Other 'Small' Railways.....

This page is entitled 'small' because I wasn't wishing to exclude railways that tend toward the miniature as opposed to narrow gauge, the latter generally being thought of as around the metre mark (or three feet, near enough.) In fact there quite probably are a good many more miniature railway systems than narrow gauge on that count. I have featured just a few below as they're ones I've looked at or travelled on, though there are without doubt others which should be worth consideration.

The first one is the Chemin de Fer de Corse, the railway system in the French island of Corsica. In some ways, this is a remarkable railway, considering the terrain over which it travels. Readers may not be familiar with Corsica, so a map is in order to show where everything goes:


The main route is between Ajaccio via the administrative capital of Corte and the industrial port of Bastia in the north from where mainland ferries arrive & depart. A branch travels from the junction at Ponte Leccia to serve the resorts of Ile-Rousse and Calvi (there is not a great deal in between.) Another line ran south from Bastia on the east coast at one time, but this did not survive the last war and nothing remains. Originally the lines were steam hauled but now are worked by Renault built diesel cars. Some early cars had a centrally located motor which restricted the passenger area - distinguished by their cream & maroon livery, few if any of these now run, and were confined to the Calvi to Ile-Rousse part of the line during my last visit. More modern cars cover the remainder of the route, and are recognisable in blue & white.

The gauge is 1 metre throughout affording a flexibility required by the severe terrain, for Corsica is a rocky and mountainous island where communications and accessability are often difficult. This renders the island particularly picturesque however and is strongly recommended for a visit. The northern resorts of Ile-Rousse and Calvi are particularly agreeable, especially the latter, situated in a large, sheltered bay with fine beaches. The old town and fortress are very scenic too.

The pictures that follow were all taken using a Canon Demi EE17 half-frame camera rather than Minox subminiature. The Canon is a fine little camera with excellent handling and very good optics. The CdS controlled automatic (shutter priority) exposure is pretty accurate, with manual control of 1/8 to 1/500 sec and f/1.7 to f/22. I used this camera for many years though now it is in semi-retirement ! Click on any of the images to obtain a larger view.

Ajaccio main station externally is quite grand as befitted an earlier era, and has several platforms and sidings:

Ajaccio Station Ajaccio platform Ajaccio northward

By contrast, Bastia station has a relatively modern exterior but the station yard itself self-evidently dates from the same era as Ajaccio:

Bastia station Bastia terminus Bastia station yard

The different styles of railcar are easily distinguishable - the older Renault cars:

Renault I Renault II Renault III

and the later design:

Railcar I Railcar II Railcar III

From Ajaccio the line runs first parallel to the coast before turning inland up the R. Gravona valley following quite closely on the river. By the time it has reached Tavera after about 30 km it has encountered some rather steep gradients and at Bocognano it is already at 640 m above sea level. Still climbing steeply it passes through a tunnel some 5.5 km long before arriving at Vizzavona at around 900 km elevation. From this point onward to Corte, passing through the Parc Regional, the line traverses some of the most spectacular scenery in Corsica - high mountains, gorges, rivers, forests and waterfalls; the scenery is passed all too briefly. From Riventosa the line descends quite steeply through a succession of short tunnels, twists and curves to Corte where it passes by the upper part of the town at around 400 m elevation. From here, the terrain gradually opens out until Ponte Leccia is reached (about 190 m elevation). Just north of here, the line divides with one branch proceeding to Bastia down the picturesque R. Golo valley to the coastal plain. From here it turns north along rather flat agricultural terrain until it enters the somewhat industrial (by corsican standards) city of Bastia - the station itself accessed through a final tunnel. (See photo above)

At Ponte Leccia, travellers can change for different destinations - southbound trains for Ajaccio, northbound for Bastia in the morning, and vice versa.

Ponte Leccia Ponte Leccia

Railcars southbound Coupling

A certain amount of rearrangement of rolling stock may take place, and an unpowered trailer is often added to the train.

The branch to Ile-Rousse and Calvi is of a very different character. The line meanders through mountainous and quite arid terrain through an apparently endless succession of tunnels and curves, many of which almost seem to wind back on themselves. Following the R. Navaccia valley for much of the way, there are few halts until Belgodere (about 160 m elevation) from where there is a long even descent to the coast near Ile-Rousse. From here it follows the coastline quite closely finally rounding the picturesque bay to reach the terminus at Calvi. There is a local service which runs through the day between Calvi and Ile-Rousse mainly for holidaymakers, with stops at intervals to serve the various popular spots.

