New Trains on the Western Region

The “new” Great Western Railway (as opposed to the “classic” Great Western Railway which was abolished on ideological grounds at the end of 1947) has recently been introducing some new trains.

I have been in various minds over whether to make any blog-based comments on these new trains, but having spent the afternoon enjoying one of the particular delights of January weekend rail travel (empty trains) I thought I’d feature a few pictures and some comments.

The Intercity Express Train

Didcot 2This was ordered by the Government as part of the Intercity Express Programme for the Great Western and East Coast mainlines, which will replace the IC125 High Speed Trains on both routes plus the bulk of the IC225 Class 91+Mk4 sets on the East Coast. The Government is very proud of it, and the train operator is contractually obliged to be very proud of it as well.

From the immediate passenger perspective it is actually a pretty good bit of technical kit. With the pantograph up and electricity drawing they accelerate like rockets, even when over 100mph. Longer trains mean more seats than can be squeezed into a HST without having to squeeze them, so the Western intercity traveller once again gets legroom and tables. There are more plug-in points and the train is equipped with modern passenger information screens.  Some extra seating space has been found by ceasing to heave around a full purpose-built kitchen/ buffet car with counter, so while there is still a kitchen (in the nose beyond first class) general catering is provided from a trolley. The trolley doesn’t show off the range as well as a buffet car, but no longer does the solo traveller have to choose between “no coffee” or “sorry, MI5 came round and took your luggage away because it was unattended”.

There are various underlying features relating to railway politics, general politics and operations management on which its precise benefits may be more debatable – the contract for buying the trains has a bit of an industry reputation for being pricey, which the Government fed by not releasing enough data to shut the journalist up; the Government isn’t really supposed to be imposing rolling stock solutions on an ostensibly privatised industry, particularly as the operators had an idea of their own at the time (but that’s Transport Secretary Alistair Darling for you); and the electro-diesel facility, while previously used by the Southern Region, has now reached the eyes of the Secretary of State for Transport and been used as an excuse for canning a load of worthwhile electrification projects which another Transport Secretary abruptly pulled out of his hat six months before a General Election (which he lost) and imposed on an industry not really equipped or trained to do 500-odd route miles of electrification in five years.

But the electrification debacle is not the fault of the trains, and while it would be nice for the Government not to be able to can electrification because they’re stuck with a fleet of electric trains it is also rather handy that a) canning electrification doesn’t mean having to can the new trains and rush the HSTs off for a second mid-life overhaul and b) when electrification progresses at a more realistic pace it can be taken advantage of as various bits go live. It does mean that these lightweight electric units have to lug diesel engines and fuel tanks about, and one hopes that before the end of their lives some of them will have the engines removed and their full capabilities revealed. (Not that their full capabilities are that bad to begin with. Passengers paying attention who haven’t spent time with electric trains before should lose very little time in becoming “Sparks” converts.)

The arrival of the IET has the small embarrassing feature that the Government insisted it be a multiple unit because loco-hauled trains are inherently unreliable only for the first IETs to come into traffic two months before Anglia’s loco-hauled trains were announced to have topped the intercity train reliability tables. But this is embarrassing for everyone (except, obviously, the fitters at Norwich Crown Point who have finally managed to turn the Class 90 into a decent traction package a mere three years before it gets scrapped), so is not something to hold against the IET personally. (One suspects the people who wrote that statement were thinking of Cross Country’s then-recently-retired Class 47s, which by 2002 were inherently unreliable.)

Presently the trains are coming into traffic as pairs of 5-car sets each replacing one HST (except on Worcester, Malvern & Hereford services, where they run as 5-cars). This results in a small gap in the through corridor, and is a bit of a pain all round. It also creates a 260-metre long train, which makes platforms look a bit short. A second tranche of 9-car sets will look more logical and allow the 5-cars to go off doing more 5-car-ish stuff.

Reading 23 JPG

And I forgot – my personal gripe – not enough cycle spaces.

Overlooking that:

Reading 24 JPG.jpgFirst class, through a window. Now marked by a white strip at cantrail (roofline) level rather than yellow. ScotRail, “Thameslink Southern Great Northern” and Anglia still use the once-standard yellow stripes, but otherwise yellow stripes are obsolete. The blanked windows beyond cover the kitchen. Underfloor equipment is neatly panelled away – in this case generic equipment, but other vehicles have engines tidily tucked in. The engines are there, sometimes noticeably, but are not as loud as Turbos or Voyagers.

IET interior 1.jpg Standard class interior. Seats are currently a bit grey – the design spec was for a blank train with grey interiors and white paint which the operator could discretely brand for the length of their franchise. The idea is to save rebranding costs at franchise changes or, indeed, when the franchise holder realises their brand is doomed. The result is a bit dull. Some bright green branding and the rather continental-railway beechwood saloon ends lighten things up. The saloon end doors are worked by overhead sensors so open automatically. This is what passengers expect (unlike the foot-worked sensors on the HST, which were always hilarious when someone was standing just off them waving their hand at a non-existent overhead sensor) and is hands-free (unlike the push-button doors on Voyagers, which are rather less hilarious when they firmly close themselves after 30 seconds on queues of passengers and their luggage). It does have the effect of eliminating the value of the useful skill of stepping over the HST foot sensor when crossing from one side of the vestibule to the other.

IET interior 2.jpgA picture to show that the luggage racks have some depth to them. The squared-off roof at the end of the saloon is for the pantograph well. There is a bit of variety to floor height in the IET vehicles – coaches with engines have higher floors. This means that more care is needed in some vehicles than others to avoid banging one’s head on the glazed racks. Need to bring the Giant Rucksack along one afternoon and try it for size…

IET interior 3.jpg The end-of-saloon luggage rack. Some vehicles have seats here instead; my personal preference, as a window-lover with a Giant Rucksack, would be for more luggage space. Not that I like using end-of-saloon luggage racks when I can avoid it anyway. The IET version is not quite as tall as the HST equivalent.

IET interior 4.jpgThe Universal Access Toilet, in the vestibule under the pantograph. There is one of these at each end of each IET (under the pantograph in both cases) so both first and standard class passengers have access to one in their own bits of the train- in accordance with the law. Awkwardly the 5-car sets don’t come with a Universal Access Seating Space in standard class for the person requiring a Universal Access Toilet to sit in. Oops. Still, better than the last HST refurb providing a space for a wheelchair in first class that a) was off the platform end at half the stations and b) didn’t come with matching toilet. It’s understood that people who need a wheelchair space will get an automatic upgrade, and the toilet is here in case someone later decides to make a space in standard or just wants room for baby-changing. Slim-line toilets are provided in the intermediate vehicles, tucked in between the external doors and the gangway to the next coach. In this regard the IET is laid out rather like the Regional Railways Class 158s. Note the map of the toilet at top left.

IET interior 5.jpg Inside the toilet. Not a picture I would have tried to take had anyone else been travelling in the coach. The baby changing table is folded up behind the seat; changing the baby for another one is generally considered a more sociable solution to the “screaming baby in the quiet carriage” problem than, say, strychnine.

