The International Steam Pages

The Narrow Gauge Railways of Mont Blanc

James Waite reports on his latest 2011 trip in the borders of France and Switzerland. The first picture of CM 6 is a new additon (20th June 2015).

Since this was written in 2011, there have been some changes in the disposition of the preserved steam locomotives of CF de Chamonix a Montenvers as Thomas Kautzor explains (21st October 2013):

Loco 6, formerly plinthed at Chamonix station, has been turned over to the TCA (Tourisme et Culture de la Crémaillère) in Mouxy (near Aix-les-Bains/73), where it is on display next to the former C.F. du Revard rack railway (closed in 1937) preserved station since July. There is a series of pics of the loco at (look under July 2013). Thomas Kautzor has since sent this June 2015 picture of the locomotive at its new home:

Loco 7, last operated in 1981, is still stored next to Chamonix station. When it left the railway in 1984 it was still operational and while away had been stored inside until its return in 2009 (together with CM 8). At the time it could have easily been made operational again with little effort, but instead both locos had been stored out it the open since. Luckily, two French railfans placed a cover on the chimney in order to prevent rain water to enter into the boiler. The CM is now considering restoring the loco over the winter to make it operational, however in order for it to operate it would need to have a air-brake system installed which could be very expensive.

Loco 8, also still stored next to Chamonix station recently, has been restored (cosmetically) and placed on the plinth in front of the station on June 21 to replace No. 6. The cab can be accessed by visitors. The SLM 2873/1923 plate it carries is of course wrong, this should belong to gone No. 6, but at least on the explanatory board they got the building year (1927) right. For an article in the local press, see  (link dead by 26th April 2014 but website is alive (of course the journalists also couldn't get it right on gone No. 6, which was never away from 1984 to 2007 as written).

Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in the Alps. It’s not a name that springs immediately to mind in connection with the Alpine narrow gauge and there’s precious little left of the region’s steam railway heritage. However there are several fascinating narrow gauge routes in its immediate vicinity which are well worth exploring if you’re in the district.

The SNCF’s Le-Fayet to Vallorcine railway and the CF de Martigny - Châtelard

At an altitude of 584m St. Germain-les-Bains Le Fayet station, to use its full grandiose name, became the eastern railhead of the PLM’s standard gauge network in Haute Savoie in the early 1890’s, the concession in its final form for the building of the railway there having been granted in 1890. The company’s objective had been the growing town of Chamonix, some 20km further on, but the unstable terrain in the upper Arve valley and the amount of civil engineering involved led to its initial plans being curtailed. Thoughts then turned to continuing the line eastwards on the narrow gauge. In 1898 a concession was granted for a metre gauge line as far as Chamonix which was to be equipped both with third rail 600V electrification and with a Fell centre rail for braking only like the Snaefell Mountain Railway. Construction began soon after and the line opened on 25th July 1901. For many years the line’s operation was most unusual in that every vehicle, both passenger carriages and freight wagons, was powered, a sort of early multiple unit arrangement, the idea being that this would reduce the scope for runaways on the steep gradients involved.

Work began on an extension north eastwards from Chamonix as far as Argentiere, at the foot of the Col des Montets, in 1904 and on another extension through a tunnel under the pass through Vallorcine to the Swiss border at Le Châtelard where it made an end- on connection with the Swiss metre gauge CF de Martigny - Châtelard. The last stretch of the line opened in 1908. The Swiss line used the same third rail electric system but through running wasn’t possible as it also included rack sections and there’d have been a nasty clunk if a Fell-equipped vehicle encountered the rack or vice versa!

The French line was always operated by the PLM and duly became a part of the SNCF when the French main line railways were nationalised. Modernisation came in 1958 when eight Z600 class railcars with four matching trailers were supplied by Decauville which were able to operate successfully without the Fell braking system. The voltage was increased to 800V on their arrival. None of these seem to be in regular traffic though there are several around the yard at Le Fayet. One has been restored to its original SNCF 1950’s livery and should eventually find its way to the French NRM at Mulhouse. Currently it’s kept inside the main shed at Le Fayet. We weren’t allowed to go in there to see it without hi-vis clothing on Health & Safety grounds though happily these did not prevent us from roaming around outside where the live third rail might, one would think, have posed a greater danger.

