Mallorcan Contrasts

8 - 14 September 2013

Report by Duncan Cotterill


Mallorca might not sound like a promising destination for a railway enthusiast but it’s home to two very different narrow-gauge railways, one of which is a real delight and the other an efficient but soulless modern railway. This report details brief visits to both lines during a week’s visit to the island in March 2013.
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Taken by Surprise

It isn't always easy to get up to date information about the Sóller Railway timetable. A few days earlier, I'd copied the "current" timetable from the official trendesoller website but wasn't expecting a northbound train when one trundled into view. A hurried visit to Bunyola revealed that the timetable had changed at the beginning of March and the full summer service was in operation. It's on the website now but it wasn't then.

Motor coach No.3 led the 10:10 from Palma to Sóller through the groves south of Avenida de Santa Maria halt on 9 March 2013.

F.C. de Sóller

(09 & 10 March 2013)

The F.C. de Sóller runs a 27km long 914mm gauge electrified line linking the island’s capital, Palma, with the resort town and port of Sóller on the north coast. En-route it passes through the Sierra de Alfàbia mountains in a 2.8km tunnel, followed by a spectacular twisting descent to the terminus in the valley far below.

My previous visits had all been in January or February, when a sparse service operates, so it was a pleasant surprise to find that the full summer timetable was already in operation in early March. It’s a strange schedule, see below, with seven northbound services but only five southbounds, requiring a couple of long empty stock moves. There’s a four hour gap in each direction in the late afternoon, just when you would imagine day trippers might want to return to Palma, and nothing timed to appeal to commuters at all. The inevitable conclusion is that the line caters entirely for tourists and locals on a day out but that’s probably a good thing as there’s less likely to be pressure to replace the vintage stock with modern plastic.

No less than three of the line’s four 1929 built motor-coaches are required to operate the summer timetable and all four were seen in service over the two days I was on the line. Each train consisted of a wooden bodied motor coach hauling a rake of six wooden bodied bogie trailers. There are no driving trailers and the motor coaches have to run round at each end of the journey.

In addition to the regular timetabled trains, there were also some extra services. The Sunday was a particularly good day with two Sóller – Son Sardina specials for coach parties and an additional late afternoon southbound for normal travellers. How regular these extras are is unknown but I believe the late afternoon Sóller - Palma train runs fairly regularly on Sundays. In all cases the trains laid on for coach parties returned north almost immediately after unloading at Son Sardina. It’s suspected but not confirmed that the Sunday afternoon train to Palma did the same.

The line is a very pleasant ride but isn’t particularly easy to photograph, being hemmed in by buildings or vegetation most of the way. Apart from the street running in Palma itself, the best spots I found were amongst the groves of fruit trees south of Santa Maria halt, which is actually near to Palmanyola. A brief visit to the Monreals (Cinc-Ponts) Viaduct on the climb out of Sóller found the classic positions overlooking the bridge impossibly overgrown.
Nature Fights Back

The most impressive bridge on the Sóller line is the Monreals or Cinc Ponts Viaduct high on the mountainside above Sóller and there are some very attractive photos of it elsewhere on the web. It's questionable whether the sun gets onto the bridge in January or early February when I usually visit but a March trip seemed the ideal opportunity to get the shot.

Unfortunately classic vantage points have been reclaimed by nature and the view from above with the mountains behind is no longer possible. After much crashing through the undergrowth I did find a relatively clear view from lower down and closer in and had to settle for that.

No.2 eased down the bank towards Sóller with the 12:15 from Palma on 9 March 2013.
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F.C. de Sóller Summer Timetable (March - October 2013)

NB A B C A B C 2 A C 2 ?
Palma 08:00 10:10 10:50 12:15 13:30   15:10   19:30
Son Sardina 14:45 16:30
Bunyola 08:26 10:35 11:15 12:40 13:55 15:00 15:35 16:45 19:55
Sóller 08:55 11:00 11:45 13:10 14:25 15:25 16:00 17:15 20:20

SB C A B C 1 A C 1 A 3 ?
Sóller 09:10 10:50 12:15 13:30 14:00 15:45 16:30 18:30
Bunyola 09:35 11:15 12:40 13:55 14:25 16:15 16:55 18:55
Son Sardina 14:10 16:30
Palma 10:00 11:45 13:05 14:55 17:20 19:20

The timings of the regular Palma – Sóller or v.v. trains were taken from the timetable posted at Bunyola and are in force from March to October 2013 (presumably 1st March to 31st October but this wasn’t stated). All these services run daily and the movements observed were consistent with the timetable. The timings of the coach party charters and ecs moves plus the 16:30 from Sóller to Palma are part observation and part inspired guesswork. There was no indication how frequently these trains ran.

Diagrams (from observation)
A was No.3 on Saturday and No.2 on Sunday
B was No.1 on Saturday and No.4 on Sunday
C was No.2 on Saturday and No.3 on Sunday
? not seen - could have been covered by A, B or C.

1 = charter for coach parties (may not run every day)
2 = empty stock of coach party charter (may not run every day)
3 = advertised extra seen on Sunday (may not run every day)
Through the Streets

One of the great attractions of the Sóller Railway is the street running in Palma but it's not always easy to get a clear shot.

This particular location, at the junction of Carrer Concordia and Carrer Eusebi Estada had always been problematic due to road traffic passing unimpeded in the foreground. A Sunday lunchtime visit turned out to be a good move as the roads were quiet and nothing got in the way.