IET interior 6.jpg Look! Table bays! GW HSTs have them too, but not in any numbers in most standard coaches – they were sacrificed in the 2006 refurb for a fairly minimal number of extra seats. Table provision is one of those things which highlights the difference between the quality of the train as a technical package and the balance of comfort and capacity struck when the saloon was laid out. IET table bays are rather wider than HST table bays, allowing a bigger table. The downside is that the table is further away. IETs also come with window blinds throughout, replacing the first-class-only curtains on HSTs. The small grey clips on the wall can be used for coats. Overhead is the bright red button of the passenger alarm.

IET interior 7.jpg Under an airline seat (IETs have these too, for people that prefer them). The chair leg by the bodyside/ heating panel is a bit of an annoyance, but can be worked around. Two under-seat plugs are provided in place of the one on the HST (and they are always under-seat, unlike the HST where table plugs are at the window end of the table). Various views are expressed on the seat padding, but personally I find the base quite comfortable – although the upright seat back is another matter. Armrests are provided throughout.

IET door 1 JPG.jpg An IET door, belonging to unit 800 009. The label to the left of the door shows seat numbers most easily reached by this door. Upper right is the bodyside camera for Driver Controlled Operation. To the right of the door is the control button with the emergency handle in bright green at lower right. White door rims and bogie pivot points highlight that 800 009 is painted white and vinyled into GWR green. Sliding doors are provided, retracting into a bodyside pocket which precludes windows within three feet of that side of the external door. This means no more droplights, so no more fighting with outside door handles, no more bashing people with slam doors, no more doors gently swinging shut on people when the coach is on sloping track, no more decapitations on signal posts or lost hands on tunnel walls (yes, I have been on a train delayed at Chippenham because someone stuck his hand out of the window in Box Tunnel and half of it got shredded off – blood everywhere apparently), no more photos out of the windows and no more sniffing the fresh Cornish air on the moors between St Austell and Truro.

(Also no more burning brake block smell. IETs have regenerative/ rheostatic brakes combined with modern friction brakes that make squealing noises.)

Paddington 7 JPG.jpg At Paddington, providing a comparison with a HST. The IET nose is longer and more has been done with the windscreen. Rounded glass has been possible for years, but after fitting 1950s multiple units with rounded windscreens (notably classes 123/ 303/ 309) British Rail rapidly went off the idea due to the costs of replacing the curved sheets of glass when they got smashed. There have been exceptions, but generally flat sheets have been normal since then. The HST nose always exudes mass and power, while the IET looks rather powerful from some angles and a bit thin from others. What it does manage to avoid is the rather bug-like look of a Voyager. The small black pole sticking out of the coupling cover is a bit of the coupling which features on every European train with a covered automatic coupling, but which the coupling designers have no enthusiasm to remove. The HST does not have such a hole because behind the HST’s coupling cover is a conventional drawhook – a long-standing flaw with the design as drawhooks are supposed to come with buffers and be prominently displayed. The HST (usually) has no buffers and hides the drawhook so it’s a bit of a pig to use.

Class 387

The 387 is the latest in a long line of electric multiple units built at Derby by the site’s owners, all branded as Electrostar. Aside from being Built In Britain, they are pretty apolitical things so don’t need much of a run-in.

The Electrostar started off looking like this:

Fenchurch Street 2 JPG.jpg

Then they looked like this, after someone had decided that through gangways were jolly useful (and, on 100mph square-fronted trains, not inclined to wreck attempts at streamlining):

Folkestone Central 1 JPG.jpg

And now they look like this – with neater light clusters and the ribbon-glazing replaced by something easier to maintain:

Acton ML 1 JPG.jpg

But the manufacturer has withdrawn them from the product catalogue, so that’s it for the Electrostar.

They’re replacing the Thames Turbo units ordered for Great Western suburban and lower-loading medium-distance services in the early 1990s. These are perfectly respectable trains, but were based around a high-density travel concept so have 2+3 seating with no armrests or tables. This is good for peak commuter traffic, but not so ideal for leisure flows in the Kennet Valley or business travel to Worcester and Hereford.

Paddington 8 JPG.jpg This is a Turbo. This particular example is named after Roger Watkins, a GWR planner who was involved in their introduction to the Thames Valley. It is looking obligingly slightly grubby, thus making the 387 look flasher and newer by comparison.

So the Kennet Valley and Worcester, Malvern & Hereford services are going IET, the suburban services are being electrified so the 387s can take over and the Turbos are off to Bristol, where they can replace smaller and (slightly) older Sprinters.

Inside the 387 is absolutely nothing like a Turbo.

387 interior 1 JPG.jpg General interior view. This is the standard GWR seating colour scheme, also seen on GWR-refurbished HSTs, Sprinters, Pacers and Turbos. The seats are the current standard for suburban stock, which the odd commentator will refer to as “ironing boards”. For the duties that they work, which is stopping services out of London, they are perfectly good seats. They are laid out in 2+2 formation and come with seat-back fold-down tables and armrests. The large blocks reducing a couple of window heights are the bodyside passenger information panels.

387 interior 2 JPG.jpg A 387’s luggage rack. Two levels, sloping backwards to stop stuff falling out. 387s have swing-plug sliding doors, so there is no internal door pocket and therefore no dead bodyside to put racks against, so the luggage gets a window view.

387 interior 3 JPG.jpg A vestibule – specifically for the Universal Access Toilet with Universal Access Seating Spaces and Universal Access Bin (which some people bother to use). The toilet is set up differently to the IET and doesn’t come with a map.

387 interior 4 JPG A table bay – there are a couple of these in the smaller saloons at the vehicle ends and also one at each end of the main saloon, next to the vestibule. Under the table are a couple of plug sockets. Over this particular table is the emergency “hopper” window for use if the air conditioning breaks. The table bays mostly line up neatly with the windows, although the ones directly behind the cab get a smaller window.

387 interior 5 JPG.jpg The vestibule, with bin and standard door controls. Doors are placed at what is usually described as “one-third and two-third” intervals, although in practice since about 1990 designers have favoured one-quarter and three-quarter intervals.

The 387s run more enthusiastically than a Turbo and of course offer all the standard electric train benefits regarding quiet running – there is just a slight whine from the motors and wheels.

They largely run in 8-car formations, which in the peaks mostly offsets the lower per-vehicle official seating capacity than a Turbo and off-peak means lots of lovely room. No longer will commuters have to brave the middle seat of the line of three. During an awkward period when electrification ran from Paddington to Maidenhead 387s were used on Paddington to Maidenhead stoppers – peaks only in the week and all day at weekend, interworked with Turbos running on to Reading and Oxford. The ordinary day-to-day passenger might not have been bouncing up and down with joy that their train now had a pantograph, but they were appreciating the table bays. (Of course Turbos consisted almost entirely of seating bays, but 387s come with tables for putting drinks and crisp packets and magazines on.)

Electrification now terminates at Didcot, which is a trifle awkward because it means the Paddington to Oxford stopping trains now have to terminate at Didcot too. Turbos connect there to continue to Oxford and Banbury, with the happy upside that the Banbury stoppers now run through to Didcot for easier connections.