Freight services ceased in 1971 after which the Fell rail was removed. By then even passenger traffic was at a low ebb and the line might well have closed altogether had it not served several communities which had no proper road access. The SNCF made a further attempt to close it in the 1980’s but eventually regional subsidies resulted in further modernisation instead. Five new trainsets were built in 1997. They’re rack-equipped and so could work beyond the Swiss border though a failure to agree terms meant that through services have never operated. More trains were built between 2005 and 2007 without the rack equipment. The Swiss built similar two similar trains in 1997 though there’s a further complication now in that the Swiss have been replacing the third rail with overhead whereas the French section remains third rail only. Nowadays the French and Swiss trains meet at Vallorcine, the last town in France before the border.

Increased traffic suggests that the line’s future is now secure. It’s a highly scenic line with views of Mont Blanc towering above the route along much of the route as far as the Col des Montets tunnel. It’s never been a steam railway, of course, but it’s well worth visiting all the same. Most, if not all, services, now appear to be worked by the trainsets built from 1997 onwards but several of the 1950’s Decauville railcars can still be seen in the depot at Le Fayet, as the standard gauge railhead is generally called, St. Gervais being a town much higher up away from the valley floor and several km to the south.

On the line on the Swiss side of the border there are a number of trainsets dating from the 1950’s onwards which work the services though the backbone of the stock now seem to be the 1997-built trains which look more or less identical to their French counterparts. There’s an active enthusiasts society which has preserved some of the early stock which makes occasional runs. In the early 1920’s the SBB built a hydro electric power station at Le Châtelard which was fed by the Barberine dam in the hills behind and were reliant on the line for transport of staff and materials. As they didn’t have enough stock for this the SBB provided several wagons along with two railcars, no’s. 31 and 32 which are still in service. When I visited no. 31 was parked in a siding alongside the running line at a point where it passes under the power station building, seemingly little altered from when it was new except that it’s now acquired a pantograph for the new electric overhead line. There’s an ornate building covered in wooden shingling at Le Châtelard Frontière station, unmistakably Swiss in appearance and very different from the classical French-style station at Vallorcine only 1km or so away.

Mainly older stock 'on shed' and modern stock in Vallorcine station:

Snowplough and vintage Swiss railcar no. 31

The CF de Chamonix a Montenvers

Chamonix, at an altitude of rather more than 1000m, is now a large town, busy at any time of the year and especially so during the winter sports season. It now has a large, three-platform station and is the terminus for many of the services from Le Fayet. Head south out of the station across a footbridge over the tracks and you’ll come to the terminus of the CF de Chamonix-Montenvers. This metre gauge Strub rack railway climbs through the woods to the south of the town for a little over 5km to Montenvers station at an altitude of 1913m which has a commanding view over the Mer de Glace, one of the mountain’s glaciers. Construction work began in 1908 and the line opened the following year. It’s always been a busy line thanks to Chamonix’s booming tourist trade.

For many years it was worked by a fleet of eight steam locos built to SLM’s Brown type 3 0-4-2 rack tanks, all identical save that the later ones were superheated. The Brown part of the class name refers to Charles Brown, SLM’s founder. They’re a development of the Brown type 1 locos which can still be seen on the Brienz-Rothorn Bahn, the Schynige Platte Bahn and the Ferrovie Monte Generoso in Switzerland and of the type 2 locos which survive on the Snowdon Mountain Railway. They look radically different as the cog wheels are mounted on separate axles from the carrying wheels which are of small diameter and don’t look at all like driving wheels as they do on the earlier locos.

The railway was electrified in 1955 at 11Kv ac. Four powered railcars, no’s 41-44, were supplied using Swiss electrical and mechanical equipment though the bodies were built by Decauville in order to comply with the conditions of a government grant towards the cost of the work which required that as much as possible of the equipment should be made in France. They were accompanied by four trailers built entirely by Decauville. A fifth railcar, no. 45, appeared in 1961. Another Swiss/Decauville product its body is slightly longer than its predecessors. A final railcar appeared in 1979. By then Decauville had virtually given up making railway vehicles and so its body was built by Billard of Tours, another familiar French light railway name. Along with its matching trailer, no. 56, which was supplied by Socofer it can be readily distinguished by the ribs on the body sides.

