Algeria is a blank page on most train travel visit and report websites. While « les années noires » (the Dark Years of civil war) for a decade from 1992 made any stay in that country a dangerous affair, the situation has normalized, at least in the populated coastal belt where most people live. The recent hostage taking at the Amenas work site took place far away from these areas.
There was never any priority given to tourism by the Algerian governments after independence in 1962 and whatever tourism there was focussed on the far south « Sahara » region, now probably rather deserted by visitors. Except for a few businessmen and Frenchmen visiting Algerian friends and contacts, we met only Chinese workers as non-ethnic Algerians during this tour. This has at least one positive aspect: you never get pestered by touts and petty traders while travelling around in Algeria. Anyone who has been to countries like Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt or to tourist spots in India will appreciate this point.
RAILWAYS (history and maps)
The railways are run by Société National des Transports Ferroviaires (SNTF), all standard gauge now, although the books below also describe the very interesting narrower gauge lines of former times, some traces of which we saw on our tour.
Information on the history of railways in Algeria is best found in THE book on the subject: Les Chemins de Fer de la France d’Outre-Mer, Volume 2, l’Afrique du Nord + Le Transsaharien published in 1992 by Editions La Régordane, ISBN 2-906984-13-2. It is quoted at about Euro 60.00 on Abebooks.fr.
Many interesting and detailed maps are available in another French basic work : Geographie des Chemins de Fer, Lartilleux, 3rd volume : Afriqe du Nord, published 1949 and now difficult to source even on the secondhand market. English language books with coverage of Algerian railway history include : Steam in Africa by Durrant, Jorgensen and Lewis published by Hamlyn in 1981 ISBN 0 600 34946 2 ; Railways of North Africa by Brandt published by David & Charles in 1971 ISBN 0 7153 5254 7 ; and Locomotives at War by Kalla-Bishop published by Bradford Barton ISBN 0 85153 373 6. More excellent railway maps in World Rail Atlas and Historical Summary Vol 7 North, East and Central Africa by Neil Robinson, very good for distances, opening dates and old narrow gauge systems.
There is not much recent/current information around, and the maps on the official Société National des Transports Ferroviaires (SNTF) site are either confusing or unprecise. The lines marked XXX are either closed or inexistant !
THE NOT ACCURATE MAP PICKED UP FROM THE SNTF SITE
And TWO MAPS we used, besides photocopies of LARTILLEUX + WORLD RAIL ATLAS
Here a few sites :
- [fr.wikipedia.org] The SNTF wikipedia page
- the official SNTF site : [www.sntf.dz] (which seems often not working properly…)
- [www.skyscrapercity.com] > Algeria > Railways (mostly for the modern scene and other regime’s realisations!
If anyone knows of better informative sites in French or English, I would appreciate to know the link.
PREPARATION FOR THE TRIP
Info on which trains/lines are running and their timetable is patchy because the SNTF website is not so customer friendly. The Fahrplancenter website’s Algeria timetable dates back to 2011, but is still by and large OK (it at least gives you which train are running where); however, the precise departure times need to be checked locally.
Through Skyscrapercity.com and a few detours I was finally able to get in touch with a local rail enthusiast (yes, there are at least two I know of now !) and get confirmation of the departing time of the trains we wanted to use, plus further useful information. We decided to stick to the Algiers > Constantine > Algiers > Oran > Algiers main lines as the basic itinerary.
I even tried to obtain a photo permit and got the correct fax number. As you can see from the attachment, the reply was negative and it was really the only « hitch » in our preparation. I hardly take any photo any more so it did not worry me much. More important to me is just to watch and soak into the ambiance. Those who may want to take pictures should try a more sustained siege of Madame Houira (or work through influential contacts, which is the best way in such countries), though PR does not overall seem to be a priority at SNTF.
MEMORIES OF ITALIAN POLFER, NOGOSLAVIA AND OTHER SECRETIVE COUNTRIES
For the visa you need, on top of the basic docs, the following papers : valid travel/repatriation insurance + airline booking in/out + confirmation of the hotel bookings. This later point may be a problem for those who want to remain flexible. But at the Geneva consulate where I went in person to deposit my visa request, they were quite friendly but obviously insisting on this point. The visa came back within 6 days. Note however that visa support documentation appears to vary country to country ; for example, the Consulate in London also require employer’s details or if not employed evidence of other income or pension.
