Saturday, 10 September 2011

VeloRail Perigord Vert

Ready to Depart
Ever since our first velorail experience in Normandy last autumn I had wanted to have a go at this activity. Our family holiday this year was in the Dordogne area of France and a quick search of the Velorails Federation website pointed to another opportunity at the nearby town of Corgnac-Sur-L’Isle ( I persuaded the tribe to come again to explore a different line! A rather different type of outing this time!
Trains Heading Out
As a quick reminder for those that haven’t read about our previous experience, 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 40 velorail operations across the country.
Corgnac Sur L'Isle Station
The Perigord Vert operation is a rather different kind of experience to the one in Normandy. Firstly we had to turn up at a specified time, which we had to book in advance. We chose the 10am slot, on the basis that it might be a bit hot later in the day. We needn’t have worried as the weather was decidedly overcast, which was disappointing from the point of view of taking pictures. For pedalling though it was a bit of a godsend.
Rolling Stock
The ‘station’ at Corgnac Sur L’Isle where the rail cycles are collected is actually a little way out of the small town and not at the railway station. There is a small booking office and a line-up of rail cycles which is the only clue that the operation exists. According to the website there is a choice of routes from here, one way to Thiviers and the other to St Germain. The reality, certainly on the day we visited, was that the route to St Germain doesn’t actually seem to be available for the moment since all the timetabled slots were for Thiviers only.
River Crossing
The line forms part of a longer route that once ran from Brive to Angouleme across a very rural part of what is now known as the Perigord Vert. A railway line still crosses this part of the country, although from Limoges to Perigueux. It does at least pass through Thiviers, although I don’t think there are many stopping trains. The Brive-Angouleme line was opened fully in 1889, although some sections of the line opened rather earlier on a piecemeal basis. It closed for passenger traffic in 1940, presumably due to the war, and it never re-opened.
Heading Uphill
Goods traffic continued for some time afterwards in the shape of tobacco, wood and materials from foundries. The line closed in sections from 1960 and finally closed for good in 1993 and the remains were bought by the Departmental Government of the Dordogne. I understand that other sections have no track remaining, but the trackbed has been converted into cycle path, although the route is a bit fragmented.
This velorail was a little more expensive than last time (25 Euros) and slightly shorter at 6.5km (13km there and back). There were no rules of the road to worry about before we left. The reason for being timetabled soon became clear when we set off with all the other participants at regular intervals. Thus everyone was initially travelling in the same direction, meaning that no lifting cycles off the railway was necessary. The cycles themselves were very similar to the ones on our previous experience with 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 again.
Level Crossing
Shortly after getting going we came upon the former station at Corgnac-Sur-L’Isle. This was still in very good condition and a siding still contained some vintage looking rail inspection vehicles and even an old looking diesel unit that still looks serviceable. The platforms of the station were pretty grassed over and would probably need to be relaid if the line were ever to re-open, even as a tourist line.
Woodland Viaduct
Past the station and we crossed the L’Isle river by way of a cantilever bridge, a rather interesting way to cross a relatively modest sized river. The L’Isle drains away into the mighty Garonne at Bordeaux. A little beyond there and we came to a level crossing. Unlike ‘live’ railways the priorities are different at level crossings. Velorailers give way to road traffic and the owners of this operation were not taking any chances.A barrier had to be opened in order to continue on our way and we actually had to cross carefully on foot for this first crossing was actually a well used road.Indeed, there was a slight build up in velorail traffic as we had to wait for a couple of cars to pass. As with Normandy, the crossing keeper’s cottage had a beautifully laid out garden alongside the rail line.
Just beyond the first level crossing the reason for the style of operation became clear. From a fairly level section of track, the line began to climb gently and rather more effort was required to move our ‘train’. Another level crossing followed shortly after although this time there was no barrier. We were required to get off and walk again across the level crossing. Probably a sensible requirement, but slightly frustrating nonetheless as it seemed slightly unnecessary.
Final Crossing
From the second level crossing the line began to climb a little more steeply and as we puffed a bit we passed a sign that advised that it would be uphill for the next 4km and offering some encouragement to keep going! The third level crossing soon came and this one was protected by quite a loud bell, which appeared to be activated by a trip sensor between the tracks triggered as we passed by. I suspect that this technology is still employed on rural lines that are still operational in France.
