10:30am, Thursday 27/07/2017, an overcast, but dry day at Milton Keynes Central Station. I was pulling up in my car at the start of the longest train journey I’d ever taken. This was going to take 21.5 hours in total. I was on my way to Turin, to participate in the annual youth camp organised by Fedecrail, the European Association of Heritage and Museum Railways and Tramways. I was to meet up with a second participant on the 10:47 Virgin Pendolino to London Euston, where we would walk to St Pancras International to meet up with a third and we would travel down to Turin together. This was to be my sixth camp, having been on previous ones in Germany, Hungary, The Netherlands, Austria and the United Kingdom. And what a trip it was!
Our Eurostar to Paris Gare Du Nord left on time to the second at 13:31 and we sped our way through the Channel Tunnel and onward to Paris, arriving at a comfortable 16:53. We had to cross Paris to connect with the Thello sleeper which left Gare Du Lyon at 19:14. We arrived at Gare Du Lyon with plenty of time to spare so we went for a walk and an explore of the surrounding area. On the Sleeper train we had chosen to book a 3 person compartment, which included a welcome drink and breakfast in the restaurant coach. We left Paris a minute or so early, but this wasn’t an issue as we were ready when the train came in.
The onboard experience can best be described as Fawlty Towers on wheels. The crew, while helpful, spent most of their time trying to fix things that were going wrong around them, an example being the connecting doors between coaches got stuck closed! And when the attendant came to open it, he said “door is shit fucked”. We just laughed because it was quite comical. After a couple of drinks and an almost edible lasagna we retired to our room for as good a night’s sleep as we could, despite one of the lights in our compartment not working properly, coming on at strange hours, and the power coming on and off randomly, meaning none of our phones could charge properly.
The sleeper train screeched and clunked its way into Milan Centrale approximately an hour late due to issues with French Border Control at Switzerland. We didn’t think much of it at the time, but it came back to haunt us later on. We were greeted by a couple of other participants there who were holding a crudely made sign saying “Stupid Brit plus 2 others”. Clearly they knew me well, they were also regulars after all.
Together as a 5 we boarded Regonale Velloce #2006 to Turin, departing at 07:18. This gave us the whole day to explore the town and see what was about. After buying some day tickets we explored the driver-less metro system and had a ride on the trams. Then we found a cafe where we had lunch, after which we phoned up one of the organising team to find out if we could meet up early. We decided that as we still had a few hours to kill before the official meet up time we should go and have a couple of drinks. While we were there another participant arrived (who had come across this blog while doing his research and contacted me for advice) and we got acquainted with each other. After a couple of hours we transferred back to Porta Nuova station to meet up with the rest of the group as they were arriving. When everyone had gathered we transferred by tram to the Youth Hostel at the Arsenal of Peace. We were thankful for a bed that didn’t rock, shake, or make strange noises during the night.
Saturday Morning. Our first wake up in Italy (we had given up trying to sleep on the Thello somewhere in Switzerland). Today we were to visit the Museo Ferroviario Piemontese (MFP) at Savigliano. The Museum is home to a wide variety of vintage Italian rolling stock and a sizeable collection of railwayana. Unfortunately nothing (aside from a rail bike) was operational. We learned that in Italy, railway preservation as we know it is still very much in its infancy, with static railway museums and rusting hulks of steam locomotives at major stations being the primary form of railway preservation. The museum’s collection was very varied and included items from the whole history of Italian railways, from vintage steam locomotives to a modern prototype Pendolino. They do have ambitions to run heritage trains along a freight only branch line that passes their site though, with an estimated start time of late 2018.
After visiting the museum we had a guided tour of the town, where we were shown the important sites, including the theatre, the main church and town hall. The tour was interesting and gave us a perspective on the local culture. Afterwards we had an hour or so of free time to do our own exploring or visit one of the many cafes in the main square.
That evening we travelled back into Turin to have dinner at the MFP’s workshop site at Turin Porta Milano station, the former station on the railway line from Turin to Milan. Currently this workshop is shared between MFP and GTT (The Turin local transport authority). After a tour of the site we discovered a partially dismantled rail bike, and we were told that if we fixed it we could play with it. No prizes for guessing what we did then! Throughout our time there, our speed record was 24km/h (or 14mph).
This morning we travelled across town to visit the Fiat Museum. Fiat is best known for their cars, but they also produced railway vehicles, home appliances, heavy mining equipment, and even aircraft! The museum showcased the history of Fiat, all the way from their humble beginnings, right up to the modern day. The collection even included a Lada Riva, based on the Fiat 124, and adapted by the Russians to become one of the longest lasting production lines in the world, starting in 1979 and ending in 2012 in Russia, and still in production in Egypt to this day.