Next

Well, actually, the 387s and IETs are the new train designs for Great Western services (Crossrail will be bringing along the successor to the 387s, the Class 345 “Advenza”, in a few years time for stopping trains between Paddington, Heathrow and Reading) and the 387s are all in traffic, so that is It as far as surveys of the designs go.

But IET introduction is yet young, and there are rather more of them to be introduced over the next year. Some of the HSTs will also be staying around with fewer coaches and new doors for inter-regional services. Other HSTs are already heading off to Scotland to provide a welcome replacement for intercity Turbostars. The balance will be available to anyone looking for novelty garden ornaments.

Paddington 9 JPG.jpg Enjoy while it lasts – four HSTs line up at Paddington station. This will be the sight at Glasgow Queen Street in just over a year, by which point Paddington will be a hub of IETs and 387s.

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Travel Costs

An amusing little distraction for Christmas – whether you, dear reader, have spent this year travelling in the most cost-effective manner.

Let us imagine that two adults wish to travel from suburban northern Newport (Casnewydd) to spend a day walking Cwmcarn and Twmbarlwm, the signpost to which is pictured below:

Twmbarlwm 1 JPG.jpg

Car

The drive is fairly simple, being around the suburban roads to the A467 and then straight up the Ebbw valley at a theoretical maximum of 70mph. As the AA reckons it’s 10 miles and takes 21 minutes the average is slightly under 30mph.

A car which is bought for free, does not need insurance or MoT and does 60 miles per gallon on start/ stop running will manage about 14 miles per £1, or £1.50 for the round trip. This is a grotesque under-estimate of the actual costs, which on a moderate-mileage car including depreciation/ hire-purchase costs, maintenance and insurance will come to around 50p per mile, or £10 for the trip. To this should be added a £3 parking charge. Total calculable cost is thus £13. Other costs relating to atmospheric pollution, accident rates, health problems caused by inactivity travelling in a cramped box and alternative uses for car parking have not been properly assessed as the transport planners would rather not calculate them.

Bike

The area is hilly. The run is not unduly challenging, being on suburban roads, but the cyclist may not be in much of a state to do a serious walk afterwards. Still, if planning to go mountain-biking at Cwmcarn this is the logical way to transport the bike.

About every thousand miles the bike will fall due for an overhaul encompassing bike light batteries (£5), two new tyres (£60), two new gear cassettes (£60), a new chain (£30) and a half-life on a new helmet (£25). To this should be added periodic cleans (this run is on tarmac so will not require a one-off extra deep clean) and a £50 bill for getting someone else to do the overhaul, possibly bodging it in the process. Divide the depressing total (£180, not employing the mechanic) by 50 for the share incurred by a 20-mile run, multiply by 2 for two bikes and get £6.40.

Bus

The bus is operated by Stagecoach South Wales and will in all probability be a 151 to Blackwood. This is Traveline’s preferred solution.

This will take anything between three-quarters of a hour and a hour, depending on precise location relative to the bus route through Newport. The bus journey itself takes about 20 minutes. A return for two adults costs the same as a return for a group, which is £13.20. A South Wales Explorer ticket allowing return from Cwmbran after walking over the hill (more interesting than simply returning to the car) is £15.80.

Canal

The canal coincidentally terminates at the entrance to Cwmcarn Forest Drive, having been truncated on its way to Crumlin to make way for the A467. It has also been breached in several places to allow access to housing estates.

Aside from the costs of procuring a canoe and carrying it round the obstructions, plus the question of how to stop someone from walking off with it while it’s parked in Cwmcarn (and of course the challenge of an 18-mile round paddle) this is a fairly low-cost option. The waterway owner may appreciate a donation reflecting a proportion of the savings relative to other options. A journey time of three hours each way would be reasonable.

Walk

There are multiple walking options, the simplest of which is to go straight up the canal towpath. It is also possible to head straight up Twmbarlwm without going to the Cwmcarn visitor centre at all.

This will take about three hours each way, though can be viewed as part of the walk.

Make some sort of allowance for shoe leather.

Train

This is an hourly service from Pye Corner to Crosskeys, taking 12 minutes. Bikes are carried. Trains are usually 4-cars, providing 4 cycle spaces and about 250 seats.

The option exists to vary the trip by using Risca station to approach Twmbarlwm from a different angle or incorporate parts of the Raven Walk.

The fare for two adult passengers with railcards (assuming weekly use of a £30 annual railcard at a sunk cost of 58p per week) is £5.08, or £6.80 without a railcard.

The rail network as a whole receives about 40% of its revenue as subsidy, being the replacement for shareholder investment in capital spending. Were this support to be removed and the railcard be withdrawn, the fare would rise to £11.35.

Summary

Overall costs for return trip:

  1. Walk: Shoes + 6 hours
  2. Canoe: Boat + 6 hours
  3. Train with railcard: £5.08
  4. Cycle: £6.40
  5. Train without railcard: £6.80
  6. Train charged at full commercial rate without any industry subsidy or railcard: £11.35
  7. Car: £13
  8. Bus (return): £13.20
  9. Bus (rover): £15.80

Conclusion

If you don’t want to walk all the way the train is cheapest.

Declaration: This post was brought to you by a member of the rail lobby.

Women-only carriages

This came up in 2015, when I wrote a long blogpost trying to delicately dismantle it that, in the end, I didn’t hit “post” on and which you have, therefore, not read.

Anyway, it has come up again: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-41028234

Mr Williamson is obviously not a rail-using MP, otherwise while out and about on the trains around his Derby North constituency he would have encountered a certain operational flaw in his idea called the Class 153:
Knighton 1 JPG.jpg

So once this carriage is women-only, where do I sit? On the roof?

 

Trails from the Rails 6: Ascott-under-Wychwood to Charlbury

  • Area: Oxfordshire
  • Local Train Operators: Great Western Railway
  • Length: About 6 miles
  • Points of Note: None really
  • OS maps – Explorer 180 & 191 (1:25,000) (crosses two maps); Landranger 164 (1:50,000)

This is actually a fairly simple walk which involves following a waymarked long-distance path and can thus be done pretty well without a map. Still, maps are handy things to have around even if it does inconsiderately involve two of them.

___…___

The starting point of this walk is not celebrated much in song or story; despite its picturesque name, it turns out to be two unloved platforms next to a level crossing and an unattractive signal box. Most of the Wychwood has gone, leaving a wood at the top of a small neighbouring hill. This walk follows the valley back around the bottom of this hill from Ascott to the next station at Charlbury.

Ascott-under-Wychwood 1 JPG.jpg

Once the train has left Ascott-under-Wychwood station, head northwards (up the road on the opposite side to the signal box) to the first right and turn in towards the Manor House. Walk down the lane towards the manor, turn left at the end, follow the field boundary around, cross the stream and turn right.

Rape Ascott 1 JPG

This is not an overly taxing walk on the gradients front and this first leg is reasonably typical; steady plodding around the edge of a field on a broad track. On the third field the Oxfordshire Way suddenly decides to be more interesting; it follows a field boundary around seven sides of an eight-sided field, past a gate which it appears to go through (but doesn’t) and then goes out again on the opposite side to where it came in. In this manner it continues in an easterly sort of direction to Pudlicote House.

