“We’ve been waiting for it for so long!” : in Bagnols-sur-Cèze, in the south of France, a crowd welcomed Sunday with pennants and applause the return of the train after almost 50 years of absence, the first reopening of a regional line in the country since 2016.
“We had a lot of promises, it took a lot of fighting, we were all waiting for it for so long and, this is it, the train is back,” exclaimed an emotional Jean-Yves Chapelet, the mayor of this town of 19,000 inhabitants, on the platform, upon the arrival of the regional express train (TER) of Occitania.
Coming from Nîmes, with a stopover in Avignon, the TER will continue its route to Pont-Saint-Esprit, another medium-sized town in the Gard Rhone region and the second largest industrial center in Occitania.
In front of the Bagnols-sur-Cèze station, dozens of people wear a visor proclaiming, “I love the train on the right bank of the Rhone.” This rail line will be operational for all from Monday morning, after years of mobilization of citizen collectives, the CGT union and the Region, which has fully funded the work to the tune of 12.8 million euros ($16.62 million Canadian), in conjunction with the SNCF, to advance the return of this train to 2022, instead of 2025.
After a summer marked by drought, fires and heat waves that reminded us of the seriousness of climate change, the Socialist president of the Occitanie region, Carole Delga, is pleased to “win a battle against carbon.”
The line on the right bank of the Rhone originally linked Givors in the Rhone to Nimes in the Gard along the river. It was closed to passengers in 1973, at the time of the “all-car” system.
In about a century, France, which enjoyed one of the densest rail networks in Europe in the 1930s, saw some 20,000 kilometers of lines closed to passenger service, according to geographer Etienne Auphan.
“Battle of the railroad”
So, the reopening of this 82-kilometer line, “is a bit like having won the battle of the railroad,” emphasizes Laurette Bastaroli, an 83-year-old retired quality technician who heads the TER SNCF Right Bank Users Federation and has campaigned tirelessly for the return of the train as a “public service.”
“At the beginning, when we talked about the IPCC reports on climate change to support the importance of this line, people looked at us with round eyes!” she recounts.
“There is saturation on the roads. With this train, users will be able to go from Pont-Saint-Esprit to Avignon in 30 minutes instead of 50 minutes by car,” emphasizes Mr. Mme Delga.
According to the regional daily La Provence, 70,000 cars cross the bridges over the Rhone between Gard and Avignon every day. Eventually, five other SNCF stations will be reopened for a project that will cost a total of 100 million euros (130 million Canadian dollars).
“It’s important to give modest people who don’t necessarily have a car the opportunity to go to work in Avignon,” said Annab Sheherazade, 49, a resident of Bagnols-sur-Cèze. “And then, it causes less pollution.
Eventually, the Occitanie region wants to reopen other lines between medium-sized cities like Alès-Bessèges. And it remains in contact with the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, which could also reopen lines on the right bank of the Rhône, particularly in the Ardèche, the only department in France without a passenger station.
“I support the call of the CEO of the SNCF for a massive investment plan of 100 billion euros in France,” says Carole Delga, who is asking the State for “a more proactive policy.