Finding a holiday destination in Europe that does not require 14-day quarantine on returning to the UK seems increasingly difficult, so I count myself lucky to have been able to take advantage of bargain basement air fares to pay an early October visit to the fascinating railways of Sardinia.
Having previously had two wonderful trips to neighbouring Corsica and its marvellous metre-gauge, I was particularly keen to sample what I could of the numerous narrow gauge (950mm) lines that are dotted about the second largest island in the Mediterranean.
Many of these lines lost their regular services in 1997, but became part of the renowned Trenino Verde (green train) network, where rather infrequent tourist services are operated on sections of four highly scenic lines that extend to a total of 404kms (251 miles).
Operation of the Trenino Verde services, along with the other narrow gauge services and the island’s extensive network of regional bus routes, is in the hands of a company called ARST (Azienda Regionale Sarda Trasporti) created in 2008 as successor to the Ferrovie della Sardegna (FdS), which itself had been formed in 1989 to combine two companies operating narrow gauge services on the island.
Consulting the Trenino Verde calendar I had been able to book a one-way journey on one of the longest sections of route, the 59kms (37-miles) from a town called Palau in the north of the island – not far from my holiday base in Olbia – to a town called Tempio Pausania, that was almost half-way to the city of Sassari, where this line terminates.
Regular passenger services had survived on the first 34.7kms (21.5 miles) north from Sassari to Nulvi until February 2015, and there have been Trenino Verde services from that end of the route in the past, but the current operation is confined to the isolated northern section, on which I was able to travel.
Starting with an hour-long bus trip from Olbia, my plan was to have a triangular day out by taking the 09.04 Trenino Verde service to Tempio, arriving there at 12.30 and having time to explore the extensive station site, before taking an ARST bus directly from Tempio station back to Olbia at 14.10.
Imagine my surprise on arriving at Palau Citta station after the hour-long bus journey from Olbia, which had required a change en route at Arzachena, to find a rather noisy diesel loco and a vintage (1930) wooden coach with five members of crew but no other passengers!
Your carriage awaits! My train waits to depart Palau Citta on 8 October
The journey behind Brown Boveri centre-cab bo-bo loco 502 was rather sedate and delightful. After 40 minutes we stopped for a 20-minute break at Arzachena, the town where I had changed buses an hour earlier. Here there was a sharp increase in passengers, when I was joined by three ladies and a dog!
The 09.04 from Palau Citta pauses at Arzachena station
Continuing our slow progress it was interesting to see that the track was in remarkably good condition for a route which only sees one seasonal round trip on three days a week – reduced since mid-September to just the weekly Thursday service I was travelling on (and that only until 22 October).
A second stop on the journey to Tempio Pausania at Lago del Liscia
After passing through a charmingly preserved station called St Antonio, our second 20-minute break was alongside a large lake at a specially-built halt called Lago del Liscia, where there were some great waterside views, along with a newish curved concrete viaduct that we had just crossed, and its more attractive stone predecessor behind, as pictured below.
Reaching the hub of the line at Tempio Pausania around 15 minutes early (12.15) gave a chance to see the beautifully preserved station building – also the starting point for regional bus services – as well as a 1957 Fiat railcar (ADm 51) that was mercifully free of graffiti, and an assortment of other rolling stock, including the rusting hulks of two 2-6-0T steam locos.
Besides a remarkable morning on the Palau-Tempio Pausania train, my plans for the week also included a day on another of the 950mm lines operated by ARST, the 58km (36¼-mile) route heading east from Macomer – a station on the main north-south standard gauge line – to the town of Nuoro.
Macomer is a two-hour train ride from Olbia, so roughly half way to Cagliari and its narrow gauge station is both a terminus and workshops for the 950mm (3’ 1”) lines in northern Sardinia. Dotted around the station area are a handful of the attractive, but graffiti-covered, 1950s Fiat railcars, and while I saw a couple shunting in the station area, all services on the day of my visit were being operated by a trio of two-car Stadler units, ADeS05/6/7.
These are part of a nine-strong fleet of new units, comprising two separate orders by ARST in 2014/5 and delivered from the Swiss manufacturer in 2017, with others of this fleet operating the services featured below from Sassari to Sorso and Alghero.