The line became a lot more wooded in nature from here on and views out across the surrounding countryside were only fleeting. The countryside was largely agricultural with plenty of cows in evidence. Most seemed to be laying down – were they trying to tell us something? Of perhaps more interest than the surrounding countryside though was the wobbly nature of the rails. They had obviously suffered from years of not being maintained to a standard that would be suitable for powered rail transport. Even on a rail cycle we leaned and rumbled a bit over the rails. Some of the sleepers looked pretty rotten and I suspect that some replacements will be needed in order to maintain the operation.
Thiviers By-Pass
Towards the top of the slope we reached the station of Eyzerac-Labaurie. Some distance from the villages of the same names, it is now a private residence although the rather elderly chap that lives there seems to be very friendly towards velorailers as he gave us a cheery wave as we passed by. He keeps the old station beautifully, although the platform now resembles a lawn rather than its original appearance. No passengers have got the train from here since 1940 and yet the old place looks like it could reopen for business tomorrow!
Refreshment Point
At the end of the platform we again came across a level crossing, the last time that we did on the way out. Not only was there a barrier crossing but also a rope that we had to lift over the kids in order to move forward. This was clearly a reminder to make sure that all riders crossed the road on foot rather than on the bike. The slope continued beyond the level crossing and we passed through a short tunnel, which caused a little excitement with the small passengers on our ‘train’. A little way past the tunnel and we reached the end of the line. Thiviers station is on a busy operational line and so the velorail operation stops short of the junction at the back of a house with a decent sized garden. This has been turned into a refreshment stop serving coffees, ice creams and other drinks.It was a welcome break after the surprising slog up the line from Corgnac.
Heading Back
Turning all the rail cycles was performed by the staff rather than the riders. All the outward riders had to be accounted for before there was any chance of us heading back and so the layover was approximately 20 minutes. We sat and had a coffee, which was a very civilised way of passing the time.
Downhill all the way
We re-boarded in turn and waited for our slot. The system resembled a ‘real’ railway in that the start was signal controlled. I am guessing that the departing cyclists would trip something on the rail on the way down in order to reset the colour light signal in front of us. Once the green light came on it was go-go-go!
Kinky Track
As soon as we set off it immediately felt like a different ride! Of course we were now losing all the altitude that we had gained and once through the tunnel and across the first level crossing we gave it as much speed as we could. Our speed was probably fairly modest as the gearing of the rail cycle wasn’t set up to allow for great speed. Yet, it did feel like we were licking along at the speed of an express train – very exhilarating! Even the bumpy track didn’t feel too bad, although going round the corners Pendolino style was a little scary! Going along at this speed quickly made me realise why this line had operated in this style. Trying to stop one of these rail cycles to allow another coming the other way to get off would be nigh on impossible.
Speeding Along
As we hurtled down the track we were acutely aware that we had to stop at the elevl crossing. Firstly though another unexpected hazard became clear as a shoe came speeding past us, having left the foot of one of the cyclists ahead of us. There was no way the poor lady was going to stop to retrieve it. Countless drinks bottles and other ‘luggage’ could be found on the track, I am guessing from others having had a similar experience!
Eventually we drew into the village of Corgnac once again and reached the level part of the track. After the downhill section it was rather hard work trying to pedal very fast again as we had to put some effort into the last couple of kilometres. After passing across the bridge and through Corgnac station once again we were back at the beginning in rather less time than on the outward journey!
Inter City Coming Through
This was another hugely enjoyable velorail experience. My only criticism of these operations is that they seem to have little in the way of information available about the lines themselves – I had to rely on other sources to find out anything about this one and even then there wasn’t a big range of sources to choose from. The railway infrastructure though is largely complete and for this I am very pleased for so much has been lost of our rail heritage in this country. I was less sure that this operation would be a pre-curser to a heritage railway project and slightly mystified by the advertising of a route that didn’t seem to exist, onward from Corgnac to St Germain. It might be my only just able to ask for necessity French that meant I was missing something about the onward route. If you do visit though and you manage to do the section to St Germain I would be very interested to know about this route and how you get to ride on it…
Final Stop


  1. You'll be able to enjoy Britain's first velorail in Snowdonia next year. See this link

  2. Thanks for your comment. I have heard that - sounds very exciting. Will have to try it out when it is up and running!