The station at Calvi is quite simple, unlike those of Ajaccio and Bastia. Here (left) one of the older rolling stock which service the local shuttle, with a driver's eye view of the track ahead (right):

Calvi-Railcar Cab view

I've dwelt quite a bit on this particular railway for its quite unusual character - if visiting Corsica it really shouldn't be missed (even if rail transport isn't of compelling interest) just for the experience. The island itself is well worth a visit in its own right - despite the somewhat severe and forbidding character of some of its towns and villages, and quite apart from the subtly anarchic atmosphere. The coastal resorts on the other hand are much as one might find in many places throughout the Mediterranean. A little piece of advice too, should you be tempted to use your own transport - don't ! Corsican road traffic standards being what they are, it's a lot wiser to use local means instead. I speak from experience...

For those who would like to learn more about Corsica, I recommend highly "Granite Island" by the late Dorothy Carrington, published by Penguin Books, 1984. It's highly readable and authoritative, though it may not still be in print, your library might well be able to find a copy.

Before leaving this area entirely, it's worth mentioning another metre gauge railway in southern France. This is the Chemin de Fer de Provence which runs between Nice on the Mediterranean coast and Digne in the Maritime Alps. The line follows the R. Var valley as far as Entrevaux, then from Annot takes a wide loop north through the Parc National before returning again south to pick up the valley of the R. Asse at St. Andre-les-Alpes. After about 20 km. it takes a further wide loop before descending into the valley of the R. Bleane to arrive at Digne. I have never had the good fortune to travel this route, but the similarity of the rolling stock seen at the station at Digne to the later variety in Corsica was quite evident.

The station buildings are typical of many throughout France: Station-Digne
Railcar A railcar awaiting service at Digne.

The platforms and station roads are extensive, probably reflecting traffic and usage of an earlier era.

Toward Nice Digne Digne-Yard
I'd be very interested to hear from anyone who has travelled on this line and their experiences of it.

Back in England now and a couple of examples of miniature railways. First the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway which runs along the Kent coast between Hythe and Dungeness Point calling intermediately at New Romney, St. Mary's Bay and various halts, a distance of around 15 km. This is a miniature railway in that the gauge is 15 inches with rolling stock to scale. Though largely intended for visitors and those with a fondness for railways, it is nevertheless a quite practical route for travel along the coast, parts of which aren't otherwise conveniently reached.

The majority of journeys are by steam traction though diesel locomotives are also used, particularly in winter. Here 'Typhoon' approaches Hythe station, reverses and is turned around on the turntable:

Typhoon Run back Reversing Turntable

New Malden Most of the stations are little more than simple halts, but others, New Malden for instance, are quite extensive:

Carriage interiorThe passenger rolling stock is rather basic but typical of that found on many miniature railways. The open carriages are fine for summer travel but the exposed terrain probably renders them a little impractical at other times.

Perhaps the most interesting spot on the line is Dungeness - the southernmost point of Romney Marsh, an extensive flat area of sand and shingle, bounded on its northern edge by the disused Royal Military Canal. Adjacent to the station is the large complex of Dungeness Nuclear Power Stations with a visitor centre for those interested. Not far away is the simple home of the late film director, Derek Jarman, which still receives a lot of visitors. The original lighthouse is also close to the station - it was replaced by a modern, higher one when it was found that its light was obstructed in certain directions by the power station. It's quite a steep ascent to the top, but the views from there are very well worth the effort.

Station Power Stations Romney Marsh

Green Goddess Unlike Hythe where there is a turntable, Dungeness has a large loop rather than double track for reversing, which simplifies procedures somewhat. Here, 'Green Goddess' prepares to return to Hythe at the end of the last train outing for the day.

Another, not so well known miniature railway, is to be found at the other end of England in the Lake District. The Eskdale Railway runs from Ravenglass on the west Cumbrian Coast about 12 km inland to its terminus at Dalegarth. There are intermediate halts at Irton Road, Eskdale Green and Beckfoot. Like the welsh narrow gauge railways, this was originally a mineral line serving quarries, now mostly abandoned. The rolling stock is rather similar to the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch line. Diesels are also employed on occasion.

Ravenglass Track

Left, waiting at Ravenglass station for the next train; the first part of the line alongside Muncaster Fell is quite level and straight.

Leaving Ravenglass Forward view

The rolling stock as on many miniature railways is rather basic. Unfortunately the unpredictable cumbrian weather can mean a rather uncomfortable ride in open carriages. On this particular occasion, heavy rain was never far away. On the right, approaching Irton Road station.

Passing Leaving Irton Road
Double track is provided at some stations to allow for passing.

In the woods Turntable
The upper part of the line eventually joins the R. Esk valley, meandering through scenic woods and fells before finally arriving at Dalegarth. Locomotives are turned here on the turntable prior to returning to Ravenglass.