Pudlicote House 1 JPG.jpg

Pass along the bottom of Pudlicote House’s back lawn and cross Pudlicote Lane, continuing to follow the Oxfordshire Way signs. The path easily undulates along the bottom of the gentle hill, keeping near the River Evenlode.

After crossing Catsham Lane the Oxfordshire Way flicks to a north-easterly heading around the top of the Evenlode’s meandering curve to the south-east (a very meandering curve). This involves the first gradient of note, around the top of Greenhill Copse and down into a dell beyond. Take the right fork on crossing the stream and entering the wood beyond. This works rapidly back out of the wood and follows the top edge of a field. On reaching the other side, turn right along the field boundary (not working around the hedge through to the lane) and drop gently down the hill alongside Dean Grove.

After the end of the Grove, pass one field to the left and then follow the signs through the hedgerow down the gentle slope towards the Coldron Brook.

Evenlode Valley 1 JPG.jpg

The path crosses Water Lane and runs across three fields on the outskirts of Charlbury. Keep reasonably well-down these fields. Signposting is limited and the final gate well-hidden.

The Oxfordshire Way abruptly returns to trafficked roads on the village boundary at the bottom of Pound Hill.

Charlbury 1 JPG.jpg

Head up the hill and into the village.

The takeaway is unhelpfully (for walks from Ascott) on the other side of town. Carry straight on down Sheep Street and Hixet Wood then double back to the left at the end into Sturt Road. There are also several pubs in the village centre – a rather shorter explore. Walkers not in need of such refreshment can take the second right after topping Pound Hill to drop down Dyers Hill and cross the river to Charlbury station.

Charlbury 2 JPG.jpg

Charlbury station is a well-maintained little place with a footbridge that can be seen from outer space. Most of it is the result of recent rejuvenation of the line; for many years the only bit of platform here was a couple of hundred feet in front of the station building on the then-single-track line. The main building survived because the Chairman of the British Railways Board commuted from here and the user group persuaded him to sign the petition against British Rail’s plans for its demolition.

Optimism Bias

This is worth a glance through (it’s a bit heavy for casual reading, although if readers have nothing else to do):

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/rail-infrastructure-optimism-bias-study

The main document is of course the 39-page one.

On first glance it’s tempting to argue that figure E-1 (page 4) is shown wrong; the main budget should be remaining the same across all the stages and the optimism top-up reducing (rather than a consistent total cost as the estimate eats the optimism bias). After all, the optimism bias is an accounting trick to stop the project bankrupting the funder; the budget is the project manager’s estimate. The project manager, being a manager, should, one feels, have a rough idea of how long the project will take and at what cost; as development work goes on this should be proved right unless unexpected problems arise. Unfortunately the chart on page 19 goes on to show that the modal project involves starting with a figure, adding the optimism bias and then spending both. (Evidently railway projects involve a lot of unexpected problems.)

Recommendation 2 on page 29 also adds some amusement. The fact that most projects spend almost exactly the estimate and the optimism bias leads to an immediate conclusion that the optimism bias is encouraging slack spending. (“There’s money left, perhaps if we bought some nice gardens for our new station/ put in that crossover the operator wanted and we said they couldn’t have/ cleaned a few culverts while we’re here.”) The footnote then points out that equally the optimism bias might be inadequate and the project is being pruned to stop it going over that budget. (“There’s no money left, so let’s drop the second culvert/ push that bit of commissioning into someone else’s possession/ remove that crossover that the whole thing won’t work without.”)

It’s slightly scary to reflect that actually this does mirror my own workload, where I had four or five little tasks after Christmas that I intended to complete in a couple of weeks which have turned into big tasks that aren’t done (happily one has been overtaken by events and has gone away – not that the deadline’s passed, merely that someone has decided the work doesn’t need doing). It is with this sort of thing in mind that it might be worth tossing this unusually interesting Government report in the direction of anyone involved in workload management.

Corsica

An obvious subject for the middle of December is Corsica in September…

marine-de-sant-ambrogio-1-jpg… seen onshore and offshore…

North of Bastia 1 JPG.jpg

Corsica is an island off the west coast of Italy. To the south lies Sardinia. Sardinia belongs to Italy. Corsica, in a spirit of balance, belongs to France.

This concept of belonging to France is not one that always appeals to Corsica. Around the beginning of the 19th Century it could be reasonably said that France belonged to Corsica – the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was born in Ajaccio on the island’s south-west coast. The first removal of Napoleon from power exiled him to Elba, which is located between Corsica and the Italian province of Tuscany (it is visible from ferries between the island and Livorno). When he was removed again, a trifle over a year later, he was sent rather further from home to the island of St Helena. Since then Corsica has had a few doubts about the precise benefits of the arrangement.

The island is oval in general shape, with a mountainous spine down the middle and an arm sticking out the top. It is about half the size of Sardinia. The eastern shore – the Plaine Orientale – is cut quite straight, mostly with a flattish bit along the seaside. The western shore is more rugged, with many inlets and rather more vertical landscape. The northern shore is a bit of a compromise, with a few flat bits scattered along the edge of the hills. Corsica has no southern shore worth speaking of.

Flying Machine 1 JPG.jpg

Corsica is too far off the Italian shore for a bridge, so access is by boat and plane. Above is a picture of a plane coming in to land on Corsica. Below are a couple of the boat option.

Bastia 1 JPG.jpgThe approach to Bastia, the island’s northern port, with the town scattered up the mountainous flanks above it.

MV Pascal Paoli @ Bastia 1 JPG.jpgThe large, red form of the MV Pascal Paoli, docked in Bastia.

MV Moby Vincent @ Bastia 1 JPG.jpgThe roll-on/ roll-off Moby Ferries vessel Moby Vincent, with her loud Bugs Bunny-themed square sides, rests by the Bastia quayside having arrived from Livorno. Moby and Corsica Ferries boats leave Livorno around the same time each morning and, after turnarounds taking about the same amount of time, work home shortly after lunch. Departure from Livorno is too early for hotel breakfasts or coming in from further afield (say Pisa). Not that a lack of breakfast will worry the paranoid mal de mer sufferer.

Place Saint Nicolas 1 JPG.jpgPalm trees provide welcome shade over the Place Saint Nicolas, above the seafront in the centre of Bastia.

Church Bastia 1 JPG.jpgThe Church of St Felicity and St Lucy, perched on the end of a ridge high above Bastia, as seen from the railway station.

Bastia Station 1 JPG.jpgYes, railway station. Much of Corsica can be explored by rail using the metre-gauge network. This is encouraged by the 7-day “Carte-Zoom” Rover tickets. Two of the modern AMG800 units operated by the island’s railway authority stand in Bastia’s rather basic station (815/ 816 on the left and 823/ 824 on the right; each car is numbered individually, but they operate in consecutive pairs). The basic livery is grey and white with red doors, but several units carry additional vinyls. (Not to mention the considerable variety on cab-front branding, which sometimes seems to double as a means of identifying units.) The section forward of the doors is largely laid out like an auditorium, with forward-facing seats stepping gently downwards for a panoramic view through the windscreen. This is obscured by full-height frosted glass panels around the back of the cab (a relatively recent development). The units have conventional central buffers (standard for narrow-gauge) and screw-link chain couplings. Since their arrival there has been the usual embarrassing increase in passenger numbers, making it feel like a third coach would be a good idea. Still, the loadings don’t detract much from the scenery and the journey is accordingly recommended by the Compilers of the European Rail Timetable. After a rapid trot down the coast to Casamozza, through Bastia’s suburbs and alongside the main road, the line abruptly leaves the east coast (and its long-abandoned mainline) and climbs up a delightful part-wooded, part-rocky valley into the heart of the island.

