10 September 2011"
A Train of Events.
By: Julia Gasper
The last time I went to Corsica, two years ago, I heard that a new, super-duper high-speed railway was being built
from Bastia on the East coast to Ajaccio on the West. The signs of it were plain to see in Ajaccio where the old
station had been extended into the town to make space for it. Actually I’m rather fond of the existing, older
trains, and I’m not the only one. The new line seemed pretty pointless to me since there is already a railway line
linking the two towns, neither of them very large, and it has been there for well over a hundred years.
The little narrow-gauge railway running through the mountains via Corte and Ponte-Leccia gives such fantastic views
of the surrounding scenery - peaks as high as the Alps, some bare granite and others clothed in forest, maquis or
vineyard - that I think it must be one of the greatest train journeys in the world. You might think you were in
India or Peru glancing out of the dusty windows, which CFC (Chemins-de-Fer Corse) rarely bother to clean. Who wants
to go faster when you are passing through one of the most majestic spectacles of Nature to be found anywhere? I
first went on this little railway line about seven years ago when the carriages still had bare wooden seats. It has
been made more comfortable since then, with upholstered seats, and even a loo, but it is still old-fashioned by the
standards of French TGV ultra-speedy trains. The Corsicans have a pet name for it, the Trinicellu, meaning the
“dear little train” or “funny little train”. Another name for it is the “petit train malin” - the crafty little
train. However, somebody in the French railway ministry, or more likely Brussels, seems to have looked at it and
said, “Mon Dieu, we cannot tolerate such an archaic, throwback of a train in the 21st century. We must have
something faster, newer and far more expensive.”
So the scheme for a high-speed link between Bastia and Ajaccio was born. The new line runs along the coast, passing
Isola Rossa and Calvi, zooming ruthlessly through those two beautiful holiday spots and all the wonderful coastline
that is found along the northern part of the island. There must have been many people who had just finished
restoring their delightful old cottages overlooking the sea, in what they thought was a quiet, relaxing spot, when
along came the new high-speed supertrain to liven up their back gardens!
I was expecting to see it in action this summer, But to my surprise, when we got to Corsica, we were told the new
train has been withdrawn. As a result the whole railway system is in disarray. The new trains, with their
air-conditioned, sound-proofed carriages, somehow went wrong. It was found that their brakes were not suitable for
the conditions they were operating in. They were too fast and the track was too twisty and all sorts of scary,
unpredictable things happened. So the super-trains have been taken out of service and for the time being, the rail
system is limping on with a mixture of older trains and buses. It was chaotic as a lot of the old rolling stock had
been sold off and the narrow gauge tracks pulled up! So CFC had to buy replacement carriages similar to the old
ones. Goodness knows how many millions or billions have been spent on the scheme and whether it is all completely
wasted. No one this summer could buy a return ticket in Corsica: CFC wasn’t selling any, in case they could not get
you home and you sued them. Armed with our one-way tickets, we did manage to use the old Trinicellu four times and
there was only one delay of an hour.
Knowing how I felt about the change, a friend of mine asked me whether I had put a jinx on the new super-train. Me?
I wish I had the power to do things like that. No, it wasn’t me. But I do wonder if is something to do with the
nature of Corsica itself. Wild and rebarbative, with roads and valleys as crooked as streaks of lightning, no fun
for car drivers who have to take the bends around cliff-edges and squeeze along narrow precipices, it is not really
the place for streamlining, or hyper-efficiency. I like it that way!
If somebody up there in the ministry wants to improve the Corsican railway, why don’t they re-build the old line
down to Porto-Vecchio in the South? It existed for a long time until it was destroyed in World War 2. Surely it
would be very welcome to those wanting to take a day trip down to Porto-Vecchio or Bonifacio or those heading
further South towards Sardinia. It doesn’t need to be a faster-than-sound HS2 with a nose like a rocket. Just a
train. A little meandering train to get you there, in its own time. I look forward to a few more holidays peering
out of the dusty windows of the Trinicellu.
For further information about Corsica, the home island of Napoleon:
UK to Corsica by train & ferry...