The Chemin de Fer d'Emosson

By Jeremy Hartley

The Mont Blanc mountain range in the French Alps is best known as a Mecca for skiers and mountaineers, but the area around Europe’s highest peak is also a potentially fascinating area for the narrow-gauge rail enthusiast. For starters there is the metre-gauge ‘Mont Blanc Express’, which climbs from the SNCF standard-gauge railhead at Le Fayet to Chamonix and onwards to the Swiss border at Le Chatelard, from where it descends vertiginously to Martigny in the Rhone valley, connecting with the CFF/SBB network. The region is also home to two of France’s three remaining rack railways: the Tramway du Mont Blanc, taking climbers and sightseers from Le Fayet at 590 metres altitude to Nid d’Aigle (Eagle’s Nest) at 2372 m; and the Chamonix-Montenvers, ferrying sightseers (on the way up) and skiers (on the way down) between Chamonix at 1035 m and Montenvers at 1913 m, overlooking the world-famous Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice). But perhaps the most interesting and certainly the least well-known railway in the area is the Chemin de Fer d’Emosson, a 600mm Decauville line originally constructed in 1920 as part of the Emosson hydroelectric dam project, but since reborn as a steam-powered tourist attraction.

Our story begins in 1920, when a 750mm gauge line was built to facilitate the transportation of workers and material during the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Franco-Swiss border. The line was lifted after the dam became operational in 1925 and the section of trackbed which had not been flooded by the inauguration of the dam was turned into a footpath. And then in 1975, a certain Monsieur Bernard Phillipin set about reconstructing the line along that part of the trackbed which had not been submerged. The Decauville system, pioneered in 1875 for use by the French military, was employed, with lightweight rails on steel sleepers and a gauge of 600mm (1’11”).

Today, the line runs for 1,9 kms along a narrow shelf from Chateau d’Eau, at 1813 m, through 5 tunnels and via 4 passing loops to the base of the Emosson dam. As the little trains trundle along the line which clings precariously to the cliffside passing through lush pine forests, passengers are afforded spectacular views of the Mont Blanc range and outlying mountains at every turn. Access from Le Chatelard on the valley floor is provided by the Funiculaire d’Emosson, an engineering marvel in its own right and, with a maximum gradient of 87/100, the steepest funicular railway in Europe.

Day-to-day service is assured by a fleet of battery-accumulator locomotives pulling rakes of two or four open-sided passenger wagons. There are also a number of ‘carnotzets’, open wagons with fold-out tables, aboard which passengers can sample local cheeses, cured meats and wines as they make their stately progress along the line at the regulation 8 km/h.

The star of the show is Liseli, a wood-fired 0-4-0 side tank (or G 2/2 020 T to use the Swiss nomenclature) dating from 1911, whose plaintive sibilant whistle echoes across the Alpine valleys during the summer season. Apart from the several battery-electric locomotives in regular service, the Chemin de Fer d’Emosson is also home to a couple of diesel locos, including an expatriate Ruston diesel in a rather fetching shade of powder-blue, and the line regularly hosts a small coterie of native steam-powered locos, or at least those engines able to cope with its 100 metre radius minimum curve and with the rather snug loading-gauge imposed by its tunnels.

In addition to the passenger wagons and ‘carnotzets’, the fleet of rolling stock includes a variety of tipper wagons for ballast, slab-sided wood wagons, flat wagons, a tanker and a rotary snowplough. A variety of signalling equipment has been acquired from a number of sources, with radio-controlled block sections between each passing loop ensuring security. Some of the standard-gauge signal posts can seem rather incongruous in their new setting, accentuating the already Liliputian appearance of the trains.

From a modelling perspective, the steep-sided, sharply curved and charmingly ramshackle track layout offers a wealth of possibilities. The main terminus at Chateau d’Eau, with its various platforms, sidings and engine sheds all within a length of 190 metres, or 15 feet at 7mm:ft, simply begs to be modelled and offers a wealth of operational possibilities. If that seems a little daunting, then just around the corner there is an 1891 vintage turntable salvaged from the Brenzier-Rothornbahn. A model of this section of the line, comprising a passing loop, a turntable, a three-road loco shed, an inspection road and an elevated permanent way/ maintenance siding with a behind-the-scene fiddle yard completing the track oval would all fit comfortably on a 8×3 ft baseboard in 7m:ft scale.

With its eclectic range of rolling stock, the prototype suits the freewheeling ethos of narrow-gauge modelling and a variety of ‘visiting’ locos would be entirely authentic. The Fleischmann Magic Train 0-4-0 steam loco would make a good starting point for an accurate model of Liseli, given a little bit of detailing work, while the Ruston diesel is available in kit form from a variety of manufacturers. Battery-electric locomotives obviate the need for catenary masts, while the situation of the line on a narrow shelf passing through steep forests and across sheer cliffs offers scenic modelling opportunities aplenty.

While the other narrow-gauge lines around Mont Blanc were conceived from the outset as tourist attractions, with rolling stock and facilities designed for that purpose, the Chemin de Fer d’Emosson started out as an industrial railway. In this respect, the line has more in common with the heritage railways of Britain such as the Ffestiniog, for example, than with its immediate neighbours. It is a living reminder of the days when steam power and an iron road were the only means of efficiently transporting men, machinery and material. Its reconstruction was a labour of love for Monsieur Phillipin and his family who now have, arguably, one of the finest train sets in the world.

The Chemin de Fer d’Emosson is open throughout the summer, with steam operation on the penultimate weekend of each month from June to September. Further details can be found at decauville.ch.

Some more pictures of this fascinating little gem of a line can be found here.

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