Corte 1 JPG.jpgThe railway having found its way with only minor difficulty into the centre of the island, the trains, if not already packed, fill up at Corte. This is the main town for the interior, guarded by a citadel on a rock at the head of the town (seen centre). In gloomy weather Corte is not an attractive place; it is a very urbanised small town that does good impressions of a much larger one. While Bastia is laid back and Riviera, Corte has a shabbier air reminiscent of the island’s Genoese backstory. Matters are not helped by the harsh landscape above the town. In good weather it seems to have more of a rugged glow, though how much the modern flats can ever be softened is debatable.

Corte 2 JPG.jpgThe centre of Corte, with its jumble of tall, shuttered, hard-used buildings around the main square. It was a warm evening, though had come cloudy mid-afternoon. The weather can be rather changeable in the centre of Corsica (and in Corsica generally, but particularly in the centre).

Corte 3 JPG.jpgCorte station, one of the main stations on the island in terms of layout and facilities. The loop is used as a matter of course because of the basic signalling system, but relatively few trains cross here. Most prefer to do so at Venaco. Car hire is available. The line makes an easy southwards departure and then rapidly becomes more difficult to push through the hills. Ignoring the struggles of the rumbling 800s, this makes the line scenically far more interesting. Unusually (for Corsica) the station has two wide platforms facing each other, rather than one “main” platform and a narrow island between the two running lines.

Corte 4 JPG.jpgIt also has two watertowers, seen here in the distance beyond 807/ 808 waiting with a train to Bastia (the nearer tank is blue, with a concrete one beyond). Sulky mountains gaze down on the station, which has the air of having undergone a budget overhaul and then been forgotten about.

Casanova 1 JPG.jpgThis is the main road as it sails into Casanova from the south, on its way north to Corte, leaving the village of Santo Pietro de Venaco in the process. Most of Casanova is just off the main road and slightly down the hill. It is a pleasant little village which, after a brief knot by the junction, scatters on down one of the lanes that heads to the Poggio-di-Venaco promontory. 

poggio-1-jpgPoggio-di-Venaco; Poggio for short, as it sounds much friendlier (and this is the name given on the end of the station building too). A tightly-packed village, it lies on the upper ridge of a rocky outcrop with its church perched on a knoll at the west (mountain) end. Scattered around the village are some helpful bilingual signs (French and Italian) explaining the history of civilisation on this rock and passing comment on its climate (“exposed to the winds, but benefitting from exceptional levels of sunshine”).

View from Poggio 1 JPG.jpgThe outcrop gives splendid views north, south and east across the Corsican interior. This is the view northwards towards Corte. The valley is used by the Avon Tavignano, which quietly flows far below down from Corte to its mouth on the east coast near Aleria.

View from Poggio 2 JPG.jpgAnother view from Poggio, this time looking south-eastwards off the church steps as a bird flies overhead. The steps, leading up to a church perched on a rock on top of a lump on top of a narrow outcrop, can create a certain feeling of vertigo. The Tavignano works its way off under the hazy blue sky into the distance.

Poggio 2 JPG.jpgPoggio-Riventosa station, now a request stop, seen from the church steps (not a hot air balloon). To the south of the village, it is a mere 100 metres below the community it purports to serve and reached by a kilometre walk down a back road. Vehicles come down occasionally, realise there is nothing much to see, and go away. Most stations on the Corsican rail network were laid out much the same way (excluding Corte and other large places) – a two-storey house provides booking office and staff accommodation, while a few yards a way a 1¾-storey warehouse looks after the goods traffic. Loops were provided for trains to pass with a siding or two running up to the goods shed. The goods sheds had an awning on each side provided by extending the roof down away from the building. More important stations also had a water tower or two – most of these towers remain standing. Time has been unkind to Poggio’s station. The station building is abandoned (and barely secured); the goods shed has lost its awnings on both sides; the sidings have gone and the loop has been removed (although, close up, its route can just be made out). A single plain line bustles past a vague attempt to maintain a platform; the platform is hidden from view here by a tree. Riventosa is another small Corsican community, 80 metres above Poggio and a half-kilometre to the south-west.

Poggio 3 JPG.jpgPoggio station road, as train 5 growls through without stopping (there were no passengers, a usual state of affairs). The church sits high above, burnt out in the lunchtime light contrast.

Santo-Pietro-di-Venaco 1 JPG.jpgSanto-Pietro-di-Venaco, south-west of Poggio. The village is located on a ridge of land two hundred metres above and a kilometre to the north of Venaco itself. It is seen here from the southern side, with the church tower sticking up a little on the right of the skyline.

Santo-Pietro-di-Venaco 2 JPG.jpgSanto-Pietro centres on a little square outside its church. One road leads east, sloping down the promontory to where the main road makes a slightly lower crossing on its way north. One leads west, into the mountains. To the south is Venaco. This is the road headed north, sloping down to join the main road at Sambuco, just south of Casanova.

Santo-Pietro-di-Venaco 4 JPG.jpgThe road to the west, scrambling on up the ridge. Woodland cloaks the lower slopes of the mountains as they rise, eventually exposed, rocky and barren, to form the flanks of Punta Lattiniccia (2,413 metres, and hidden behind its relative foothills).

Santo-Pietro-di-Venaco 3 JPG.jpgThe church, with its well in the right foreground, stands stark in the morning sun set against a clear sky. Behind is the peak of Pinzo Corbino, less than 300 metres above the village and about two-thirds of a kilometre away.

Venaco 3 JPG.jpgSunrise over the mountains to the east of Venaco, from a window of one of the village’s hotels. Venaco is located high up in the mountains of Corsica, roughly halfway along the railway and main road which link Bastia with Ajaccio. On the continent such a road would have been diverted at enormous expense to avoid passing through the middle of Venaco. In Corsica, it has had a couple of the nastier curves smoothed but otherwise works its way noisily up narrow streets and past the front doors of restaurants. Not that this is as bad as it sounds. There’s not that much traffic anyway. 

Venaco 6 JPG.jpgVenaco, seen from the south on a horrible morning. The area looks particularly lush; there is a passing air of the Darjeeling area of the Himalayas. A side road drops sharply down and swings below the town at lower right. The main road clambers round the hillside to the left and crosses the upper centre of the picture (below a large, prominent orange three-storey building). The railway slides through centre left. This is merely the southern flank of the southern promontory; the town continues in the dell on the other side. Santo Pietro is on the very distant ridge top right, lost in the mist.