After the visit to the Museum we went on two historic tram tours of the old town of Turin. The first was on a 1960s tram, used in regular service by GTT on a heritage tram route, the other dating back to 1911 and offering short tours in return for a donation to the local tramway museum.
After the tour we split up for some free time in the city. One group stayed and went on another vintage tram tour, others (including myself) got changed and went for dinner at a local Pizzeria, and then hit up some of the bars in the old city to experience the night life this magnificent city has to offer.
On Monday it was planned that we would go and spend the day at the beach. We had an early start and boarded a Regonale Velloce at about 08:15 to Alassio, arriving shortly after 12 noon. After a quick lunch we walked to the seafront and spent a few hours in the sea. While we had all been very careful with sun cream throughout the day, several of us still ended up a little sunburned. After discussions with the rest of the group, we decided that for quite sensible reasons it would probably be best if all cameras stayed away, in our bags while we were at the beach. So there were only a few photos that day, mainly of the journey there, and the journey back.
On the return trip we went a different way. We boarded a train to the French border at Ventimigilia and then a local train across the historic and very scenic Col di Tenda railway, passing through parts of the French Riviera along the way. Our train terminated at Cuneo, but formed a stopping train back into Turin, so we decided to stay on board. We got back to Turin at about 10:30PM. After putting an un-natural amount of aftersun on, we decided that the best thing to do would be to go straight to bed.
Tuesday was a day of two halves. In the morning we went for a ride on the cogwheel tramway at Sassi-Superga. This is a rack powered tramway running from the Turin suburb of Sassi, to the Basilica at Superga. The line was opened in 1884 as a cable hauled rack railway, powered by a stationary steam engine. After an accident in the 1930s it was closed and rebuilt as a more conventional electric cogwheel tramway using the Strub system, and an electrified 3rd rail at 600V DC. The line is 3.1KM long and has an elevation change of 419m. The top station also offers incredible views over the city of Turin. While we were at the top we visited the beautiful basilica at Superga, and paid our respects to the football team who were involved in the Superga air disaster in 1949.
After a short tour of the station at Sassi, we headed back to the MFP site for lunch and an afternoon of work. Unfortunately for us, we were working during the hottest part of the day, outdoors and many of us were a tad sunburned from the day before! We split into teams to perform a few tasks. Most of us were working on an old electric locomotive that was being stripped down for restoration. A couple of us were preparing and painting a new back plate for a steam locomotive cab. I was in the team doing the locomotive until my own sunburn got too painful, at which point I moved inside to help out with the new cab back plate.
In the evening we had a formal dinner at the MFP site. Those of us who brought our railway uniforms put them on as an unplanned surprise. Myself, two other Brits and the Germans all brought uniforms of varying types. Mine was a typical steam era British guard’s uniform, the other Brits brought a Penrhyn Quarry-man’s uniform and a vintage tram driver’s uniform respectively. The Germans brought reproduction Deutsche Reichsbahn (East German) and Hamburg S-Bahn uniforms. After the dinner we had some speeches and a farewell party, with plenty of Prosecco flowing.
Wednesday. Travel day. The first group travel day we’d had for 3 years. These were always fun. It’s always a challenge to organise group travel, but when you have 18 people, and you’re trying to do it as cheaply as possible, you’re going to have a lot of fun and/or stress! We took a long succession of trains that took us from Turin to Primolano. The journey was supposed to take 5 hours, but one of our trains was delayed and we missed a connection. We had nearly an hour to kill in Verona, so we did what seemed like the most sensible thing to do. It was about 5pm, we were hungry, and myself and a couple of others decided that a Burger King meal seemed like an attractive proposition. It was expensive, it was barely edible, but the portion sizes were huge! It certainly filled a hole.
On the next train we were given some fantastic and important news. The Italian government had announced that heritage trains would be allowed to run again. Railway preservation in Italy until now was purely based on static railway museums. Vintage rolling stock was kept in operational condition, but not allowed to carry passengers in the manner that we know and love. This announcement from Rome has finally kick-started the real preservation scene in Italy. The MFP at Savigliano already had plans to restart passenger services on a freight only branch line that goes past their site, but now they can operate their entire vintage collection too! Primolano were also planning to run their vintage steam train on the state railway through the village.
We eventually arrived in Primolano at about 8pm, just in time for a welcome party in the village. Primolano is only a small village, the kind where everyone knows everyone, and when 18 people from all corners of Europe turn up, it’s kind of a big deal. The welcome party was in the village school, which also had an interesting museum of local history in it, which we were given a tour of.
