Thursday, 11 November 2010

VeloRail Pont Erambourg

Our Train Awaits

A rather different type of outing this time! During our recent holiday in Normandy I finally got to have a go on a velorail, several years after I first learned of their existence. Now that my children are old enough it seemed like the time to try one out, since there were three opportunities within striking distance of the cottage where we stayed (
On Board
For those not in the know, France still has many miles of disused railway lines that are still intact. Apparently they are retained for strategic reasons in case the military need to use them and removal only happens once a solid case is put forward. This has led to the development of velorail (railway cycling) as a popular way of exploring some of these otherwise redundant and unused lines. There are approximately 50 velorail operations across the country and the one we decided to visit was about 12 miles from where we stayed. The operation is centred at Pont Erambourg, a small village between Caen and Flers in Calvados, Normandy. This line closed for passenger traffic in 1970 although there have been numerous attempts to reopen it since, partly because of the scenic nature of the line. It runs through what is ambitiously known as ‘Suisse Normande’ (Swiss Normandy), on account of its supposed resemblance to Switzerland (only in as much as there are a few hills and forests!). It is however, very pleasant countryside reminiscent of the Wye Valley in places.
Deserted House
This stretch of railway line actually has two velorail operations, a few miles apart but on different parts of the same line ( ). There is a society that has been formed to try and restore the line, possibly as a heritage railway. We opted for the Pont Erambourg location as it was nearer and at 13km for a round trip, rather shorter than the other one at Val de Maizet further north, which is a 22km round trip. Our children’s patience would have surely been tested by that one!
Role Reversal
Pont Erambourg is also host to something of a museum and the headquarters of the group trying to restore the railway. In the old goods station is a substantial collection of old rolling stock and a couple of locomotives in different states of repair. Sadly, although it is possible to look inside a couple of the railway carriages (old post office sorting coaches), most of the yard is off limits to casual visitors. I couldn’t help thinking that if this was in Britain it would be stuffed with visitors wanting to see every aspect of what was going on.
Heavy Traffic
However, we weren’t really here for the heritage railway stuff, welcome distraction though it was. Our mission was to acquire one of the nifty little railway cycles and explore the extent of the line that we were allowed to. The experience cost us the grand total of 18 Euros, probably a good deal more than the equivalent train journey would have cost! Before setting off we were appraised of the conventions and ‘rules of the road’. The first thing we had to learn was how to turn the cycle around. At 80kg per cycle it isn’t something you will want to lift unless absolutely necessary. At each end of the line therefore an ingenious little turntable arrangement has been put in place, whereby the whole cycle is lifted off the rails, enabling the users to easily turn it. The other thing we had to remember is that the cycle with the greatest number of people aboard has to give way to the one with the least. At first this sounded counter-intuitive, but the thinking became obvious when you realise that the only way to pass is to lift one of the cycles off the rails entirely. Having had the briefing in a mixture of French and English we felt confident enough to get started. We immediately passed by the station building of Pont Erambourg, now a private house that is well protected by a fence preventing velorail snoopers from gawping in the windows! Another point impressed on us was that there are several railway related buildings alongside that are now private houses, and the occupants appreciate peace and quiet from potentially noisy railway cyclists!
Into The Sunshine
Getting going was quite easy as the first stretch of the line out of Pont Erambourg is downhill. The cycles themselves have no gears and so only modest speeds can be achieved. Braking is fairly rudimentary with a metal shoe being applied directly to the wheel! Anyhow, after the initial novelty value of the cycling it felt really good to be cycling along real rails. Of course I have cycled along many old railway lines, but this experience is much more real since so much of the infrastructure is still in place and not just the rails.
Another Crossing
Shortly after getting going we crossed the Noireau River for the first time. This would be a constant companion for the rest of our journey, for the line actually follows the valley for the velorail section. From the viaduct across the river we caught a glimpse of Pont Erambourg, a scenic little village some distance from the former train station (perhaps a clue as to why the rail service was withdrawn). After we passed the village the next couple of kilometres were largely cut off from the surroundings by the wall of trees that has developed alongside the track. Yet it is a testament to the volunteers that help keep the track free of weeds that there was almost no growth on the track itself. After we had got the hang of the cycle my oldest daughter wanted to have a try but sadly she was too small to work the pedals (I think both of us had the thought that one of us might be able to rest while she pedalled!).
Approaching Berjou
When the trees thinned out and we could see the surrounding countryside, the line passed through a beautiful wooded valley save the small area devoted to growing crops on the valley floor (mostly maize). A house on our left caught my eye. It was one of many in France that awaits renovation, possibly by a foreigner looking for an opportunity to build a rural retreat. This one was slowly receding into nature, but what really caught my eye was a decrepit looking Volvo outside which had not a French, but a British numberplate! I was rather surprised to see an abandoned vehicle so far from its origin. Perhaps a sign of a failed project?
Berjou Station
Our first test of the rules of the road came on this section as we approached a level crossing. Unlike ‘live’ railways the priorities are different at level crossings. Velorailers give way to road traffic, but in all honesty the first couple of level crossings that we reached probably only have a handful of road vehicles using them, so the chance of an encounter is probably pretty remote. At the first of the level crossings I admired the crossing keeper’s cottage. Rather like canal keeper’s cottages in Britain these are obviously very desirable places to live nowadays and this one was no exception with a beautifully laid out garden alongside the rail line too. They would have to like all the cycling tourists gawping at them as they passed by! I had a funny feeling though that it was actually a holiday rental.
