The Sad Little Train

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On 5th November, 1994, a terrible flood devastated the valley of the River Var that runs from the foothills of the Alps down to the Meditteranean at Nice. Several days of torrential rain coincided with a warm spell that meant rain rather than snow fell in the mountains. Miraculously, nobody was killed, but there was enormous destruction. Everything close to the bed of the river was swept away, including the road and the 100-year old railway line. The villages in the valley were isolated, accessible only by tortuous mountain tracks

Whereas rebuilding the road was a high priority, the future for the railway was much less certain. It had survived on a shoestring for decades, long after all comparable narrow-gauge lines in France had closed, and this seemed to be the last straw. The repair bill ran to tens of millions of francs, which many felt was far more than the economic value of the line. And yet it had great value for the villages it served in the mountains, and for the thousands of tourists and local people it carried every year.

After several months of delay and political wrangling, it was finally decided that the line should be rebuilt. The SNCF donated a spare bridge (astonishing though the idea of a "spare bridge" may seem) to replace the Pont de Gueydan that had been swept away. The line finally reopened from end to end in the summer of 1996, making possible once again the 160km, three-hour journey from Nice to Digne through some of the most spectacular railway scenery in Europe.

But the story that follows was written in the days that followed the flood, when the future seemed very uncertain. Of course there was no one train that really had as dramatic a day as this, but all of the events really happened. The Pont de Gueydan, built in 1910, really was swept into the river, along with the road bridge further down at La Mescla and one of the two "elephants" that protect the road and the railway from landslides. Nice airport really was flooded, and closed for two days before reopening by candlelight, and a truck driver really was rescued by helicopter from the autoroute by the airport.

More information about the "Train des Pignes" can be found here.

    [Autorail picture] The little train was really fed up. For days and days it had been raining. She was cold and wet, so wet she could hardly believe it. Everywhere her track was wet, and her wheels were so wet they were going rusty. Her front-end was covered in mad that got splashed up. In fact, since she could go both ways, both ends were covered in mud, with just little gaps where her windscreen-wipers cleared a space. Because the weather was so horrible, she didn’t have many passengers, and even the ones she did have were cold and wet and grumpy too. Even her driver was grumpy because the weather was so horrible. For most of the journey she travelled on her little track beside the great big river. She could see the water in the river getting higher every time she travelled along her track, and racing along faster and faster. She wasn’t worried though, because she had been travelling up and down her line for years and years and she knew that the river had never done any real harm. And even the very old trains, even the old steam engines who lived at the station up in the mountains, told her that there had never been any bad problems with the river, not for over a hundred years. So she didn’t worry about the river, just the horrible rain that went on and on.

The little train started in a great big town called Nice. She had a little station all to herself. Until a few years ago she had a great big, massive old station, with a huge roof and enormous long platforms. She used to think it was a bit odd, because all the trains were like her, just one coach or occasionally two when it was very busy in summer. Then one day they built her a brand new station, all modern and just the right size for a little train, and she didn’t go to the old station any more.

She knew, because her driver had told her, that there was another station in Nice where the big trains went. But she never went there. In fact, she hardly ever saw big trains now. Once they had been at the station at the other end of her long, long line, called Digne, but they stopped coming years ago and now there were just buses and a few rusty rails. Of course, when she was built she had come to Nice on a big train. on the back of a wagon pulled by a great big electric engine. She was ever so impressed. She hoped that the big engine would say something nice to her, just a little tiny train and brand new in her bright paint, and when they got to Nice he did. Just a few words, because electric engines don’t say much. "Good luck little train. May your journeys be happy ones". She was ever so proud that the big engine had spoken to her.

After the station in Nice, her line went through the town a little way, across level crossings where she could see shops and people busy doing whatever they did in towns, and then she went into a tunnel. It was quite a long tunnel, but nothing like the one in the mountains. After that there were houses and little streets where people lived, and a little tiny station perched on the side of a hill. Schoolchildren would often get on and off there, because the little train was much faster than the bus through all the traffic. Then she went through another tunnel, and then under the enormous viaduct where the autoroute went. Sometimes she would look up and see the cars and the great big trucks zooming along the autoroute. They went much much faster than she could ever imagine going. Sometimes the old steam engine would tell her about the time when he was the fastest thing there was, and people were frightened of the train because it went so fast, racing past all the horses and the people walking and the bicycles. She wasn’t sure she believed him. Now, where she ran alongside the road, the cars and buses and lorries all went past her. She didn’t mind, she knew that people liked riding on her and weren’t in a big hurry.