ADeS06 stands at Macomer station alongside one of the 1950s Fiat railcars
There are six round trips daily (except Sundays) which take around 75 minutes on a route which has been considerably upgraded in recent years, with numerous sights along the route of where a new alignment had been taken, with rails on the original alignment often left in situ.
Nuoro station on 7 October with ADeS05 (left) and ADeS07 on the right
Traffic levels are pretty modest, if my experience of the 08.25 from Macomer and 10.00 from Nuoro on Wednesday, 7 October are any guide, with barely a handful of passengers on either service, although I had seen a large number of students alighting from the first arrival of the day at Macomer (07.50).
Brown Boveri bo-bo diesel LDe 601 (1958) at Macomer on 7 October
This is an enjoyable line to travel, and well worth the €8.90 price of a one-day rover ticket, with the scenic highlights being the section of line leaving Macomer at the top of a steep ravine and the approach up into Nuoro, again on the side of a steep ravine.
One of the 1950s Fiat railcars undergoes a major rebuild at Macomer
Points of railway interest are the junction just north of Macomer where a 46km Trenino Verde route diverges westwards to Bosa Marina – currently only seeing services at its western end – and a still-intact turning triangle just west of Tirso station, one-time junction with another 950mm route that headed north to meet the standard gauge main line at Ozieri-Chilivani (closed in 1969).
Travelling the Trenitalia network
Besides the fascinating narrow gauge lines, there is a fair bit to see along the 434km (271-mile) standard gauge network operated by Trenitalia and well worth experiencing, as I had the need to do when easyJet suddenly cancelled its weekday fights to Olbia, meaning my journey out was a day earlier than planned, and was to the island’s southern capital of Cagliari.
Cagliari’s Elmas Airport is extremely convenient for the city, and has its own rail station (opened in 2013) that is only an eight-minute (€1.30) ride to city’s impressive eight-platform terminus, centre-piece of which is steam locomotive 744 003, a 2-8-0 built by Breda Ansaldo in 1928 (above).
From Cagliari it is a four-hour 285km (178-mile) trip north to Olbia on a regional train that costs €18 single. But with several days planned that involved using standard gauge services, I bought a Promo Plus 5 ticket for €60.00 that gave unlimited travel on all Trenitalia services for five days.
Over the course of the next four days it meant I was able to travel the entire standard gauge network of the island, including the little-used southern curve at Ozieri, and reaching termini at Porto Torres Maritimo and Golfo Aranci, starting on the day of my trip north to Olbia by sampling the two branch lines that head west from the capital to Carbonia and Iglesias.
As its name suggests, Carbonia was the heart of Sardinia’s once important coal industry until its demise in the 1970s, and evidence remains in the form of two sets of colliery winding gear close to the new station and extensive disused sidings near the town’s original station, about half a mile before a new two-platform terminus, Carbonia Serbariu.
Railcar MD 035 at Iglesias on 6 October with the 11.21 to Cagliari
Station re-building seems to be a major feature on Sardinia, and another example is a spacious new three-platform terminus in the delightful town of Iglesias, where work is taking place to create a large bus station alongside the railway platforms (pictured above).
One of the island’s newest ATR 365 units arrives at the new San Gavino station
There is some serious money being spent on the standard gauge network – electrification masts were evident at the junction station of Decimomannu, an entirely new alignment has been built at San Gavino, northern limit of double track from Cagliari, along with a futuristic new five-platform station, while a brand new station three-platform station is currently being built at Olbia, some way south of the charming current one (pictured below).
Rounding off my tour of 950mm gauge routes in northern Sardinia I took a train from Olbia to Sassari, Sardinia’s second city, in order to sample its two surviving narrow gauge services, one heading southwards to the port of Alghero and a shorter branch northwards to Sorso.
Stadler units ADeS01/02 arrive at Sassari on 9 October with a service for Sorso
Starting with a trip on the 10km (6¼-mile) Sorso line, it was interesting to note that the passenger traffic warranted services (15 round trips each weekday) being formed by a pair of the new Stadler two-car units I had sampled on the Macomer-Nuoro route.