I have received a message from one of the guys at the museum at Primolano containing a small correction and a lot more detail about the history of railway preservation in Italy. His comment below also contains some interesting trivia about some of the things we saw during the trip.
The heritage railways in Italy are different from what you felt. MFP in the past received more founding than now (blame the crisis) and was able to organize charter special trains with its own engines and possibly FS or GTT (Turin public transport company) coaches. They repaired their engines in the workshop in Porta Milano station.
By the way, if you read a 19th century Italian book about railways, you could see that Porta Milano is prototypical for what was a station in mid 19th century Italy.
Back to the heritage trains. About twenty years ago the bulk of the preservation of heritage trains was done by volunteer associations that, throught an agreement with FS, worked within FS premises with FS equipment on FS engines. Many were enthusiast, many were retired railwaymen. At that time someone talking about creating an “English style” heritage railway society was scorned by a barrage of “It’s impossible”, “No!”, “You fool!”.
And they were ALMOST right. But not completly. MFP was there – maybe with a budget richer than now – and some crazy fools in 2006 started the group that hosted you in Primolano.
But something even more impacting on Italian heritage railways happened. FS hired a young, brilliant, smart, maybe ambitious, certainly train loving, engineer named Luigi Cantamessa. He first, being a junior manager, fulfilled his dream of driving steam locomotives (would you blame him?) and in the meanwile conceived a new way of managing the impressive collection of heritage rolling stock belonging to FS. He convinced the FS top management to create “Fondazione FS”, a foundation whose goal is to maintain and manage the remarkably large collection of active rolling stock, maybe the largest single collection in Europe, and museums.
That’s the world of heritage railways in Italy.
And then there’s SVF that after all is still an hatchling. We can’t fully follow the British model, first of all we have no rails. Primolano is on sub-loan for use from the municipality of Cismon del Grappa that itself has if on a loan for use from RFI (Italian counterpart of Network Rail). Then we can’t be neither engine drivers of guards, we must have professionals in these positions. Maybe in the future, having enough money, someone will be trained just like any other professional engine driver, I don’t think that the new law cover this.
It does declare that touristic (heritage) railways exists, lists some – but the list can grow – state which rolling stock may be used as touristic (requirement number one: being an heritage item at least fifty years old or twenty five years old and historically or technically peculiar. It states clear rules, finally, that could let SVF work.
Thursday, and a change of plan. We originally intended to spend the day being tourists in Venice. But instead we had our working day at the Shed at Primolano. Once again we split into teams, with some of us working on restoring the society’s historic turntable, another team painting a set of points in the yard, and the rest stripping the rotten wood from a wagon, ready for restoration. I was on the wagon team (it was in the shade of the engine shed, and I was still sunburned). Before we carried out any work we were given a safety briefing and given additional safety equipment, a lot of which appeared to have been bought specifically for us. It was clear to us that Primolano was operating by the book, with formal health and safety procedures and risk assessments for everything. It was reassuring, but it did take us away from it in a way.
During the afternoon, local TV news came to visit to talk to us about what we were doing, who we were and why we were there, which given the previous day’s announcement couldn’t have come at a better time!
Friday, Tourist day. We got up bright and early to catch the morning train into Venice. We spent most of the day in this gorgeous city. When we got to Santa Lucia Station we were greeted by our tour guide and we had a guided tour of the city. We stopped for lunch in a park and then afterwards headed back to the station (after getting a little lost, like everyone does in Venice)! There isn’t much I can say about Venice as a city that anyone reading this probably doesn’t already know, so I’ll let the photos tell the story.
Our last day together, and I thought one of the best. We headed up to Trento to have a ride on the Trento–Malè–Marilleva railway. a metre gauge railway that goes from Trento to the Marilleva ski resort in the Italian Alps. The line is 66km (41m) long and was built in 1909 and is electrified at 3KV DC overhead. On the day we visited the section from Trento to Mezzolombardo was closed for engineering works. No matter as this section is mostly suburban in nature and there was a replacement bus service in place. After a trip on the line we were given a tour of the new depot at Croviana.
On the way down we stopped at the town of Cles where some of us went to have a wander around the town, and the rest stayed at the station.
When we got back to Primolano we were told that we were going to have a formal dinner, so we all donned our railway uniforms again, and we had speeches and certificates and photographs at Primolano Station. What we weren’t told was that we had tickets to a local bi-annual rock festival that took place in the ruins of a castle at the top of the cliffs. So we all turned up in formal gear and had to quickly get changed when we got there! It was a good night. As it was a rock festival, beer was flowing like tap water, and there was a lot of food! We got an 8 seat minibus there and back, which in true Italian style was a clapped out old Fiat van with an insane driver, and 16 of us in it. On the way up I genuinely feared for my life. but going down I’d had enough beer that I was too drunk to care, and joined in with the drunken singing.