'River Esk' 'River Esk' prepares to depart from Dalegarth for Ravenscar. The station at Ravenscar is adjacent to the main line station which traverses the Cumbrian peninsula, serving Barrow, Whitehaven and Workington (as well as to provide transport into and out of the Sellafield Reprocessing Works). This line is very scenic in its own right and a detour from Carlisle to Carnforth (or vice versa) is recommended, particularly for the southern reaches.

The final set of pictures return to Minox sub-miniature format, unlike those preceeding which were Canon Demi half-frame or Minox 35GT full frame. Back in the Mediterranean, these lines are on the island of Mallorca, both terminate at the capital Palma, one modern and functional to the central working town of Inca, the other historic and scenic to the resort of Sóller.

Mallorca Legend

The Inca line employs diesel railcars on a 3 foot gauge in sets of two or three, and gives a comfortable and reasonably frequent ride on (in parts) twin track from Inca to Palma. The stations at both termini are open and modern in design. Inca is a 'working' town rather than a tourist centre hence the emphasis on the practical and utilitarian. At one time, the line went much further than Inca, terminating at Arta in the western corner of the island and serving Manacor and a handful of smaller towns on the way. This part of the line has now disappeared* though the trackbed is still visible in places. The interior of Mallorca is relatively flat, given over mainly to almond and citrus groves, so a railway could be constructed without difficulty at 3' gauge and would be commensurate with light passenger and freight traffic, this nowadays carried by roads greatly improved through significant investment from EEC resources.

* [Note added February 2006: Since compiling this page, the line from Inca has been extended as far as Manacor. The landscape is relatively flat but even so, some awkward engineering works were required in places where the terrain was somewhat unstable. I had the opportunity to see the extension not long ago and have new images which will be added to this site as soon as I have time. Plans also exist, I have heard, to extend the Palma ~ Inca line north-easterly toward Alcudia using, at least in part, trackbed of an earlier line but this has run into problems, partly due to the nature of the terrain but also later urban development. There are also plans to extend the track within Palma itself, but I have not seen anything very recent and I have no information as to how far this has progressed, if at all. Let me know if you have any details.]

To Palma Inca terminus Railcars

Whilst Inca requires working transport, the other line is very much a tourist asset, albeit with a lot of charm ! Built in 1909, originally with the intention to transport citrus fruit and other agricultural produce to Palma, this 3' gauge line runs from Palma to Sóller in the mountainous northwestern part of the island. From Sóller itself, there is a tramway (also 3' gauge) to the popular resort of Port de Sóller about 6km away on the coast. The original plan was for a more ambitious line to serve destinations such as Valdemossa and Deià, but this proved impracticable and the present, somewhat less ambitious line is the result. Initially steam hauled, the line was electrified in 1929 and still runs more or less with the original rolling stock.

Sharing to begin with the middle of the road with other traffic, the route takes it almost due northwards out of Palma across the cultivated plain and rising steadily as it reaches Bunyola - there are many fine perspectives across the valley of the Torrent de Bunyola. A little north of Bunyola the line enters a lengthy tunnel, about 3km in length, under the Col de Sóller. Descending rapidly through rocky defiles amidst scenic splendour, the line emerges high above Sóller, pausing at one of the passing points, before descending rapidly through more tunnels in a large hairpin before entering the terminus, still somewhat above the town.

The entire, rather leisurely, journey of about 24km takes around an hour, which is probably as well as the somewhat basic suspension of the carriages combined with the track irregularities hardly leads to a particularly comfortable ride ! The electric tramway connects with the station and provides a convenient way to reach the Port - it's a little inconveniently far to walk.

Palma I Palma II Palma III
Tourist trains waiting at Palma for the first morning departure.

Pantograph Interior
A pantograph provides the current pickup from the 600v carrying overhead wire. The interior reflects the style and comfort of a rather earlier age !

Arrival Soller
A Palma bound train arrives at the passing place above Sóller.
The station at Sóller has a character all of a piece with the trains.

Tramshed Tram plus trailer Tram at Port de Soller
The tram terminus and depot is conveniently sited adjacent to the railway station. Some of the trams have unpowered trailers to increase capacity at busy times. It's quite a long walk to the port and the tram is more than just a convenience, particularly in hot weather.

Departing Going.. Gone !
The time to leave always comes eventually and you can be certain that the last train for Palma will always be crowded !

These are some of the 'small' trains that I've enjoyed looking at and travelling upon. I can recommend them and if you're ever near one or other, go out of your way a little and have a look too.

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© Stuart Hill   Revised July, 2006