THE GORGES OF THE SIOULE
VIADUC DES FADES part II
If you missed the first instalment of this story, you can read all about the construction of the viaduct on this page. It's important that you do, for this page concerns the closure of the railway line. There may even yet be a third page on my website concerning its demolition.
On the 9th of December 2007, the rail service between Lapeyrouse and Volvic came to an abrupt halt. The reason? The Viaduc des Fades had suddenly been found to be in an unsafe condition.
Now, as if that is ever likely to happen. Railway lines are supposed to employ engineers and specialists to make sure that their major works are in order. Insurance companies, liable if anything goes wrong, have their own surveyors on the case. If there was a major issue such as an earthquake, or if suddenly a cast-iron column gave way, then that is something else. But today with all of these people and all of this modern technological equipment, the chances of a sudden disaster are remote to say the least.
But this notwithstanding, the line was closed in such a hurry that essential repairs to a road bridge near Gouttieres were still being carried out. The road remained closed for another 9 months while they built a new road bridge over a closed railway line.
You can see in the image to the left that the budget for repairs to this bridge was €545,000 ($650,000, £425,000). That's a lot of money to spend on a bridge that intends to serve no purpose. I wonder if the French Department of Roads and Bridges will be asking the SNCF for some of it back.
But the story of this viaduct is nothing new. We've heard of something similar before, at the Ribblehead Viaduct and cynic that I am, I was determined to wander over the Viaduc des Fades some time to take a look, to see what I thought of the affair. A chance encounter with a guy who I had met via Rebecca, who had the railway line passing at the bottom of his garden, and this visit was definitely on.
A slide down the bank and here we were on the railway line. No need to keep a lookout, as nothing would be passing by.
We had to pass by the Tunnel de Toureix - all 395 metres of it. Terry, who knows the way along the railway line, leads the way.
It's a good job that he had his torch with him. It's pitch-black inside and full of all kinds of bits and pieces - even half the skeleton of what looks to me like a dead cat.
But not like the Whitrope Tunnel on the old Waverley Line - Carole reckons she found three abandoned cars in there.
And not like the Woodhead Tunnel either. There have long been rumours that not all of the steam locomotives withdrawn by British Rail were sold for scrap and the ones missing from the inventory are said to be stored in the tunnel, in full working order, ready for when the oil runs out. When Drake bangs on his drum, or someone pulls Excalibur from a rock, I suppose.
Bursting out into the light, we encountered the first sign of desolation. It's hard to imagine that all of this vegetation has grown in just one season. Anywhere else in Europe or North America it would be most unlikely. But here there is a considerable amount of rainfall, and this is in a south-facing aspect protected from the bitter north winds by the rocks at our back, through which the tunnel passes.
Despite the potential for a good conspiracy theory here, it's most unlikely that this represents a couple of years growth and that they have been allowing trains to run through it all.
This of course is not quite so straighforward. I don't accept for a minute that this railway sleeper has deteriorated into this condition over the last 9 months (we are in August 2008 by the way), or that its condition deteriorated overnight whilst the line was open.
There is a technical name for this kind of condition. It's called "chronic lack of maintenance". The fact that the sleepers along this line are wooden already give you a clue as to what is going on. In most places they have long since been replaced by concrete. Concrete of course is much more expensive, so you need to be sure that you are going to get your money back in the long term.
This is something even more serious. Railway sleepers can be easily replaced, but not so the ironwork of the bridge. And look at all the rust that has attacked the ironwork. Again, this is not something that has happened overnight, neither is it something that has happened during the 9 months since the closure of the line.
We all know the story of the Forth Bridge in Scotland - how a team of painters is said to be continually painting the bridge. They start at one end and when they arrive at the other, it's time to go back and start again. Well, I bet this viaduct hasn't been painted for 20 years.
I poked my camera down in a gap between the girders to take a photo of the ironwork. The girders are held in tension by iron bracing in the form of a St Andrew's Cross, and I wanted to have a good look at this.
But you can see just how badly the ironwork is pitted with rust. It's in a dreadful state.
We were at quite a height up here, as it happens. And it's a long way down. Something like 132.5 metres in fact.
A little further on, there was another gap in the girders. This seemed to be another good place to take a photo of the underpinning structure of the viaduct.
There's absolutely no doubt about it, is there? This viaduct hasn't been painted for years. I'm more convinced than ever now that this is a case of deliberate neglect. I wouldn't be at all surprised if someone were to tell me that this was done in order to make sure that the railway line closed down.
The triumphal arch at the southern end of the viaduct reminds me of the gateway into Auschwitz Concentration Camp, with its Arbeit Macht Frei slogan. I'm not sure why that should be, but it's a very depressing thought all the same.
You can see in the bckground the old railway station that served the viaduct. The hills that close right in to the railway line give you a very good idea of why the construction of this railway line through the Combrailles was a major feat of engineering.
Here's a closer view of the railway station platform - all over grown with weeds.
It's not clear whether or not the station was still open in the final days of the line's operation. I remember once last summer going to the railway station at St Gervais and looking at the railway timetable, but I don't recall any mention of any train stopping here. Not that there were all that many of those, it has to be said.
I'm not quite sure what this object here on the station platform is supposed to be. It appears to me to be something along the lines of a message post that you think might be connected to a signal box somewhere. Assuming that the railway station is an unstaffed halt, any passenger wishing to travel would push a button that would send a message to the signalman, who would then set his signal to stop the train.
Of course, it might be something completely different. Please if you have any idea.
This is a reminder of the golden age of the railway line - probably in the 1920s when travel in France was really in vogue. At many small wayside railway stations there were hotels, cafés, car hire establishments and the like, and if you look closely at some of the buildings, you can still see the advertisments that cling desperately to their sides.
The viaduct will of course be no exception, and with its status as a tourist attraction assured by being the highest railway bridge in the world when it was built, a café-restaurant would be obligatory. It's long been closed, unfortunately, and it's now in private hands.
As well as the café here, the railway station would also serve the inhabitants of the hamlet that gives the viaduct its name. There aren't many houses round here, as you can see, but the setting is splendid.
Down there is the main road that goes to Les Ancizes, and a little farther along is the track that climbs up to the railway station. I remember seeing that with Liz when we drove past here last year, and I wish I had come up to see it now.
From up on the viaduct there is a good view of the Barrage de Besserve - another hydro-electric dam. With all of the commotion about French nuclear energy, it's easy to forget that France is a major producer of hydro-electric power and most of the rivers around here are dammed for this purpose.
The sun was just going down as Terry and I walked back across the viaduct, and it made for a lovely photograph. It's a shame that if the viaduct is demolished (which is its likely fate) then you won't be able to see this view again.
And as the viaduct becomes a shadow of its former self, there are a couple of things that ought to be considered -
i.... Until comparatively recently, this was the tallest railway bridge in the world.
ii... There is little doubt that despite the announcement of the "sudden discovery" of the poor condition of the viaduct, this seems to be nothing but systematic if not wilful neglect over a considerably lengthy period.
iii.. If nothing is done to bring the SNCF, the government of the départment of the Puy-de-Dome, and Central Government to their senses, this magnificent work of art and triumph of engineering will disappear for good.
There's an organisation that's been formed to lobby the powers-that-be into taking seriously the state of the viaduct. Don't wait for tomorrow - you need to write now to the
Association Sioule et Patrimoine
to register your support for the viaduct. Don't forget to mention my web site and the url of this page.