It was just after the autoroute that she came to the big river for the first time. She knew it was called the Var, because her driver told her. Where the line first came to the river outside Nice, it was ever so wide. Some of the old diesels told her that there used to be a bridge and another line that went somewhere different, and they used to cross the bridge and go to a place called Grasse, but all that was ever such a long time ago.

The line climbed up alongside the river, sometimes ever so close to it and sandwiched between the river and the road, and sometimes all by itself perched on the side of the cliff. The river got narrower and narrower, until in one place it got so narrow that there wasn’t any room for the little train. She had a tunnel there, and when she popped out of the tunnel the river was a bit wider. This was the part of the line she liked best of all. Every few miles there was a little village, and the people who lived in the villages loved their little train and used to ride on her all the time to get to Nice or just to go and see people in the other villages. The villages had old-fashioned names like Tout-sur-Var and Puget-Theniers and Entrevaux. Entrevaux was her favourite. There was an old-fashioned bridge with a tower on the other side, and high up on the hill was an old fort from the days when France and Italy were always fighting each other. Just past the station was a tiny little tunnel, and the ends were ever so fancy just like a castle.

Before Entrevaux, the line passed through Puget-Theniers. That was another of the little train’s favourite places. It was a busy little town, but best of all there was a big shed beside the station where the steam engines lived and some old-fashioned carriages for them to pull. In the summer she would sometime see them, painted bright green and puffing out steam and smoke. When she could she would stop for a few minutes longer and listen to their stories about the old times.

Along the river between Pugert-Theniers and Entrevaux were two enormous stone things, like half of a bridge as though people had built them all those years ago and then forgotten to build the bit that went across the river. She heard people call them "elephants", because that was what they looked like. From what she could make out, they were so that if ever there was a big landslide, all the stuff that fell would go straight in the river instead of blocking her track. She knew all about landslides, because up in the mountains they often happened, and they would get a big yellow bulldozer and clear her track for her. She thought it was clever to have the elephants to look after her track, and she wished they had built a lot more of them.

After Entrevaux, and another village called Annot, she got into the really high mountains. She had to climb up ever so high to get through them, and in some places she had to go round in a big circle, through a tunnel and the over a viaduct where she crossed where she had been a few minutes before. Even though she travelled over the line every day, she still found these exciting. She wondered if one day she would ever see another train underneath, but her driver told her not to be silly because there was only a single track, so where could another train go?

The line climbed up and up and up just here, and at the top when it looked like there was nowehere left to go, it plunged into an enormous tunnel, miles long. She liked the tunnel. It was very restful after the long climb up, through the villages and the mountains. And when it rained (which it often did up in the mountains), the tunnel was warm and dry and let her dry her wheels off. But lately, it had rained so much that even the tunnel was damp and chilly and not very inviting after all.

Through the tunnel, she started to go down again, through some tiny villages where hardly anybody lived any more until she got back down to another valley. It was getting closer to the end of the line, and eventually she would arrive in the town of Digne. Compared to Nice it was a tiny place, but it thought itself very important because it was the main town in the district, and it had a court and government offices and so on. The little train thought Digne took itself much too seriously for such a little place, but then she came from Nice which was so much bigger.

As she travelled up and down her line, she would meet the other trains at the stations along the way and they would chat about what they had seen. Most of the other trains were like her, painted cream and red and quite modern. There were a couple of old trains, painted blue. They didn’t get out very often, but they were ever so interesting. They were ever so old (although not as old as the steam engines), and they would talk about the old days.

Most of the time, she was a very happy train. She lived in a beautiful place, and the weather was mostly very nice, and she liked her passengers and her driver and the other trains. But at the moment, she was cold and wet and miserable. After all, it had been pouring with rain for days.

On Friday, she finished the day in Digne, away from home (from Nice to Digne is about a hundred miles, which is a long way for a little train). She often spent the night there. Her driver would get off half way, and drive a different train back home to Nice, and she would have another driver who took her to Digne. It made a nice change, she liked her own driver a lot but the other drivers would tell her new things about the line and the other trains.