Venaco viaduct 1 JPG.jpgThe railway has a rather awkward route into Venaco from Ajaccio and the south; after passing over a ridge of land and through the former halt at Piscine d’Venaco, it crosses a viaduct, goes through a tunnel, swings around the hillside between two roads, uses a second viaduct to pass over a gully (centre-left of previous picture), cuts into a second tunnel amongst back lanes and houses and then crosses a third viaduct before rising through a cutting to Venaco station. Such is the tight nature of the landscape that all this is over in a few seconds. Access from Bastia, Corte and the north is gained more simply by a pair of tunnels through relatively open country. Here an AMG800 pairing scuttles over the more southerly viaduct, with the site of Piscine d’Venaco just beyond the trees in the background. This viaduct crosses a small indentation in the hillside; the road goes around the inside of the indentation and passes under the railway. Behind the camera the two run briefly side-by-side; then the road climbs over the railway and the railway dives into its tunnel.

Venaco 4 JPG.jpgVenaco station. A small, agreeable place perched high on the mountainside, gazed upon by rocky summits. 824 is leading 823 in with train 4, the 08:12 from Ajaccio which reaches Venaco at 10:02 and Bastia at 11:56. An old goods van from the days when freight went by rail hides by the goods shed. Venaco’s goods shed has had its awning pruned on the platform side, though the stubs of the timbers remain. The main line, running between the side and island platforms, has been allowed to become grassy despite this being the main crossing loop. The station building doubles as the station house and is still used as a booking office.

Vivario 1 JPG.jpgAt Venaco, train 4 crosses train 3 (the 07:54 from Bastia); the latter is seen here pulling out of Vivario on its way to Ajaccio, which it will reach at 11:45. 811/ 812 were doing the honours – and very popular they were too, with the train being full and standing to extremes as it growled away from Vivario. The train helps to emphasise the multi-cultural wonders of tourism and the homogenising effect that it ultimately has on humanity. When a German tourist and a young Corsican sharing a vestibule on a Corsican train wish to discuss their favourite football team they do so in their common language which is (of course) English (as indeed was the football team). Vivario has recently been refurbished and the goods shed smartened up, with both awnings tidily removed. From Venaco the line has to climb hard to its summit at Vizzavona – Venaco is 566 metres above sea level, while Vizzavona, 13km as the crow flies, is 910. En route, it has to cross the River Vecchio at Pont du Vecchio, which obliges the line to drop from Venaco to 520m to cross Gustav Eiffel’s viaduct. This gives a little over 7km for a climb of 400m, so the line circles around Vivario to gain height. Combined with local geography, this makes for some interesting photos…

Vivario 2 JPG.jpg40 seconds after leaving Vivario station, the pair of 800s glint in the sun as they scramble up the hill opposite the station. Below is the road, which is climbing the hill in the opposite direction and passes beneath the railway by Vivario station. On the peak of the hill can just be seen the ruined castle at Pasciolo.

Vivario 3 JPG.jpgThis is Vivario station, seen from a northbound train, with the road scrambling up below (note modern platform awning and water tower)…

Vivario 4 JPG.jpgAnd this is the railway below the railway, seen through a slightly grubby window, pressing northwards into one of the route’s many tunnels on its way to Venaco. (Unlike certain Swiss railways, the Darjeeling Himalayan  and the Ffestiniog at Dduallt, the Corsican line does not do a full spiral and cross itself. The climb makes do with a 270-degree bend at its south-eastern extremity.)

Vivario 5 JPG.jpgThis is Vivario proper, not too far from the station – albeit up a busy road. A variation to the Mare Nord long-distance footpath (there are several such paths on Corsica) passes through the community. The road snakes through it eastward, rising steadily, hairpins round at the east end and comes back above it. The railway can be swinging round a curve bottom left as it heads southwards on its northerly journey towards Venaco. This twirling section of route is called the “Vivario Boucle” and takes 8 kilometres to cover a few hundred metres.

Vivario Tortoise 1 JPG.jpgThis is a tortoise, pottering through the long grass by a footpath above Vivario with its house in a tortoise-like manner. Upon finding itself observed it began to retreat inside.

Fortin de Pasciolo 1 JPG.jpgAnother view of the hill hosting the “Fortin de Pasciolo”, a now rather unimpressive square stone block not quite far enough along its promontory to offer views of Eiffel’s viaduct. To the left is the Punta Corsica (820m). Straight ahead is the Pointe de Cervello (1075m). Between us and them is the gorge of the Vecchio, finding its rocky way up to the head of the valley at Vizzavona.

Vizzavona Forest 1 JPG.jpgAnd then, after a bit of rumbling along the side of a cliff, the view disappears from the train as it rumbles into the peace of the Forest of Vizzavona. This is a large expanse of larchwood around the head of the Vecchio. The railway wanders amongst the rocks and the sweet smell of larchneedles.

Tattone 1 JPG.jpgIn the middle of this wood is the well-preserved station at Tattone. The loop is out of use, but remains in place. The siding is used for storing metre-gauge permanent way vehicles – sundry-kit-carrying wagons, ballast wagons, sleeper wagons and a diminutive metre-gauge tamper. For the railway historian, it demonstrates what the goods sheds were supposed to look like – tall thin buildings with well-balanced roofs. The station provides access to campsites and an array of footpaths amongst the mountains. There is also a “Hopital” nearby. Tattone itself is a few houses scattered on the main road, which crosses the line at the south end of the station.

Vizzavona 1 JPG.jpg Vizzavona station sits at the summit of the line and the north end of the line’s main tunnel. Maps show it as dead straight; the fact that the south portal isn’t visible from the north end likely reflects the gradient within the tunnel. 805 brings up the rear of the afternoon train to Ajaccio. Several bits of trackwork remain intact here, including a wagon turntable (left centre – too short for modern wagons to use). This is where the mainline crosses the primary Corsican long-distance path – the famous GR20. Specifically the main route of the path goes over the line a couple of hundred metres beyond the tunnel portal. Accordingly the station has something of an air of a major station on a UK heritage railway – a constant supply of people wandering around, using the restaurants and generally maintaining an air of life even when a train isn’t due for a couple of hours. Other Corsican stations have a more conventional air involving people turning up shortly before it appears. Two conventional restaurants on the building side of the line are augmented by a cheaper camping supplies shop by the campsite on the other side of the tracks. Note the ruins of the Grand Hotel de la Foret at top left.

Vizzavona Hotel 1 JPG.jpgFenced off, although not exactly inaccessible, the Grand Hotel of the Forest at Vizzavona has been derelict for a very long time now. One can only gaze on and wonder when it will fall down. Not a window frame survives; it is a mere shell perched on a little plateau, built back into the hillside, above the little bustle of the station. It was intended for British tourists who took a liking to Vizzavona and the nearby Falls. The market for luxury Mediterranean destinations for British people slid away in the ’50s and for whatever reason nobody has decided to try to revive it. Not that this building would offer much scope for modern comforts without about as much work as needed to build a new one anyway. 

Corsica Interior 1 JPG.jpg Once through the mountain at Vizzavona, the railway has a simpler descent down the valley side to sea level at Ajaccio. Along the way, it offers views out of the trees across wooded valleys and terracotta-red roofs to the high rugged peaks across the way – all with their hats on.

Corsica Interior 2 JPG.jpgAnd on into deeper wilds – the forested hills sail by as the train sweeps over embankments, across viaducts and through tunnels.