On leaving its bay platform at Sassari (above) for the 15-minute trip, the line runs parallel with the new tram service as far as the first stop at Santa Maria di Pisa, passing the large narrow gauge depot on the way, where another handful of the 1950s Fiat railcars can be seen, with historic coaches and one steam loco, that looks in considerably better shape that the two at Tempio Pausania.
Sassari Metrotram SS02 at the temporary terminus Cliniche Universertarie
Beyond the end of the tramway the line remains double track to the next request stop, Rodda Quadda, although the second track is disused. From there on it is single line and passes through a couple more remote request stops before the two-platform terminus at Sorso.
Like the standard gauge main line and the other narrow gauge lines I had travelled, there was evidence of work undertaken in the 1990s to speed up journey times and shorten the route by around 1km – as at the lake stop on my previous day’s Trenino Verde trip the most obvious evidence of this was an attractive stone viaduct some distance from the current alignment.
Realignment and consequent shortening of the route is also a major feature of the pleasantly rural route heading south from Sassari – where services depart and arrive from the station’s dual-gauge platform 1 – to the coastal town of Alghero.
Stadler railcar ADeS09 at Sassari on 9 October with the 16.10 to Alghero
This route – which currently sees 14 round trips each weekday – was originally 34.2kms in length, but a combination of closing the final 2kms of route through the town of Alghero in 1988 and numerous route realignments means the distance from Sassari to the new Alghero station is just 30kms (18¾ miles).
Stadler railcar ADeS03 approaches the dual-gauge track at Sassari station
As I had noted on the trip to Nuoro, what is interesting about the many realignments is how old bridges are left intact and in many cases the track is left in situ. Of particular note on the Alghero line is where, just beyond the present San Giorgio station, you pass over the old route and former station.
ADeS03 at the new Alghero station on 9 October with a service from Sassari
All but one of the seven intermediate stops on the Alghero route are request stops, where you must press a red stop button in the train in advance if you want it to stop – with on-train announcements warning you to do so. One exception is Olmedo, the only significant settlement on the line, where trains cross (pictured below).
Sassari is a great place to visit – there is the added attraction of its short metre-tram route – but be warned that there is hassle when it comes to taking photos on the station. I was accosted by the police on my first visit, then, on my second visit a railway official told me that I should not be taking photos.
His concern was that I might be a terrorist. I corrected him to say that I was actually a tourist, not a terrorist, and had fortunately got the shot I wanted by the time he spoke to me. Quite what a terrorist would want with photos of a narrow gauge railcar is well beyond my comprehension, but I’m not Italian!
First impressions of Sardinia
Despite the hassles I experienced in Sassari it was a thoroughly enjoyable five days on Sardinia, during which I was able to travel every mile of the 434km (271 mile) standard gauge network, when every train was virtually on time, and when I was able to make a good start at travelling the narrow gauge network.
Looking at the amount of heritage narrow gauge rolling stock at Macomer, Tempio Pausania and Sassari, it was hard not to feel that more should be done to develop and expand the Trenino Verde network. The thought that no services link Macomer with Bosa Marina, for example, or run from Sassari on the 92kms (57½-miles) of route to Tempio Pausania seems a terrible waste of priceless resources.
For anyone tempted by a trip to Sardinia I can recommend Olbia as a delightful base to tour the north of the island. I stayed in a superb apartment called Corso 151 in Corso Umberto (£52.00 a night) that was barely a minute’s walk from the station and only three minutes’ walk from a bus stop in Via Veneto where the No. 10 bus gets to the airport in little over 15 minutes (fare €1.00) and a stop beyond that is served by ARST regional services to Palau and Tempio.
While staying in the centre of the city I can also highly recommend a nearby restaurant called La Tasca in Via Cavour, with a superb Linguine and tuna (€16.00) as well as a takeaway pizza establishment called Pizza Al Taglio in Via Porto Romano – its freshly-baked Calzone (€4.00) was simply outstanding!
For details of Trenino Verde trips, including a future calendar and online booking of tickets, go to http://www.treninoverde.com
As mentioned above, my original plan had been to fly easyJet from Gatwick to Olbia and back, but cancellation of its midweek schedule forced me to change my plans and fly out from Stansted to Cagliari with Ryanair, returning from Olbia with easyjet. Both airports are well connected by train or bus, and flights to and from Sardinia are currently cheap as chips!