From 30th September to 3rd October, Storm Alex crossed Western Europe and devastated south-eastern France and northern Italy. The rains washed away not only many houses but also a dozen bridges and kilometres of roads. For the past month, the only way to access certain villages has been the line linking Cuneo to Ventimiglia, recently renovated by SYSTRA. It crosses the Valley of Wonders (Vallée des Merveilles) and gives its name to this TER, the Train of Wonders (Train des Merveilles), the first sections of which were opened in 1898.
A specially converted TER train
After the storm, the line started again in the first week of October from Nice, first to Breil-sur-Roya and then, since 19th October, to Saint-Dalmas de Tende, on the border with Italy. There they carry passengers, but also donations, equipment and basic necessities. To do this, a high-capacity self-propelled vehicle has even been converted into a freight train: a third of the seats and handrails have been removed, the partitions dismantled and the ground protected by a wooden floor. 25 pallets are thus transported every day in the mountains, unloaded at Breil-sur-Roya and at a temporary station 2km from Saint-Dalmas de Tende, before being partly sent by helicopter down into the valley.
The choice of the TER to provide this service is justified by the height of the platforms, which is suitable for trains but not for conventional freight trains, and by the weight of the trains, which must be identical to that of a conventional passenger train. This freight TER leaves Nice every day at 12.09 pm from Nice alongside a conventional passenger train. There are about ten services between Nice and Breil, then two daily return trips from Breil to Saint-Dalmas de Tende (1h30 total journey time). This is enough to open up the Roya Valley while waiting for the roads to be rebuilt.
To date, Tende can only be reached by train from Italy: the line has yet to be cleared on the French side. Full reopening is expected to take place in mid-February 2021.
Cuneo-Ventimiglia: more than ever a ‘lifeline’
SYSTRA is familiar with this Franco-Italian regional line: after several successive studies in 1997, 2003 and 2007, our rail teams provided the project management for the works and the technical checks necessary for the regeneration for SNCF Réseau of the section located in France, linking Breil-sur-Roya station to the Col de Tende tunnel.
During this 15-month assignment, from July 2017 to December 2018, the line was secured and reinforced, ten rockfall detection nets installed, six plated grids anchored to hold the walls in place, part of the rails renewed, part of the track purified (ballast regenerated down to the subsoil), and part of the track components rehabilitated. We also contributed to the implementation of SCMT (train control system, equivalent to KVB in Italy). The aim of this operation was to maintain traffic at a speed limit of 40km/h for the next 10 to 15 years, in order to prevent the line from being permanently closed.