Electriques sur Mer

23 - 26 May 2011

Report by Duncan Cotterill


The Cote Vermielle is a spectacular section of the French Mediterranean coast, just north of the Spanish border, where the eastern Pyrenees tumble into the sea. The main line from Montpellier to Barcelona threads its way through a series of inland valleys, between vine clad slopes, before running along the clifftops for the last few km to the border station at Cerbere. I’d been here before in May 2008 but poor weather stopped me getting some of the best shots along the coast. I took the opportunity to do a short midweek trip from 23 to 26 May 2011 in the hope of filling some of the gaps in my collection.

Traffic levels weren’t particularly high for an international main line in 2008, and with the depressed Spanish economy, the replacement of loco hauled locals with EMUs and the diversion of some freight services via the newly opened Perthus tunnel under the Pyrennees, everything indicated that there would be less trains worth photographing this time. The trip was planned at the very last minute and I really didn’t know what to expect when I arrived.

This section of the report summarises what was seen. For train by train details with loco numbers etc, go to the Day by Day pages.

The Line

See my May 2008 report for more details of the line and the country it runs through.

Passenger Services

There are fewer long distance passengers over the line than there were in 2008 but with SNCF’s “different timetable every day” approach to train scheduling, it’s difficult to tell exactly what has gone and what just wasn’t running on the days of my visit. The service during this trip was actually the same each day with two trains around 08:00, an overnight from Paris Austerlitz and a daytime train to Paris Austerlitz. I didn’t see the overnight but the daytime train was hauled by a BB26000 Sybic as expected. The Montpellier - Cartagena Talgo followed, just after 09:00, behind a BB7200. Then there was a long gap until the northbound Talgo from Lorca to Montpellier after 19:00. The day train from Paris arrived after 20:00 with the overnight going north after 21:00.

Local services were mostly loco hauled in 2008 with the venerable class BB9300s in charge of most trains with a few BB7200s and BB8500s also appearing. The current service is mostly in the hands of class Z7300 2-car EMUs with the assistance of a few of the similar class Z7500s and a few Z27500 4-car AGC units. I hadn’t expected to see any loco hauled trains but was pleasantly surprised to find BB7200s hauling trains 76407 and 86989 from Avignon and 76428 and 76434 back every day.

Freight Trains

The high speed line from Perpignan to Barcelona via the Perthus tunnel was designed to carry freight as well as passengers, bypassing the cramped transshipment and gauge changing facilities at Cerbere and Port Bou, and providing a standard gauge route all the way to Barcelona and beyond. Construction of the Spanish end of the line is running years late but some freight was already using the new tunnel and I didn’t know how much traffic would be left on the coastal route.

In the event, traffic levels weren’t much reduced from 2008 with four proper freights seen on each of the two full days I spent by the lineside. That doesn’t count two trains comprising a loco and one or two vans that were seen on the Tuesday. Apart from one of the short trains, every Fret SNCF freight seen was an intermodal hauled by a BB26000 Sybic. Two very long trains seen on the Tuesday were a mixture of containers and high-capacity vans worked by ECR class 186s. There seemed to be a pattern of sorts to the workings with a Sybic leaving Cerbere with a northbound around 10:20 on each of the two mornings I was at the lineside. Southbound trains were all concentrated in the late afternoon and early evening.


I didn’t find many good locations for morning photography and ended up settling for a few shots on the coastal section in positions I’d done on the previous trip. The best shots are in the afternoon, when trains can be photographed on the coastal section north of Cerbere with the Med behind. There are also some good afternoon positions south of Port Vendres, where the line runs along a picturesque valley among the vineyards. Fortunately the sky remained clear for the entire trip and I got most of the shots I wanted in good light.

The line was hardly busy but there were still around a dozen loco hauled trains a day to photograph, four freights, two Talgos, two pairs of Avignon passengers and the morning trains to and from Paris. The evening Paris trains were too late for the sun and I couldn’t find any shots for the morning trains that were good enough to justify skipping breakfast. Despite the long gaps between trains, three of the southbound freights appeared within a few minutes of a northbound passenger, meaning that I wasn’t in the optimum position for one and missed two altogether.

Using a car is the easiest and most practical way to get around but it’s not essential. It would be feasible to do this line by rail, so long as you’re prepared to take your life in your hands walking along the narrow, twisty main road to the positions. The best coastal spots are 2 - 3 km north of Cerbere station and the inland shots are around 2 km south of Port Vendres station. The local train service has some gaps of two hours or more and timings are erratic but it’s good enough to get you to and from the spots. There’s also a local bus service operated by or on behalf of the local council that might offer a suitable alternative.

North of Perpignan

I saw a few trains during the drive from Montpellier to the Cote Vermielle and then spent the final morning at the lineside near Leucate-La Franqui, between Perpignan and Narbonne, where the line crosses the north end of the Etang de Leucate ou de Salses, a large coastal lagoon.

On the journey south three freights were seen, two of them hauled by class BB27000 locos with a Sybic on the third train. The BB27000 were a surprise but fortunately they were in the minority with the much more attractive Sybics hauling all the Fret SNCF freights I photographed.

The morning session at Leucate produced three freights, a northbound steel train and a northbound intermodal, hauled by Sybics, and a southbound consisting of a single car-carrier hauled by a BB69000 diesel, another class I didn’t expect to see.

The only loco hauled passengers seen at Leucate were the two locals from Avignon, hauled by BB7200s as expected. The remaining locals were operated by Z7300 units or Z27500 AGCs. I had hoped that a Perpignan - Avignon working might be loco hauled but it was a pair of AGCs.

TGVs can also be seen at Leucate, working services from Perpignan to Paris and other major cities such as Lille and Bruxelles. A few of the Paris trains now start back at Figueres Vilafant, at the Spanish end of the Perthus tunnel, where they connect with trains from Barcelona. A Perpignan - Bruxelles service was worked by a 3-voltage TGV-R set and two Figueres trains were worked by TGV-DAYSE sets.

The additional TGVs, local passengers and freights make this section much busier than the line between Perpignan and Cerbere. Twelve trains passed Leucate in the three hours from 09:00 to 12:00, six of them loco hauled. In the same period the previous day at Cerbere, I’d only seen five trains, three of them loco hauled. Good locations aren’t easy to find though and the overbridge at Leucate was the only decent spot for morning shots I identified. It’s only any good for northbound trains though. There’s a similar overbridge further north at Port la Nouvelle that looks OK for southbounds in the late afternoon.

Comments and Conclusions

Overall, this was a very successful trip despite my lack of preparation. I only decided to go a couple of days beforehand and had to arrange everything during a few hours of semi-consciousness between my weekend night shifts. Things didn’t go smoothly, with Expedia quoting excellent fares on Iberia to Barcelona that were impossible to book and Holiday Autos deciding that the car that was shown as available when I booked wasn’t available anymore. Everything worked out in the end but at a considerably higher price than I had envisaged at the beginning of the process.

Talking of costs, France seemed incredibly expensive, compared to Germany or even Switzerland, let alone the Czech Republic. I’ve never bought beer at eighteen quid to the litre before. A reasonable price for a decent whisky maybe but not bog standard heineken. Meals and the hotel were almost twice the price I would have expected to pay in Germany and certainly no higher quality. There wasn’t even any e-coli with the salad. I now understand why MacDonalds have so many establishments in France and was almost tempted to look for one myself.

Still, the sun shone, the scenery was magnificent, the trains ran and the shots were got. At the end of the day that’s all that matters, although my bank manager will be pleased to know that I don’t intend returning to France in the immediate future.