To complete the passenger stock saga no. 45 was initially accompanied by a trailer, no. 55, built by the Établissement Belle-Clot at Grenoble using the chassis of an old steam-era coach. With its rounded end windows it looked quite different to the Decauville trailers. The same company supplied a close-coupled twin trailer unit, no. 61, in 1966 using the chassis of two further steam-era coaches. It was followed by two more double trailers, no’s 62 and 63, in 1972. They were all intended for use with three diesel locos, no’s. 31-3, which the railway had obtained from SLM between 1967 and 1973, partly for maintenance work and partly to augment the electric trainsets. No. 55, the first Belle-Clot trailer, can’t have been particularly successful as it was replaced by another Socofer-built trailer carrying the same number in 1984.

Steam locos no’s. 1, 2, 4 and 5, all saturated machines, were withdrawn and scrapped between 1957 and 1959, soon after the line was electrified, save that no. 5’s chassis was rebuilt as a primitive snow plough. This consisted of a JCB-style excavator mounted on a sloping portion at the upper end which deposited the snow which it scooped up in a space at the rear which was enclosed by the old loco’s side tanks. This has long since disappeared though the wagon, shorn of the side tanks, survives in Chamonix yard.

No’s 3, 6, 7 and 8, the superheated locos, were initially kept in working order after the electrification, seeing use mainly for pw work . Until 1967 one of them was kept in steam as standby during the operating season. No. 3 was withdrawn in 1966. Its chassis and rear bunker were incorporated into a diesel-powered snowplough which is still in use. It’s worth taking a close look at it as much of the old drive gear remains and it’s somewhat easier to see how the steam locos’ drive was laid out than it is on the complete locos. As with the wagon rebuilt from no. 5 its origins as a steam loco, albeit an unconventional one, are obvious. No. 6 was preserved on an inclined plinth in the station forecourt and is likely to be the first thing of interest you see as you arrive at the station. It’s been here since 1973 and seems to have been kept in generally good shape ever since though its current coat of paint could do with some freshening up.

No’s. 7 and 8 were kept in service for several more years and saw quite frequent use on enthusiast specials. No. 8 failed a hydraulic boiler test in 1979 and no. 7 made its last run on 20th September 1981. There was some talk at the time of overhauling them and keeping them in service but the management of the day apparently deemed them to be too much of a nuisance when their line was so busy during the summer months. They were sold in 1984 to a public contracting company based in the suburbs of Paris which was planning to build a tourist railway at a theme park in Normandy and were put in store at Baillet-en-France in Val-d’Oise to the north of the city. These plans came to nothing and in 2009 the two locos and two carriages returned to Chamonix.

The two carriages have been beautifully restored to their original condition and are now used for special workings including a regular Thursday evening run during the summer of 2010 with one of the line’s two surviving diesel locos; the latter have been repainted in what is basically the old steam loco livery of medium green lined out in black and red. The two steam locos are now parked out in the open on a siding just to the west of the station along with some old freight stock. Sadly there doesn’t seem to be any current plan to restore either of the locos to working order.

The station building at Chamonix is the original structure. It’s complemented by an overall roof covering the two tracks and platforms which is unmistakably French in appearance. Unfortunately crowd control during the railway’s busy summer season seems to be a preoccupation of the operating staff at Chamonix and you’ll be directed to wait outside until the train is ready for boarding and then to follow the yellow “feet” pictograms. There’s a similar urgency to leave the station by the designated route as soon as a descending train has arrived. Lingering to admire the architecture and rolling stock is definitely discouraged! The station is at a higher level than the SNCF station. There used to be a physical connection between the two lines via a headshunt under the SNCF footbridge. It must have been steeply graded and has now disappeared.

The staff at the shed and works were very welcoming and happy to show us around the heritage stock, the two diesels and the snowplough converted from no. 3 which still bears its number.

Steam Locomotives (all 0-4-2RT's)

1 SLM 1819/1907 Scrapped 1957
2 SLM 1820/1907 Scrapped 1959
3 SLM 1821/1907 Converted into a diesel snowplough 1966, still in service 
4 SLM 1822/1907 Scrapped 1959
5 SLM 1823/1907 Dismantled 1958, chassis converted into a snowplough, later to an open wagon, still in existence
6 SLM 2873/1923 Preserved at Chamonix since 1973
7 SLM 3131/1926 Withdrawn 1981, stored at Chamonix
8 SLM 3194/1927 Withdrawn 1979, stored at Chamonix

7 and 8 at Chamonix

Snowplough no.3 (formerly steam no. 3) in the shed at Chamonix and the two restored steam-era carriages and diesel no. 32 in the yard at Chamonix:

The remains of no. 5

Evening view of no. 41, the first of the SLM/Decauville cars, passing the level crossing on the approach to Chamonix:

No. 6 preserved at Chamonix

Chamonix station, a very typically French structure, with a Bell Clot trailer on the left and a Decauville trailer on the right:

The Tramway de Mont Blanc

Across the forecourt from the SNCF station at Le Fayet are more metre gauge tracks, isolated from the Vallorcine line, a small ornate waiting building and a plinthed 0-4-0 rack tank loco. This is the terminus of the Tramway du Mont Blanc, a Strub rack and adhesion line which was opened in stages from 1909 with the objective of getting close to the summit of the mountain. It had only reached about half the distance by the start of the First World War when construction abruptly ceased and, apart from a very short extension to provide a more convenient upper terminus, it’s never got any further. It’s always had a slightly ramshackle character and is generally much more laid back than the Montenvers line, much as many French light railways must have been in their heyday. The tracks disappear from Le Fayet station around a sharp curve, pass the stock shed where the line’s three railcars are kept and then run tramway-fashion through the town streets before the rack begins as they veer off on their own right of way up the hill to St. Gervais. Here is the first of several intermediate stations. The line continues, largely through open meadows until it reaches its upper terminus at Nid d’Aigle, 2400m above sea level and some 12km from Le Fayet. The views of Mont Blanc and the surrounding mountains are magnificent, especially from the upper reaches of the line.

The railway was never very profitable and from the 1920’s onwards relied on subsidies from the PLM company, one of the conditions of which was that a winter service should be operated for the benefit of the communities along the route. This operates to this day and in this respect the line is quite different from Montenvers line or, indeed, from most base-to-summit-type Alpine rack railways which have always been purely tourist orientated. Somehow the money was found to electrify the line in 1957. This involved an overhead system at 800V dc with wooden catenary poles, cheaper to construct, no doubt, than the ac system on the Montenvers line and perhaps more suited to the lower traffic levels on the line. Three railcars were built for the line by Decauville with three matching trailers, similar in some respects to the Montenvers vehicles. The railcars live in the stock shed at Le Fayet though there’s no room there for the trailers which live out in the open in sidings nearby. They carry names and each is painted a different colour – a contrast to the Swiss-style red of the Montenvers vehicles.

The line was taken over in 2000 by the Compagnie du Mont Blanc, a newly formed organisation which also took over the Montenvers line and several cable ways and restaurants in and around St. Gervais and Chamonix. One immediate result of this was that the Montenvers’ oldest diesel, no. 31, was transferred to the line along with one of the Belle-Clot trailers. They took up residence in a modern shed alongside the station at Le Fayet. This replaced the old steam shed which, unfortunately, was the subject of an arson attack in 2000. The diesel is used mainly for pw work. The trailer was found to be unsuitable for the line.

The 0-4-0T now preserved at Le Fayet, no. 3, was one of five built for the line by SLM between 1907 and 1911. They followed the same general design as the earlier machine built for the construction of the Martigny-Châtelard line which the railway bought in 1927 to become its no. 6. The design work on them must have been a little like the work of a Swiss watchmaker and it’s hard to see how the four cylinders could be fitted between the frames of such small locos. They are certainly quite unlike any other rack locos that I’ve come across. Three out of the original six locos have survived. No. 2 was sold to a private individual who was planning to set up a museum at Evires, in the west of Haute Savoie. It moved to the museum site in 1976 but the museum never really got off the ground and it was resold and moved for storage to the Musée Paysan at Viuz-en-Sallaz, not far from Geneva. It’s still there, kept under a makeshift roof and readily visited at the back of the museum premises where it awaits restoration. No. 4 used to be stored in the old steam shed at Le Fayet and was badly damaged in the 2000 fire. In 2006 it was sent on loan to the MTVS metre gauge museum railway at Valmondois, north of Paris where it has been restored externally.

If you’re visiting the area you may care to plan your trip to the TMB for a Wednesday or a weekend in the summer when a 7¼ inch gauge railway runs in the grounds of the Parc Thermal a short distance away from Le Fayet station. I missed seeing this but the photos there show some pretty miniature steam locos including a Mallet tank.