Ajaccio 2 JPG.jpgAjaccio station, at the end of the line; 824 has worked Train 3’s 3hr 51m journey across from Bastia (a little longer, journey-time-wise, than London to Berwick-upon-Tweed). The large station building, set across the platform ends, has been refurbished with a standard modern interior that could be almost any booking office on any corporate railway. The station is nicely-situated for the town centre, with easy access down the high street or a couple of back roads to the central squares and the stalls, shops and museums. Ajaccio is about two-thirds of the way down the west coast of the island; the railway goes no further. The old eastern line briefly got down to Porto Vecchio, much further down the island and almost within view of Sardinia, but this was destroyed in the fierce fighting for the island in the Second World War.

Ajaccio Petit Train 1 JPG.jpgSome Corsican towns are not wholly content with having a real railway and also have road trains, or “Petit Trains”, which drive around the backstreets carrying passengers for moderate sums. As none of the towns are that big it is nonetheless tempting to take the view that after several hours stuck in a real train (quite a busy one) it is nice to enjoy a leg stretch instead – with pauses to browse the stalls, buy lunch and try to work out if the Napoleon exhibition is open on Tuesdays.

Ajaccio Cactus 1 JPG.jpgAnd, of course, doing your own walk provides an opportunity to study things that the Petit Train will sail past or not climb up to at all, like this very happy roadside cactus plant at the top of Ajaccio.

Ajaccio 1 JPG.jpgSo Bastia is Riviera, Corte is Genoese, Vizzavona is fallen grandeur and Ajaccio…? Ajaccio has an air of a modern Med town, proud and fresh, with blocks of flats and hotels scattered along the waterfront around two-storey retaining walls or swept behind the main road across the head of the bay. The main road out of town has the relatively unusual feature of being worked around a railway. We are beyond the end of the railway here, amongst a seaside park on the west side of Ajaccio, looking through the palms at one of the modernist blocks that make up this part of town.

Venaco 7 JPG.jpgBack at Venaco at ten past 5 and fleet doyenne 801 is leading 802 out on Train 7, which will be in Ajaccio at 18:55. As well as the watertower Venaco has a subsidiary watercrane (which 801 is just passing). There also used to be an inspection pit under where 801 is passing; this has been filled in. The stationmistress/ booking clerk/ dispatcher can now turn her attention to sending 823/ 824 away northwards. 

venaco-2-jpg One of the heavily-branded units trots out of Venaco over the first viaduct south of the station, heading for Ajaccio in the early evening, with the many-channelled form of the mountains above Noceta in the background.

Venaco 5 JPG.jpgVenaco from high above, seen at dusk.

Ponte Leccia 1 JPG.jpgPonte Leccia. There is not too much in the way of large-scale community here, at the top of the valley from Casamozza, but the station is nonetheless important – for this is the start of the Calvi branch. Generally a quiet spot, it provides much opportunity for complex railway working. The branch has its own dedicated bay platform from which two trains leave daily for intermediate stations to PK79+800, Ile Rousse, Algajola and Calvi. On weekdays, one of these trains is a through service from Bastia; the other starts here. Both trains to Calvi provide connections from Bastia and Ajaccio, meaning that at 18:00 three trains can be seen lined up here (specifically trains 8 and 9 on the mainline, and the set which has come up on 102 and is returning to Calvi as 103 on the branch). The station is seen looking quiet and peaceful shortly after 09:00 one Monday morning following departure of trains to and from Ajaccio (train 2 northbound, 3 southbound). The Calvi – Bastia through service (train 100) is in residence out of view to the left, waiting for the section to Ponte Novu to clear. Train 2 was late that morning, which at least emptied out of the Calvi train all the people who decided to make the unplanned connection (into a train which then borrowed the ex-Calvi train’s path to get to Bastia). It also meant that trains 2 and 3 had met here instead of doing their booked crossing at Ponte Novu. The timetable allows train 2 to get clear of train 100 and train 3 to make a nice connection out of 100. For whatever reason the designer of the paper timetables has chosen to show Calvi and Ajaccio trains in separate tables so train 100 doesn’t show amongst the main block of services into Bastia.

Ile Rousse 1 JPG.jpg823 trails 824 as they work train 105 into Ile Rousse from Ponte Leccia (Saturday trains do not run through to Bastia). The railway swings along the waterfront of Ile Rousse (Red Isle – usually given its full name of L’Ile Rousse, incorporating a definite article, but the railway is more informal). The road runs around the inside, between railway and shops. While traffic is relatively heavy along here, it is made to look particularly heavy by the presence of a level crossing behind the tree where the road strikes out towards Ile Rousse’s headland and causeway. In the background, docked at the Port de L’Ile Rousse, is the vehicle ferry Monte D’Ord, registered in Bastia.

Ile Rousse 6 JPG.jpgIle Rousse, the first station to actually be in somewhere since Porte Leccia, has the air of returning to civilisation at long last. The remaining leg of the line, the Tramway de Balagne, to Calvi has a more homely manner than the cross-country branch, which is aided by its local service. This is a historically summer-only operation (now generally operated in winter too) that runs in addition to the two trains from Ponte Leccia and avoids requiring capital expenditure on an extra trainset by using second-hand stock displaced by the last new-train order for the rest of the network. Currently this involves power-trailer pairs of 1980s vehicles in their classic white and blue livery. Although not much smaller than the AMG800s, they have a much more diminutive appearance (and a more angular one, and lack through gangways). They feature on the cover of the Tramway’s timetable. Ile Rousse station, the eastern extremity of this service, is seen here hiding away on the far side of a car park below the town’s ramparts. Freshly painted, it keeps a well-presented aspect and is convenient for the town.

Ile Rousse 2 JPG.jpgBoules – with an air, to this non-expert, of specifically being Petanque – in Ile Rousse. This warm September Saturday was given over to the clack of balls across the town, all in nicely marked out rectangles. Boules is very popular along the north coast (less seen in the interior) and L’Ile Rousse’s main square offers plenty of room for it. The aim is to throw heavy balls at a small previously-thrown target ball. The town also has a neat covered market just off the main square and the usual array of souvenir shops.

Ile Rousse 3 JPG.jpgA batch of not very red islands off the town of Ile Rousse are now linked to the mainland by causeway, forming the port on the sheltered (eastern) side. When the sea is enjoying the aftermath of a storm-tossed night, as on this particular morning, the waves splash onto the western side of the causeway and spray across road and ferry-waiting-area hardstanding. The high rock beyond plays host to a neat, low-lying white lighthouse, accessed by a narrow road that twists up the inland side of the rock. At the top is a fresh breeze. 

Ile Rousse 4 JPG.jpgThe twirling roadway heads down from the rock. Beyond, across the rolling blue Med, are the tumbling mountains of the Corsican north coast stretching away to Algajola and Calvi.

Ile Rousse 5 JPG.jpgThe view from the train as it heads west along the Tramway de Balagne – scrub-ground, rocky headlands, hidden coves and blue sea making foam-coated landings on the shore-line.

