About four kilometers from the pleasure boat port in Tournon-sur-Rhône is one terminus of the Train de l’Ardèche, a historic steam train that runs up the rugged River Doux valley. The train’s lower station is within bike riding range of the water. If we were able to moor in Tournon when we passed by on the Rhône in 2017 we would have ridden our bikes out to ride the train. But the port was silted in at the time and we couldn’t moor in Tournon, so we were left to visit by car when we were again in the area in May of 2018.
There was an upside to visiting by car: We could bring our canine companion Gigi with us. If we went by bike Gigi would have had to stay in our hotel room. Though Gigi might not appreciate the train ride, she always wants to come along.
Visitors wanting to ride the steam train have three route options, “Le Train des Gorges”, “Le Mastrou”, and “Le Train du Marché”. We chose the shortest option, the Train des Gorges, which travels as an out and return from Tournon to Colombier le Vieux – Saint-Barthélémy le Plain.
The train ride is popular with children of all ages. On the Sunday we visited there were about 200 people, mostly French day-trippers, on board. Leashed dogs are welcome on board.
Once the passengers load and it is time for departure the train leaves the station. With a blast of the whistle and a surge of steam a Mallet 030-030 locomotive slowly surges forward pulling the chain of open passenger cars up the gentle slope. In a short distance the train comes up to speed as it moves along the tracks on the northern wall of the Doux river gorge.
The Chemin de fer du Vivarais runs through rough rocks and dense scrubby forest as it climbs the gorge. Steeply down from the rails is the narrow river channel. Small dams have been built periodically to hold back the Doux’s whitewater and allow for the generation of hydroelectric power.
A few kilometers up the canyon from the lower station the railway crosses a bridge and continues on the opposite bank. Then or now, building a railway on the slopes of this rugged canyon is an impressive feat of engineering. With the precarious routing and capricious steam locomotive it is amazing that the railway still functions today.
As our train reached the town of Colombier le Vieux it slowed to a stop. This was the highest point of our journey. Passengers disembarked and milled about as the staff prepared the train for its return to Tournon.
Before the train could descend the locomotive needed to be moved to the front of the train. To do this, the Mallet 030-030 is separated from the passenger cars. The engine moves ahead on a sidetrack and then reverses to a turntable. Once centered on the turntable a single worker physically rotates the thirty-ton locomotive so that it is facing downhill. When the Mallet’s ends are swapped, the locomotive backs off of the turntable and is relocated to what was just recently the tail end of the train. Once re-coupled and with its engine now facing down the tracks towards Tournon, the train is ready for the return journey. With the passengers back on board another burst of the whistle and bellow of steam signals the start of the descent down the gorge.
Riding steam railways are a good way to connect to the past. The clack of the rails and the sound of the whistle have not changed over time. Slathered with grease and lubricating oil and pumping out acrid coal smoke and ash the locomotive fills the air with smells and feel of the past. Running a steam train is a messy affair that has changed little over the years. A ride on a steam train lets visitors experience the feeling of riding the rails at the turn of the 20th Century. It’s no wonder that this train ride was so popular with the non-canines on board.