Steam Locomotives

1 "Jaques Balmat" SLM 1838/1907 Scrapped 1956
2 Horace Benedict de Saussure" SLM 1839/1907 Preserved at the Musee Paysan, Viuz-en-Sallaz
3 Mademoiselle d'Angeville" SLM 1990/1910 Preserved at Le Fayet station
4 "Pierre Janssen" SLM 1991/1910 Preserved at MTVS, Valmondois
5 "Jeanne d'Arc" SLM 2185/1911 Scrapped 1957
6 SLM 1536/1903 ex-CF Martigny-Chatelard 1927, scrapped 1957

Preserved no. 3 at Le Fayet

Railcar "Marie" approaching Le Fayet and "Jeanne" and its (her?) trailer at St. Gervais station.

"Jeanne" and "Marie" in the car shed at Le Fayet at the end of the day and no. 2 at Musée Paysan at Viuz-en-Sallaz.

The Emosson Dam railway

Just 1km over the Swiss border Martigny-bound trains arrive at Le Châtelard VS station, dominated by the huge SBB power station. A couple of minutes’ walk in the direction of the power station will bring you to the base station of the Le Châtelard funicular. This 1047mm gauge line is 1.3km long which must make it one of the world’s longest funiculars and, with a maximum gradient of 87% it’s also one of the steepest, the height difference between bottom and top being no less that 698m. The line was built in 1920 to provide access to the Barberine dam construction works for the SBB. It’s worked by two aluminium-bodied cars built in 1935 at the Vevey car works, delightfully vintage vehicles though, sadly, these are due to be replaced over the winter 2011/12 with modern cars. One of them may well find its way to the Swiss NRM at Lucerne but if you’d like to ride in it there are only a few weeks left!

A short distance into the ride there’s a short tunnel and then a stop at a small station at Gietroz which serves a small village inhabited mainly by workers at the dam or one of the power stations. Further on the variations in the gradient are so severe that the cable is left to rise up above the train when it’s some distance away and is held in place by an overhead gantry. Three quarters of the way up there’s a brief pause while the ascending car buffers up to a ballast wagon to counteract the increasing weight imposed on the downward run by the lengthy cable. The summit station at Chateau d’Eau, at an altitude of 1820m, was the start point of a 750mm gauge line 3.4km long which ran on a more or less level route to the base of the dam. This was worked by a fleet of three 2-4-0T’s and for many years after the construction of the dam was completed the line remained in use for maintenance purposes.

In the 1950’s plans were made for the construction of a much larger dam further down the valley to provide electricity for the French and Swiss public supplies. This involved a swap of territory between France and Switzerland, essential in the Swiss view as the towns and villages further down the valley are all on Swiss territory and the Swiss regarded it as essential to have exclusive control over the dam. Known as the Emosson dam it was completed in 1975. The SBB’s old Barberine dam now lies completely below the surface of the new reservoir but the SBB is still able to draw water as before to operate its power station.

There’s a road access to the new dam and it had been intended to close the funicular after 1975 but instead both it and about 1850m of the trackbed of the old 750mm gauge line as far as the new dam were handed over to a to a private operator to form the basis of a new tourist operation. A 600mm gauge line was built on the old trackbed and several battery electric locos obtained to work it. Operation began on 12th July 1975. Running at an altitude of more than 1800m it gives spectacular views over Mont Blanc to the south west for the whole length of the ride and also more distant views over a fair part of the Alps of central Switzerland to the east. At the far end of the ride there’s a short, modern funicular which climbs up another 150m or so to a viewpoint above the top of the dam.

It’s unashamedly a tourist operation but deserves its place here as it’s home to a 600mm gauge steam loco, Jung 0-4-0T 1693/1911. This is looked after by an enthusiast’s club and operates only on a few weekends in late June and early July. It had already gone to bed for the winter when I visited on 15th July but no doubt it will be out again next summer. It lives in a modern museum building at the platform end at Chateau d’Eau station but this doesn’t seem to be open normally and you’ll need to ask the management to open it up for you. During its short operating season it’s kept at a shed a few hundred metres along the line. Walking along the track (or venturing anywhere off the station platform) is very much discouraged here though there is perhaps footpath access to the shed over the mountainside away from the track. The turntable which gives access to the shed was rescued from the loco shed on the Brienz-Rothorn Bahn when their old roundhouse was replaced by a modern structure a few years ago.

As with many Swiss railways a visit here isn’t cheap but the funiculars and the 600mm gauge line certainly provide a railway experience with a difference!

The preserved Jung:

One of the battery electric locos and the 1935 funicular.

Rob Dickinson