Algajola 4 JPG.jpgAlgajola is the main intermediate settlement between Ille Rousse and Calvi. Several hotels and cafes fill the small town centre; one of these hotels has been adapted from a castle. The railway cuts across the inside of the little knob of rock that hosts the old town. More recent development has expanded up the hill behind the railway, seen here in the early hours of the morning awaiting the arrival of train 100.  The moon still peers down out of the clear blue sky onto the quiet modern houses, with their pseudo-traditional designs, balconies and blue shutters.

Algajola 5 JPG.jpgThe castle, carefully restored with a balcony disguised as battlements, perches its ramparts on the rocks of Algajola’s little headland.

Algajola 3 JPG.jpgThe weather had been relatively fierce the previous night and the Mediterranean was still breaking hard on the shore at Algajola at 10 o’clock the next morning. Most of the north coast is beachless; the scrub simply ends in yellow rocks which fall into the tideless sea.  

Punta Spano 1 JPG.jpgBetween Algajola and the outskirts of Calvi the coastal line goes through some very wild country. With the rocky shores of the Punta Spano nature reserve in the foreground, powercar 97054 propels trailer 9701 around the distant hillside on their way from Calvi to Ile Rousse. Footpaths trickle though the scrub country, dipping onto gravelly beaches and clambering over headlands towards the hamlet at Ondari.

Punta Spano 2 JPG.jpgThe Punto Spano also hosts one of Corsica’s coastal towers, which stand on the clifftop gazing out across the waves. This one grows rather neatly out of the rubbley rock of the seashore.

Corsican Renault 1 JPG.jpgA lot of pictures of the Corsican Railways feature some marvellously imposingly fat railcars with a certain air of solidity, bulk, capacity and permanence (at time of writing, the support website still opens with a picture of one). They were built by Renault rather a long time ago to replace steam traction and some rather small Billard railcars. Renault built a lot of railcars through the 1930s for railways around France which all had the semi-streamlined styling so beloved of the era, even for lumbering railcars. Despite the longevity of their train productions, Renault seem to now prefer concentrating on cars. In their later years the Corsican Renault railcars fulfilled the role of the obsolete rolling stock deployed on the Tramway while the neater, angular 1970s/ 1980s cars worked the mainline services. After the arrival of the AMG800s the 1980s vehicles took over the Tramway. The Renaults are now out of use. This is the remains of railcar 204, dumped at Camp Raffalli.

Corsican Renault 2 JPG.jpgThe engine-room end of 204, with smashed cab window. The higher roof surrounds the exhaust pipes and radiator. Behind is the two-window engine compartment. Behind the cab at the far end is luggage space. The actual passenger saloon is the five intermediate windows. For all their bulk, they are not large vehicles internally. A utilitarian interior featured five bays of small leather armchairs on a linoleum floor (4 seats to a bay; 1 bay each side; capacity 40. It seems there were another four seats tucked away somewhere). The cab interior was seemingly designed to consider any possible creature comforts and remove them. Usually the Renaults hauled a disproportionately smaller trailer car.

Calvi 1 JPG.jpgThe citadel at Calvi, high on its rock at the end of the town conveniently sheltering the bay behind. It is a marvellous citadel, much bigger on the inside than it looks like it ought to be, with a maze of streets that feel like they offer opportunities for getting lost for hours (although the constant glimpses of the sea, even from the citadel’s heart, actually make this a very difficult exercise.) Calvi claims to be the birthplace of Christopher Columbus (with the consequence that a man funded by Spanish monarchs but of generally Italian background is now French). The pub quiz question for Calvi is its connection to London – the answer being that both use the Cross of St George as a coat of arms.

Tennis Club (Corsica) 1 JPG.jpgOne of the Tramway trains swings out of the woods onto the beach-head to offer its passengers the view above. This is the powercar, with bodyside radiator grills; the trailer is coupled behind. Both are fitted with cabs, so the trailer will be pushed back to Ile Rousse. It will shortly stop at Tennis Club station, the second of a line of four Calvi “suburban” stations which take being named after the places they serve very seriously. (They are Club Olympique, Tennis Club, Balagne Orizontenovu and Lido.) Some enterprising person has filled the woods hereabouts with aerial ropeways, walkways and climbing frames in the general style of one of the UK’s “Go Ape” sites. Campsites dot the remaining parts of this coastline, which provides a great draw for visiting tourists with its long sandy beach.

Calvi 2 JPG.jpgTwo generations of Corsican train at Calvi – the 1980s set to the right (trailer 9701 leading) and a 21st-century machine in the main platform to the left (823 nearest with 824 beyond). The main body of the station building is fairly standard Corsica, although with an extra window bay and an awning. The more recent extension houses ticket office and toilets. The original layout featured the standard island platform and loop, although this has always been the terminus. Various remodellings fixed the bufferstops at the platform end. Prior to remodelling in 2007 there were three platform roads, with the centre track ending by a stub platform. The furthest track has now been removed, leaving two tracks between two wide platforms. 

Calvi 3 JPG.jpgCalvi from the citadel, looking down on the town. The straight road ahead leads up from the station, serving the post office, newsagents and various shops. Down by the wall is the entrance to the old lanes – Calvi’s version of York’s Shambles. A brace of tight, twisting, crowded lanes work their way along the slope above the harbour back to the station. They are agreeable lanes in themselves, though mostly populated with more touristy/ souvenir shops with several cafes. Beyond that is the marina, which is populated by expensive yachts and overlooked by restaurants. Off to the right is the residential part of town, which is pleasant enough to amble through but not overly different in concept to any other European suburban destination. Housing scatters out into the countryside to the south and leads up the foothills of Capu Miglione.

Calvi Citadel 1 JPG.jpgInside Calvi’s citadel. Tall, interestingly-shaped buildings blend with awkward staircases, military installations and crazy paving. A procession has just emerged from the Church and is making its way down to the square to find another church. Leading are four priests, who were trying to read the words of their holy dirge from a sheet of paper that was being blown about in the breeze. The active military installation occupies the tower leaning in on the left (plus associated fort buildings and a couple more towers) and comes in the form of the Second Foreign Parachute Regiment of the French Foreign Legion.

Algajola 2 JPG.jpgSunset over the beach at Algajola.

Today’s Excitement

This feels like an awful long time ago…

Don’t bash the Americans though. Most of them didn’t vote for Trump. Owing to a certain curiosity of the electoral college (which is one of the stupidly complex methods of electing a single person known to humanity), Clinton won the popular vote.

At least first-past-the-post almost invariably gives supreme British executive power to the people who won. If anyone in the States wants to consider electoral reform one day…

(It is nonetheless tempting to suggest that Clinton not saying something publicly after conceding this morning is an indication of reasons for not getting the required breadth of support to win. And it says something about the US that all it can put up for presidency is two people that everyone wanted to vote against.)

___..___

The incident on the Croydon Tramlink this morning comes as something of a shock. For a little tram, five people is a distractingly large number of fatalities. And looking at the tram lying on its side on a shattered bend, it is hard to picture any conclusion that doesn’t say nasty things about light rail safety. (Accidents are rare. The problem for the statistics is that they should be, because trams are hardly commonplace.)

A valuable reminder – as though we ever need any – for maintaining safety on heavy rail. Touching wood as we tick towards ten years since Greyrigg…