Day of Departure. We decided that we should get up bright and early to see everyone off. Trains were every two hours in each direction, so most of us left in groups. We said our goodbyes to the first two groups, and myself, the other Brits, the Ukranians, one Swede and our Dutch organiser left together. We were one of the last groups to leave, so in between packing and preparing for the journeys we were waving off the other groups.
We were travelling to Mestre, the city on the mainland by Venice, and we arrived at about lunch time, so we decided to have one last lunch together. Our Dutch organiser and the Swede then departed to their respective airport and hotel. The rest of us decided to take a tram across to Venice to buy souvenirs. This wasn’t an ordinary tram. It was a rubber tyred tramway built with the Translohr system, with a single central rail for guidance and rubber tyres for traction. This was an interesting experience, but we decided that a traditional tramway was better in almost every way …
After our little trip to Venice, it was time for the other Brits and the Ukrainians to head off to their airport and hotel respectively (the flight to Kiev didn’t leave until the next morning). So we said our goodbyes and waved off the busses. This left the 3 of us. We spent the rest of the afternoon stuffing ourselves stupid with cheap food so we didn’t have to face the restaurant coach on the sleeper again (we still did anyway). We also decided to follow the advice of the man in seat 61 and buy a bottle of wine to share and laugh at all the things that would go wrong. This was the Thello sleeper after all! It finally arrived at Mestre 15 minutes late. Not good, we had a 20 minute connection at Dijon with a TGV. We settled in to another near sleepless night on board, but hey, at least everything worked this time!
As predicted, we were an hour late at Dijon. Shortly before arrival, we talked to our carriage attendant, and we talked through our options. We decided that the best option would be to alight as planned, get our TGV tickets stamped and hope we can get on the next Eurostar at Paris. We thanked our carriage attendant for the help and said goodbye. We then went to the ticket office to see if they could help. Only the local ticket office was open and they couldn’t do anything for us. We either faced a half hour wait or hope that the information desk could do something. They could! We were offered an itinerary which meant waiting in Dijon until lunch time and getting home in the evening, or asking the train manager on the next TGV if we could sneak on board. I couldn’t understand what the station staff said, but I heard the words “anglais” and “Thello.” As soon as the word Thello was said, the manager said in perfect English to just get on. We didn’t even have to bribe him with the cheap Prosecco we bought for the night before, but didn’t feel like drinking!
On arrival at Paris, the train manager came to us and wished us luck with the Eurostar. He said to take RER D, two stops and to hurry. A Eurostar was going to leave soon and it had space for us! We got some RER tickets and quickly crossed Paris. We arrived at the Eurostar ticket office and presented our tickets to be greeted with “I’m sorry but the next train is full, but there is space on the next train, it leaves at 13:13 and check in opens in half an hour”. DAMN! We were really hoping to get this one, as it arrived in London only about 20 minutes after our planned connection from Lille, and would have meant we wouldmake our UK connections. We decided that the best thing to do now was to have lunch and wait.
We boarded the Eurostar, resigned to our fate. We would arrive in the UK over an hour late and would all miss our connections. I was OK as I was on an open ticket and could get any train, but the others were going further and had advances. When we arrived at St Pancras we were greeted by one of the other participants. We had suggested that we meet up back in London for lunch, but we were late, we were tired and we just wanted to go home, so it was more of a hi and bye kind of thing. One of the three of us was going from Paddington, so we said our goodbyes at St Pancras Tube Station and off we went to Euston.
When we got to Euston we went straight to the ticket office to try and change the advance ticket. We quoted CIV regulations, escalated the matter to a supervisor, but nothing, he had to buy a new ticket. This was Brexit Britain, and we were now dirty Europeans. We tried to ask the train guard of the next suitable train if he could get on anyway, but to no avail. We said our goodbyes and that was that. We were going to see each other soon anyway, as our two railways often share equipment and skills. As I approached Milton Keynes I checked my watch. I quipped to a couple of other passengers that were at the door that it had taken nearly 36 hours from Venice. One just smirked, and the other (who was wearing a network rail badge), made a bit of small talk. I was home, and that’s all that mattered.
This was my 6th time on the youth camp, and I’m now getting close to the point where I’m too old to participate. I have been invited to join the Fedecrail Youth Core group which is the branch of Fedecrail that organises the trips and helps promote getting young people involved in railway preservation. I will be taking them up on the offer and intend to do what I can on this small isolated island to help get the younger people involved. Next year will most likely be the last camp I participate in, but it is likely not the last that I’ll be involved in.