In Digne it was still pouring with rain, and when she settled down to sleep she was cold and wet and fed up with it all. There was another train with her, and they stayed awake a long time because it was so cold, complaining about the weather. Neither of them could remember a time when it had rained so much or for so long.

The next morning, the other train left first, while it was still dark. It was Saturday, and the people from the villages would be getting up early to go into Nice on the first train, to do their big shopping. A lot of the village people didn’t often go to Nice, and the little train was very important for them because it meant they could go to the big shops and get nice clothes, and interesting things to eat, and books and records and all the things that the village shops didn’t sell. They didn’t at all mind getting up early, it was all part of the excitement.

Our little train left Digne towards the end of the morning. The rain was still pouring down. As she climbed up towards the big tunnel in the mountains, she saw that all the streams and little rivers that she crossed were absolutely full, and in some places they had burst out of their banks and were flooding the fields around them. This often happened when it rained at lot, in the autumn, and it didn’t worry her. She got up to her tunnel, which was cold and damp because of all the rain. She still didn’t have many passengers, they mostly got on in the villages on the other side of the tunnel. She was looking forward to pulling into the stations, full of people eager to get on her and go for a ride. She never minded when there were so many people that some of them had to stand up, she thought it was quite fun. And another thing, she thought to herself, maybe it wouldn’t be raining at the other end of the tunnel. That often happened, the tunnel was so long that the weather could be quite different at the two ends.

She was certainly disappointed when she got to the other end. The rain was heavier than ever, coming down in great sheets. It was so bad that her driver had to slow down so he could see where he was going. He started to worry that he would be late for the crossing point where they met the other train. Because the line was just a single track, the trains had to wait for each other at the stations. If one was late, it made the other one late too and eventually all the trains would be running late. The drivers worried a lot about being late.

When she looked down at the river, she saw that what was normally a tiny stream up high in the mountains had become a raging torrent. The water was so high that it was washing over the road at the bottom, and it was starting to tear up trees and rocks and wash them away. She had never, never seen the river so angry, and she started to get frightened. Her driver told her not to worry, that it was alright, but she could tell that he was a bit worried too.

As they went down the valley it got worse and worse. When she came out of one of her circular tunnels, she saw that in one or two places the river was already running over her rails. That had never happened before. Her wheels got all wet and cold and she started to worry about her engines, which were underneath between her wheels. What would happen if they got wet as well?

Her driver started to get worried as well. She could tell when he was worried, because he started to use words that she had never heard at train school. "Putain de pluie, on va se noyer. Merde, qu’est-ce qu’on va devenir ici?" (I’ve left that in French, because it isn’t very polite). Whenever he could, he would race along, hoping to get back as quickly as he could, but then the rain would be so hard that he couldn’t see and he would have to slow down. Each time he slowed down he started swearing again. He was really worried, and the poor little train started to get frightened too. The river was getting higher and higher and faster and faster, and then in one place they saw where the road had disappeared altogether. Rushing along in the water were whole trees and huge rocks and bits of the road. It was awful.

They came to the first of the bridges that took them across the Var. Along the line they crossed the Var back and forth several times, on bridges that were sometimes made of stone and sometimes made of steel girders, and usually they looked a long way down to the river far below. This bridge, the first one after the big tunnel, was the longest, a huge strong one made of big thick steel girders and standing on enormous stone piers in the river. It was so strong and big that it would stay there for ever. They went on to the bridge, and the river was so high it was almost touching the bottom. The poor little train was terrified, and to judge from the language he used so was the driver. Still, she got safely to the other side. She trusted the old bridge. it had been there for a hundred years they said.

No sooner had they reached the other side, than there was the most awful noise. It was a huge roar, like a giant shouting, and then afterwards a terrible screeching. The little train looked back, and she couldn’t believe what she saw. The big bridge, that had stood for such a long time, had disappeared altogether! All that was left were some twisted girders. It was horrible. They had only been on it a few seconds ago. If they had just been a few seconds later they would all have been washed into the terrible river, and they would all have drowned. The driver used some words she had never heard before, and pushed her throttle right up to maximum. "Come on old girl, this is awful. We’ve got to get away from here and up out of the river". The little train rushed as much as she could, until her engines were bursting as she rattled along the old track swaying up and down on the joints in the rails.