Ground Frame
Further along the line we encountered something that would definitely be frowned on by the rail authorities if it were still operational. A herd of goats had strayed onto the track and initially they looked as if they were headed for us out of a sense of curiosity. Thankfully they didn’t get in our way, realising perhaps that we weren’t something to get in the way of as we steamed along the track!
Viaduc de Bordeaux
After another crossing of the river we came upon the next station along the line at Berjou. This was formerly a junction station, with a line that headed off to Falaise from here that closed as long ago as 1938. Unlike the Caen line that we were travelling on I guess that this line was too lightly used to ever contemplate keeping and all the track has been removed. We had passed a few of the remaining features of the line earlier on our way to the velorail. The trackbed doesn’t look as if it is available to walk on although seemingly intact for a fairly lengthy distance. What I took to be a goods yard during operational days has now been fenced off for some reason, although there are clues that it might be undergoing reinstatement as a railyard. New ballast on our part of the track, together with the retention of points (albeit that don’t lead anywhere) and some old railway relics suggested that it might have something to do with the heritage railway operation.
Lonely Cow
Berjou station would have served a fairly sparse community, so even if the railway is brought back as a ‘real’ line there is no guarantee that this station would be brought back into use. Yet, once it would have acted as a junction station between the two lines diverging from here so presumably there must have been some activity in the early part of the 20th Century. The station now is in good repair, although the platforms are starting to disappear under weed growth. The owner appears to gather rubbish, with a beat up looking Peugeot sitting in the garden which has been there quite awhile I’ll guess.
Finding the Tunnel
Shortly past the actual rail junction which is still quite evident, our line crosses the most impressive bridge yet, the Viaduc de Bordeaux. Not quite sure if there is any connection with the city, but the viaduct is still impressive although it looks like it got a bit of a beating in World War 2. Although clearly built for a double track, part of the decking has been badly damaged and removed entirely reducing the otherwise clean lines of the bridge. By now we could feel that the line was beginning to climb and we finally left the Noireau River behind for good at this point. We climbed over a ‘real’ level crossing that we had actually crossed in the car earlier and then headed up past a field with a very lonely looking cow in it. It tracked our every move as we passed by, presumably weighing up whether we were a threat. I gave it a wave and took its picture to make it feel better! After the cow we headed into woodland and after a short stretch bound by trees once again we caught sight of the French family ahead of us and as far as we knew, the only other family on the line.
Turning Round
As we got closer we could see that we had made it to the end of the line that could be cycled. Ahead was the 1.7 kilometre long Tunnel Les Gouttes, a formidable obstacle to velorailing. The tunnel is gated off now to put off even the most determined explorer. The tunnel had an interesting World War II apparently, with Hermann Goering supposedly sheltering in here in a special train while he met with his generals. Later in the war it became a shelter of a different nature when it protected nearly 1200 refugees while the battle for Falaise (one of the most ferocious of the Normandy campaign) raged around outside. Seeing this almost forgotten relic of the French railway system it is hard to believe that it had such an eventful past.
Berjou Station
For us, we negotiated past the French family by lifting our cycle off the rails temporarily and then turned it on the turntable. After the girls had inspected the tunnel we made our way back to Pont Erambourg. The return journey was a little less eventful although by now it was turning into a warm afternoon. A few other families had ventured out onto the rails and we had to lift our ‘bike’ off twice on the way back to let them past. Perhaps inevitably they were British!
Suisse Normande Countryside
Once back at Pont Erambourg we did our best to look around at the rolling stock gathered on the sidings. Unfortunately we were only really allowed to look inside the old postal carriages, but there were some interesting exhibits of how the line looked in its heyday. I just wish my French was better for I am sure I would have got a lot more out of the visit if it had been.
Pont Erambourg
Having broken my duck on this exercise, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Had my children been a little more patient (they definitely got quite restless on the way back), I would have loved to have a go on one of the other operations during the week. I can honestly see this being a feature of future trips to France and I shall keep abreast of new openings on , the federation of velorailing activity. Having surveyed other opportunities there are some very interesting looking lines to explore elsewhere.
Awaiting Restoration


  1. A most interesting post. I must say that it's a very different form of 'cycling' from that which I enjoy.
    I was on a cyclepacking trip in this region of France earlier in the year and I must say that some of the hills were definitely 'Swiss'.

  2. Thanks for your comment. Next time we head to 'Eco-Gites' as we surely will soon, I am going to try out the other velorail opportunities. This was a lot of fun! Not very challenging perhaps (unlike yours) but a very relaxing way of spending an afternoon

  3. Wow! I haven't heard of these and I've been planning a trip to France for several months. I'll have to see if we can find one on our trip!

  4. Hello Dana. Have a go - you won't be disappointed! I am about to write up the third such outing by us and the other part of this route. Be sure to check out before you go!

  5. Hi Paul - so glad you had fun doing this when you visited us - we've done it too ... in the pouring rain!!

    1. Thanks for the commenting tip. I remember seeing your blog and thinking how much I wanted to do the trip. Have you tried any of the others near you?