Saturday 25 September 2010
Tren dels Llacs

Tren dels Llacs route mapThe first thing to say is this is a superb railway journey into the Pyrenees and is not to be missed.

Well before first light Óscar picked me up from the hotel and drove me over to the depot where work was already underway. The fire was lit and the loco was raising steam. There was oiling round to complete, an interesting task as despite the general similarities there were differences to UK practices in oil delivery and so on. Also in hand was shunting of the train. For security reasons everything is locked away in the shed overnight so the train has to be marshalled ready to come off shed, brakes tested, food and drink loaded and so on as is normal on any railway. All of the preparations were done in plenty of time for the off with everyone hanging around waiting for the mainline crew to arrive - much as it would be in the UK too!

RENFE send two crew members to man the loco, in this case they were both inspectors and would share the jobs on the Garratt and the diesels during the day. Once the crew had arrived it wasn't long before we were heading away from the depot towards Lleida station. The train, 5 passenger coaches, 1 van, 2 diesels and the Garratt were propelled from the depot all the way into Lleida station, a manoevure completed with no fuss and in total safety. Tren dels Llacs, introduced a few years ago, has become a very successful operation with most seats being sold on every train. The train is only relatively short but is the longest which can be accommodated in the loop at La Pobla de Segur. In days past much longer trains could have been operated but modernisation of the branch means the station at La Pobla de Segur has been altered in such a way as to limit train length. However it could be worse - at least a loop still exists.

Tren dels Llacs runs from Lleida to Balaguer and return with the Garratt pulling. The section from Balaguer to La Pobla de Segur and return is hauled by the pair of diesels. Sadly, for the time being, steam can not run to La Pobla de Segur. This is for a number of reasons including cost and pathing constraints. Despite the relatively light train 2 1050hp diesels are required to keep to schedule on the line. The line has a 3 return services a day beyond Balaguer but the only passing loop is at Tremp which is most of the way to the top. However it is of little use as it is not open to normal traffic. Extra staff have to be brought in, at a cost, to open it. So, in effect, beyond Balaguer it is single line all the way to La Pobla de Segur and without any intermediate block sections to ease operations. Cost is also the reason the diesels are hauled as part of the train to and from Balaguer. In years gone by they would have run light but this would cost an extra crew and extra path/track access fee so there is no choice but to run them as part of the train - but it does has the advantage of giving the Garratt a bit more weight to pull around.

The line out to Balaguer, whilst not the steepest, is not flat so requires, in both directions, a reasonable amount of work from the Garratt. As would be expected of a freight loco with 1.2m diameter driving wheels it does not take long before the exhaust beats become indistinct and the normal roar of a Garratt takes over. The roar was to get a lot louder (briefly) when the time came to clean the tubes with sand. The loco burns heavy fuel oil which is not the cleanest of fuels even when burning in ideal conditions. The sanding of the tubes lead to a large cloud of thick black smoke just as the loco passed under a dual carriageway, no doubt temporarily ruining visibility on that road!

All too soon Balaguer was reached and the Garratt cut off. It sits at the station from 11:00 to 18:00 whilst Tren dels Llacs runs to La Pobla de Segur and back. So from Balaguer the 2 diesels were in charge for the run into the Pyrenees. The run to the top takes another hour and a half. The train can not leave Balaguer before the preceding service train reaches La Pobla de Segur.

The line beyond Balaguer is truly spectacular with a number of lengthy tunnels, viaducts and long sections well away from any roads. The lakes passed are, in reality, reservoirs with hydroelectric power plants. Unlike many lines the railway was built after the reservoirs so hasn't had to be moved or just closed and flooded. Built in sections the line was not opened to La Pobla de Segur until 1951. It had been intended that the route would cross the mountains into France but this was not to be so the line has remained as a fairly quiet branchline throughout its life.

Passengers get 4 hours at La Pobla de Segur. Shortly after arrival the diesels have to run round the train and push it back towards the stops clearing the points at the Lleida end of the station so that the service train can depart at 12:56. Once the train is shunted all the train crew head across the road to have a sit down lunch made up of several healthily sized portions! After that there was a bit of time for a siesta before having to think about being ready to run back down to Balaguer at 16:30. By this time a service train from Lleida has returned to the bay platform. This train crossed the 12:56 service to Lleida at Balaguer.

The run back downhill is, of course, no less spectacular but only requires 1 of the diesels to be powered to keep to schedule. On arrival at Balaguer the train runs into the loop side of the station's island platform. Shortly afterwards the Garratt is put back on the front of the train but then there is an enforced wait until 19:00 as there is no path onwards to Lleida. A return service from Lleida to Balaguer arrives at 18:24 and sets off back towards Lleida at 18:30. Only on its arrival in Lleida is the section cleared allowing Tren dels Llacs to set off again. A frustrating wait but not one that anyone can do anything about at the moment. There is talk of a loop being installed allowing the section to be split into two parts meaning Tren dels Llacs could get away maybe 20 minutes sooner.

Once back at Lleida and after the passengers had departed the operation was more or the reverse of the morning. The Garratt pushed the train back to the depot but we stopped short at the yard throat to allow the loco to be cut off. From here the diesels shunted the coaches back to their side of the depot and the Garratt rolled down towards its side ready to be put to bed and back into the shed after another successful day out.

It had been another long day out with trains so once dropped off at the hotel I went out to find something quick to eat before returning to the hotel and going to bed almost straight away. At least I didn't have to be up early the next day!

My thanks to my friends at ARMF for their hospitality and the friendship shown to me whilst in Lleida.

My photographs show what a fantastic journey Tren dels Llacs is. Click here to view them.

Tren dels Llacs - 25 September 2010

This map, dating from 1953, is taken from "Géographie de Chemins de Fer d'Europe - Deuxième Volume - Belgique - Hollande - Grand-Duché de Luxembourge - Espagne - Portugal" by Henri Lartilleux. It shows the Lleida (shown as Lerida, which is the Catalan) to (La) Pobla de Segur branch and the many other lines in the area, some of which are now closed. The line north from La Pobla to Salau and into France was never built.


This map, dating from 1953, is taken from "Géographie de Chemins de Fer d'Europe - Deuxième Volume - Belgique - Hollande - Grand-Duché de Luxembourge - Espagne - Portugal" by Henri Lartilleux. It shows the Lleida (shown as Lerida, which is the Catalan) to (La) Pobla de Segur branch and the many other lines in the area, some of which are now closed. The line north from La Pobla to Salau and into France was never built.

West of Salau is Canfranc. This international route operated until 1970 when, on the French side, the line closed following an accident which destroyed a bridge. After a period of closure it is now possible to travel by train again on the Spanish route to Canfranc.

The routes to the east of Salau through Puigcerda/La Tour-de-Carol and Portbou/Cerbère remain open.

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