They rushed along until they got to the station at the little village of Annot. There at least they were safe, a long way above the river. There was an old trailer car there, that had been there for years. He was a funny little thing, so small there was hardly any room for passengers. He used to talk about the days of the ski trains, when people would take the little trains up into the mountains to go skiing. There weren’t many passengers waiting. The few that were there rushed out of the waiting room into the warmth of the train. Even in a few steps they got soaked. As they settled into their seats they were moaning about the terrible weather. Some of them had stories of people who lived right down by the river, whose houses had been flooded during the night. The driver rushed out of the cab and into the station master’s office, to tell him about the bridge. When he got back into the cab he was more frightened than ever. "Le chef, il dit que...". (Alright, I’ll put in in English.) "The stationmaster says that the weather down the valley is just as bad. But so far the track is holding and we’ll be OK to get back to Nice as long as we hurry. No more trains are coming up so we’ll have the line to ourselves and we won’t need to wait. But we’ll have to check at every station."

He put the train in gear (the little train had a gearbox and a clutch just like a car), and rushed off as quickly as he could. Just as they pulled out of the station, over the last pair of points, there was an enormous roaring noise. The huge wall at the side of the station collapsed, and all the land behind it came pouring down over the station in a sea of mud! The little old trailer car was thrown over on his side and then completely buried, and so was half of the station! Petrified, the little train hurried as fast as she could. At the same time, she started to cry for the old trailer. He hadn’t moved in years, and nobody would bother to mend him, but he had been her friend and it made her ever so sad to think that he was finished, just like that. His last words had been "Off you go girl, and look after yourself. I’ll be alright up here, away from the river". And now he was gone, and she would never see him again. But she was so glad she had been a bit early, and she had the passengers safely with her. It was so horrible to think about, if she had been a couple of minutes later the passengers would all have still been in the waiting room. What would have become of them? She shuddered a bit. (The passengers didn’t notice, because the track was so shaky anyway).

Now she was really frightened. Twice she had nearly come to a horrible end, and her driver and her passengers with her. What should she do? If she stopped, up there in the mountains, she would be no safer than if she carried on. But if she carried on, why the very track she was on could be washed out from under her. Her driver was thinking the same things, out loud. They decided to press on.

At Entrevaux, people had already heard about what had happened at Annot. Most people were worried about their homes, or helping their neighbours who were close to the river. (Except the woman in the fast-food restaurant by the station. She was too horrid to worry about anyone else). Only one old man got on the train. As he got on he said to the driver, "I’ve never, never seen it like this. Nearly eighty years, man and boy, and I’ve never seen it like this. I’ve got to get down and see my grand-daughter in Nice, she’s just made me a great-grandfather and I have to see the baby. Otherwise, I’d be up in the hills where the river can’t reach. Come on, let’s get down before it’s too late."

After Entrevaux, they passed under the two elephants. They were massive, so that they could carry a huge landslide into the river. The river here was even higher and even faster than before. In places it washed over the track. They were no cars on the road that ran alongside, because the gendarmes were stopping them. Only the little train could carry on. It made her quite proud. She passed under the second elephant, and just as she came out of the tiny tunnel there was a roar and it collapsed! She would never have imagined it could happen, but the river was so strong and so fierce that it had washed away under the end and the huge stone structure had just fallen down and disappeared into the water! One more time she had brushed with death and escaped, but she hoped it didn’t happen again.

At Puget-Theniers, the next station, they stopped again but there were no passengers. She just had time for a quick word with the old steam engines. "We trains have seen a lot of things, but we’ve never heard of anything like this. And you say the elephant has collapsed too? That’s bad. That’s very bad. Good luck, my girl. I hope... well, until next time."

The rain was still pouring down, and the river was stronger and stronger. Just here, they had built a brand new road out into the bed of the river, a fast, straight, wide road. The little train didn’t like the road, because she knew that as the cars could go faster and faster, some of her regular old passengers would choose to drive instead. She was looking at it as she thought this, when suddenly it just disappeared into the river! She was so surprised that she let out a little yell, from her horns. It was a good job there were no cars on it, or the people would have drowned!

Further on, she crossed the river over another bridge. She was very frightened about this. She went as fast as she possibly could. The river was a long way down here and the bridge had no piers in the water, but after the last time she wasn’t taking any chances. Alongside was a road bridge. It was quite old, although not nearly as old as the train’s bridge. Just as she was over her bridge, the road bridge disappeared into the river with a huge crash. All that was left were a few twisted girders. All the rest disappeared in a mass of froth and was carried away in the angry waters of the Var.

