On the Cevenol railway


Train journeys are good.  I like them for all the obvious and authorised reasons.  They are comfortable. I can walk about, drink, eat, read, sleep, daydream.  I can travel through the night and have the satisfaction of going to sleep in one place and waking up in another, having achieved something while asleep, which (I might as well say it before someone else does) is more than I often manage awake.  There is no need to navigate, steer or fret about traffic jams.

Beyond these practicalities, I am not all that susceptible to the romance of rail travel.  I like the idea of it, but once on board I often find it hard to dismiss a sense of mild disappointment.  It’s just a train journey, and whether the thing is propelled by steam, electricity or nuclear fission makes no difference to my enjoyment, as I know it should.  I was once lucky enough to travel on the Orient Express, regarded by many as one of the supreme travel experiences available to man, and found myself afflicted by an absence of rapture.

Yes, the carriages are very beautiful.  But one feels a bit silly sitting down to a black-tie dinner in a stationary train at the Gare du Nord with passers-by pressing their noses to the window.  The reason for this peculiar situation is that the ride, although expensive, is not at all smooth or conducive to relaxed dining without a hefty dry cleaning bill afterwards.  In fact, while trying to spruce up for breakfast I did think Murder On The Orient Express might easily have been a shaving accident.  The pressure to buy branded souvenirs is annoying and actually quite tacky.

Excitement filled the train as we approached the glamorous Austrian winter sports resort of St Anton am Arlberg and when we plunged in to the Arlberg Tunnel we all met in the corridor so as not to miss it.  Emerging in to dazzling daylight, we established that no one had been murdered in the dark, while St Anton flashed by in a blur of colourful Tyrolean houses.  In a car or on a bicycle we could have stopped for a look.  But in a train …. whoosh, and it’s gone (often before you’ve seen it).

So although I was looking forward to our long awaited appointment with the Cévenol railway, this was not a sentimental journey: we were using the rail network to take us and our bikes to a place we lacked the energy to reach under our own steam. It was not a means to an end but a means to a start.

For many others it is a destination in itself, combining the attractions of a wonder of the world and an endangered species.  From all corners of the train spotting world they travel to Clermont Ferrand or Nîmes.  They take the train from one end of the line to the other, and travel home again. Voilà: travel.

“What makes The Cévenol so special is that it does not follow the course of any particular valley,” I read on an enthusiast’s website, “but incessantly crosses from one to another, cutting through the mountainsides, and stretching out over rivers and gorges on the way. It would be an immense technological feat if it were built today, which puts the immensity of the challenge, and its realization, into its true historical context.”  I can see the truth of this, but to me it remains just a train journey.

Railway buffs love the detail.  The Cévenol boasts 106 tunnels.  At Villefort, the highest stone viaduct in France, all 843 feet of it, crosses the River Altier at a height of 236 feet. The Chamborigaud viaduct is even longer, at 1342 feet.

“Both viaducts offer heart-in-the-mouth moments and memories (and photos) you will cherish for the rest of your life.”  Really?   I find viaducts and bridges frustratingly difficult to see from inside the train, unless you lean out of the window, which is forbidden if not impossible.  Admiring the immense technological feat may be more easily done from an exterior vantage point – a bicycle, perhaps, or a canoe.  And as for photography, who ever took a good picture from a train?   Reflections in the window, imbalances of interior and exterior light and fast-moving background conspire to make in-train photography an art best left to professionals.

Galaxy and I settled down in a comfortable modern carriage to watch the beautiful countryside through which we had cycled 18 months before, go past.  If we incessantly crossed from one valley to another, I am ashamed to say neither of us noticed.  He hung his damp socks out to dry, I caught up with Robert Louis Stevenson who, after escaping the clutches of a talkative Trappist at the monastery of Notre Dame des Neiges, shared a room with some railway engineers who were working on a viaduct between La Bastide and Mende.  That branch line, another collector’s item now known as the Translozérien, would open 24 years later.

Brioude, leafy.  Langeac, long wait for train full of lumber coming in other direction.  It was at Prades that our bike ride had begun to climb seriously, and we peered up to see our road snaking up through the woods high above us.  Did we really cycle up there?  Glimpsed through luxuriant foliage, the river looked shallow and rocky, perhaps not so easy for canoeists as we had thought, looking down.  It would have been nice to see a salmon leap but of course we didn’t.

We passed the lovely hotel Haut Allier at Alleyras, surely the most remote Michelin-starred table in France; and recognised the iron bridge where we had said good bye to the Allier.  After Langogne, that town with the rare distinction of being overlooked by its lake, we entered a landscape that can only be described as sunny uplands.  We had made it to the top of the line, and soon reached La Bastide.