No.2 negotiated the junction at walking pace as it approached the terminus with the 12:15 from Sóller on 10 March 2013.
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Southbound Extra

There's usually a long gap between the departures from Sóller at 14:00 and 18:30, arguably the best time for the light on the section across the plains from Bunyola to the outskirts of Palma.

While visiting the terminus in Palma on Sunday, 10 March, I noticed that an additional 16:30 service was scheduled to run from Sóller that day. This was an opportunity not to be missed.

With the Sierra de Tramuntana visible behind, No.3 led the extra train through the groves south of Avenida de Santa Maria on its way back to the capital in glorious late afternoon light.

Serveis Ferroviaris de Mallorca

(12 & 14 March 2013)

Mallorca’s other rail system is quite different in character and appears to be aimed squarely at providing public transport for local residents. The SFM system is metre gauge and runs north-east from Palma for 35km through Inca to Enllaç, where it divides, with one branch heading a further 13km north-east to Sa Pobla and the other a further 29km south-east to Manacor. Palma to Enllaç has recently been electrified but the branches to Manacor and Sa Pobla remain free of poles and are worked by DMUs.

A 30km extension from Manacor to Arta is under construction, largely following the route of the line closed in 1977. Although much of the civil work appeared to be complete between Manacor and Sant Llorenç, tracklaying had not yet begun. The section beyond Sant Llorenç wasn’t explored.

Unlike the Sóller line, the SFM system runs a regular interval timetable with three services an hour in each direction on weekdays, a Palma – Sa Pobla all-stations, a Palma – Inca all-stations and a Palma to Manacor that runs fast to Marratxi, then all-stations. There are a few additional Palma – Inca services over the peaks. The weekend service consists of two all-stations trains an hour, one to Sa Pobla and the other to Manacor. Through services to Sa Pobla and Manacor require a change from EMU to DMU at Enllaç.

I had a look at the branches from Enllaç to Manacor and Sa Pobla on Tuesday 12 March and found a surprising number of reasonable photo positions despite the railway being securely fenced off. Even the most minor roads cross the line on bridges, providing plenty of vantage points for anyone desperate enough to want to photograph the action. The motive power was particularly uninteresting, consisting of very plastic looking Class 61 two-car DMUs built by CAF between 1995 and 2005. On Tuesday the same two-car set (61-39 + 61-40) shuttled back and forth on the Sa Pobla line all day while the Manacors were worked by the same pair of two-car sets (61-37 + 61-38 and 61-43 + 61-44). On Thursday 61-34 + 61-33 and 61-40 + 61-39 were working the Manacor line.

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South from Sineu

SFM units 61.44 + 61.43 and 61.38 + 61.37 accelerated away from Sineu with the 11:51 from Enllaç to Manacor on 12 March 2013.

Sineu's hilltop Santa Maria Church, parts of which date from the 13th century, dominates the view with the distant peaks of the Sierra de Tramuntana visible behind.

The reopened line to Manacor has suffered from landslides and was closed for a period in 2010 while reinforcement works were carried out, including the construction of the elaborate system of retaining walls visible on the right of the picture.

For a single-track metre-gauge line serving a rural area, the scale of the civil engineering is very impressive and seems totally out of proportion with the economic potential of the railway.
Open Country

SFM units 61.37 + 61 .38 and 61.43 + 61.44 ran through open countryside west of Petra with the 13:23 from Manacor to Enllaç on 12 March 2013. At Enllaç the train would connect with an EMU to Inca and Palma.

All the SFM units seen were in a similar grubby condition that showed up badly against the predominantly white livery and contrasted with the gleaming Sóller Railway motor coaches.

Although the railway is operated by SFM, the trains carry the colours of TIB (Transports de les Illes Balears), confusingly also known as CTM (Consorcio de Transportes de Mallorca), which co-ordinates public transport on behalf of the regional government.
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Comments and Conclusions

The F.C. de Sóller has always been an attractive line to visit, even in the depths of winter, but I hadn't realised how much busier it was in the summer timetable period. The additional scheduled trains, charters for coach parties and the extra Sunday southbound almost doubled the volume of traffic I was expecting to see and kept me happily occupied all day. A Spring visit also meant that the countryside was a lot greener than I was used to, making everything so much more photogenic.

There's clearly been a lot done over the past few years to smarten up the line and the stations at Palma and Bunyola look a lot more inviting than they did a decade ago. The trains look good as well with the motor coaches and trailers all clean and mostly freshly varnished. There can't be many classes that remain intact and still in daily use after 84 years and still fewer that retain their classic appearance, free from unsympathetic liveries and advertising. The Sóller Railway motor coaches are real gems and I can't overemphasise what a delight it is to see them in operation in the second decade of the 21st Century, especially as everything appears to be in good order and well looked after.

Despite numerous visits to Mallorca over the years, I'd never really had a good look at the SFM line before and was pleasantly surprised by some of the locations available, particularly on the Manacor branch. Unfortunately the trains aren't very attractive and, unlike the smart motor coaches on the Sóller Railway, it appears that nobody cares about their appearance. At least the four-coach formations on the Manacor line were a bit more photogenic than the ridiculously short two-coach sets on the Sa Pobla branch.

The extension from Manacor to Arta looks like it will be photogenic as well but whether there will anything worth photting on it is another matter.
Coach Party Charter

The Sóller Railway ran two extra trains from Sóller to Son Sardina for coach parties on Sunday 10 March 2013.

Motor coach No.4 was photographed approaching Avenida de Santa Maria halt with the empty stock of the second train as it returned north in the late afternoon.
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