After that the little train went into a tunnel, past the narrow part of the river. When she came out she crossed the river one last time. She couldn’t believe how bad the damage was. In one place, the brand new road had disappeared completely for hundreds of yards. Everywhere there was wreckage, and buildings and even whole houses washed away. But the little train herself had no more near misses, and in the end she got safely into the new station in Nice. All the other trains, that she would normally have passed along the line, were still there. Her passengers got off. All of them thanked the driver for being so brave and bringing them to Nice in such terrible conditions.

The other trains asked her what she had seen. As she told her story, they couldn’t believe her. "What, the old bridge, just gone, just like that? What will we do now? What about our friend up in Digne? Will we ever see her again?". "The poor old trailer at Annot, just buried in the mud? That’s awful!".

Then they started to tell her some of the things they had heard. Even down here in Nice the weather had been just as bad. The autoroute through the town had been flooded. One lorry got stranded in the water, and the driver had to be taken out by a helicopter! They knew because their drivers had seen it on the television. (Secretly, they were all rather pleased that the autoroute was flooded). And the airport, where the huge planes took off and landed to go to Paris and other far-away places (none of the trains had ever been to Paris, although some of them had relatives in Corsica)... the airport was flooded, the great runways covered in water and mud. It was unbelievable.

But the worst shock was the next day. The trains woke up early as usual, waiting for the first train of the day. They were nice and dry, under the station roof waiting for their drivers and telling stories about the rain. The little train told the story over and over again, each time thinking of some other little detail. The time came for the first train. They knew they couldn’t go all the way to Digne, not until their bridge was mended, but they thought there would be a bus or something to take their passengers across to where another train would be waiting.

The driver came for the first train. But instead of getting in the cab and starting the engine as usual, he went over to his mate and they started talking. The trains couldn’t believe what they heard. After the little train had passed the previous evening, the track had just disappeared into the river in dozens of places! All of the villages up in the hills were completely cut off, with no roads or railways at all. At first they worried about the poor people up there. What would become of them without their trains and without even any roads?

But then they started to worry about themselves, too. What would happen to them if they didn’t have a line any more? What would happen to their friends who were still out on the line or up in Digne? The drivers told them that their line was in such a terrible state that they couldn’t go anywhere past where the line met the river. In the morning one train went out to the end of the line, but he was back almost straight away. "It’s not even worth bothering. We can’t get anywhere!", he said. He was almost crying."What will we do without our line? We’ve got this lovely new station, and it’s just a waste because we’re no use any more!"

"Don’t worry", the others all said. "They’ll mend our line, and build a new bridge for us, and scrape away all the mud at Annot with a bulldozer. You’ll see. We’ll just have to be patient, and wait here quietly for a few weeks, and then our line will be as good as new." They felt better after they said that. But their drivers weren’t so sure. "Those politicians (they weren’t so polite as this), they won’t bother with our train. They’ll just mend the roads and to heck with the trains they’ll say. And we’ll all be on the dole, and our trains with us." As the day went on, they talked about sending men to the Town Hall, and even to Paris to see the government.

By the end of the day the poor little train was just so, so sad. She had saved her passengers, and braved the terrifying journey down through the flood, and now it seemed as though her next journey might be on the back of a lorry to the scrapyard! It was unbelievable. How could life be so cruel to her? The other trains were just as worried as she was. Sometimes one of them would pop out and back to the end of the line, but it hardly seemed worth it and it just made them even more miserable.

That was all a week ago. The little train is still there in the station at Nice, with her friends. Some of her other friends are still scattered about the line. The bridge is still broken, and the track is still washed away in lots of places. The old trailer car at Annot is still buried in the mud. Men have been very busy mending the road, but nobody has done anything about the trains. The politicians in Paris are saying, "Who needs the old train anyway, buses would be just as good once we’ve finished rebuilding the road."

The little train and her friends are sadder than ever now. We don’t know what will happen to them. The people up in the villages want the line mended as soon as possible, but all the politicians are saying it will cost a lot, and wondering who will pay for it. All we can do is hope they decide quickly, and let our little train back out on her line again where she can be part of the valley’s life again.


The End