to the preserved Vivarais railway.
BarchettaA bit of platform weeding would not go amiss at Barchetta, a remote halt just north of Ponte-Leccia, where X2004 pauses in July 1988 with a Bastia-Ajaccio service.
Ponte-LecciaThe heart of CFC is a remote junction called Ponte-Leccia, where its two routes from Calvi and Bastia converge, and where there is a regular interchange between services on the main Ajaccio-Bastia axis and those on the branch to Calvi.It was at Ponte-Leccia that I had my first encounter with what was then a regular freight service from Bastia to Ajaccio, hauled by BB 404 (CFD Montmirail, 1966), which is seen here arriving at the junction with its mixed collection of wagons and cargo, including a number of cars, shunting in the yard and later that day returning towards Bastia.Freight traffic gradually petered out on CFC, with a twice-weekly service on the Calvi route having ceased in 1986 and the three-times weekly Bastia-Ajaccio service reduced to twice-weekly in the late 1990s before finally ending in 2004. The loco I had seen in service (BB 404) and sister loco BB 405 were later sold the preserved Vivarais railway.
CorteAnother charming location on the main line is the historic university town of Corte, where, on my 1988 visit, the charming and dilapidated Hotel de la Gare (pictured below) still seemed to be getting good business from the many travellers waiting for trains.
One of the most charming locations on the main Bastia-Ajaccio axis is Vizzavona (pictured below in July 1988), a place in the heart of Corsica that stands at the northern end of the island’s longest and highest tunnel (3.9kms or 2.4 miles long and at an altitude of 906m or 2,972ft) and is also the mid-way point of the GR20 long-distance footpath.
In July 1988 a number of services arriving at Ajaccio from Bastia continued empty for 1km beyond the terminus station to the Halte du Port, close to the ferry terminal, with services back to Bastia scheduled to start from there, although curiously there was no timetabled service to the port.Services to Bastia were still shown as starting from Ajaccio Port in my August 1992 edition of the Thomas Cook European Timetable, but appear to have actually ceased in early 1990, although I could not find any record of when it actually closed and, intriguingly, there is no mention of Ajaccio Port in a Wikipedia list of Corsican stations.
Since my July 2007 visit, most services on the CFC have been in the hands of the fleet of 12 two-car AMG (Autorail Métrique Grand confort) 800 units, identical to the three AMP 800 sets in service on another wonderful French metre-gauge system, the Chemins de fer de Provence (CP). Pictured below an AMP 800 unit nears Puget-Théniers on 24 June 2019.One particular connection between the CP and CFC is CP railcar X307, which was still bearing its CFC badge a decade after its 2009 sale by CFC (formerly X2003) when seen below departing Nice (Sud) on 22 June 2019.The CFC network belongs to the local authority, known as the Collectivité territoriale de Corse (CTC) and since the start of 2012 operational control of CFC has been in the hands of an independent local company known as a société d’économie mixte (SEM), with SNCF retaining an advisory role.
Summer 2020 services on the CFC comprise two Bastia-Ajaccio round trips daily, two Bastia-Calvi round trips daily, one return service from Corte to Ajaccio and one from Bastia to Corte, with around a dozen return journeys on the Bastia and Ajaccio-Mezzana suburban services (the latter introduced in 2009) and five return workings on the Tramway de la Balagne.
For anyone wanting to sample the delights of the CFC, the best bargain seems to be a Pass Liberta, giving seven days unlimited travel for €50, which looks good value when compared to a similar weekly ticket called Carte Zoom which had cost me €48 back in 2007. For timetable information, go to www.cf-corse.corsica
To read more about the amazing CFC (in French) I can highly recommend “Les Chemins de Fer de la Corse” by Pascal Bejui, published in 1987 by La Régordane and containing a detailed history and many spectacular photographs.