From GVA airport only Air Algérie flies direct to Algiers (only 1 hour 35 minutes away) three times a week, so do not expect any Easyjet or Ryan Air prices ! Hotels in Algeria also not so cheap, if only because there are not many of them even in the major cities, but all of them can now be booked on the internet.
Though prior to my retirement I had been three times to Algiers for short business visits (2x in the mid 1980s and once in 2005), I nonetheless thought it better to take along a long-time Algerian family friend Abdel, living in Switzerland since the mid 1960s; he does not return there very often but at least knows his way around and can speak Arabic. In fact we found French understood on most occasions in hotels and restaurants and on trains. A British friend, Peter, with whom I have shared rail trips to such places as Pakistan and Calcutta/Darjeeling was keen to come along, also for a look at the colonial architecture and a corner of North Africa which is rich in history (mostly turbulent over the last 70 years) and to see where his father had been posted in and around Algiers in 1942-43.
Local transport was all through pre-arranged (through Abdel’s contacts/family) taxi which cost about 30 to 40 Euros per day depending on the distance/time used). Taxis seem the only practical solution as one would have to be a rather sadistic person to use public transport, if only due to the lack of proper information.
THURSDAY 28.02.2013 GENEVA - ALGIERS
The 14.10 Air Algerie flight was a 737-800 with only 43 passengers ; I and another person were the only non-ethnic North Africans. Departure was + 30. At Algiers, imigration was swift but, though we were the only incoming flight at the bright newish airport international terminal, it took more than 30 minutes for the luggages to come through; night was falling with overcast weather when we reached the old style Hotel Albert 1er, just above the Grande Poste, right in the centre of Algiers (and hence at a rather noisy location), which was to be our base for all our Algiers stays. The hotel is quite vintage (not least in the rooms, furniture and facilities) but staff are efficient and it has a pleasant restaurant on the first floor. Another choice could have been Hotel Suisse, in a quieter side street but less central. If you are on a larger budget, you may wish to consider El Djezair (ex St George), the historic palace hotel above the city centre overlooking the bay. Also the massive modern El Aurassi, overlooking the whole city, with a splendid view (if getting a front room). Closest to the city station is Hotel Safir (ex Aletti) a government hotel, hence pretty run down. We did not consider staying at the Ibis : it is close to the airport but in a nondescript modern part of the city and about 18 kms from Algiers centre (but close to the new tramway line).
We went walking in the nearby shopping streets, but the stores were all closing at about 7pm (on a Thursday night, which is the equivalent of our Friday evening), the lighting poor and the pavement atrocious, so that we had to keep our eyes on the ground ; it started drizzling and the whole athmosphere was rather gloomy, which depressed my Algerian friend more than myself. Even the selected restaurant which looked clean and bright, was finally a poor choice ; many dishes were not available (« closing for the weekend »), the food so-so and the service haphazard… However there are better places in the Grande Poste area (including our own hotel restaurant) as we find later during our visit.
RIGHT AT THE HEART OF ALGIERS : LA GRANDE POSTE
THE VIEW FROM THE HOTEL – ADMIRE THE MORNING LIGHT !
FRIDAY 01.03.2013 – IN AND AROUND ALGIERS
Peter was coming by a late afternoon flight from London, so we had the day for ourselves. I had given an appointment at 10am to our Algerian railfan contacts. By 10.30 they had still not shown up, and so Abdel and I decided to go and visit Alger Gare Centrale (the terminus) to find out about the tickets and exact timetable for tomorrow’s train to Constantine. The Gare Centrale - and the Gare de l’Agha, a short distance down the line - are on the Algiers waterfront: the white 19th century terraces of the French colonial city rise up the hills behind.
THE CURRENT STATE OF ALGER GARE CENTRALE
NOT TOTALLY DIFFERENT FROM ABOUT 1910
ALSO AT THE FRONT
AND THE UNCHANGED LOOK OF ALGIERS : THE SEAFRONT BOULEVARD; THE GARE CENTRALE IS JUST TO THE RIGHT AT SEA LEVEL
Except for the catenary and Stadler FLIRT (Fast Light Innovative Regional Train) suburban sets, the 1863-built Gare Centrale station building and scene itself is not much changed since decades (still like the vintage postcard shots in the Editions La Régordane book; still has PLM signs) and the ticket offices all very oldish. The 1st class window is not occupied, so I go to one of the two desks where people are buying suburban tickets. The first guichetier (they still use this nice French word in Algeria) does not seem to speak French very well, so he calls another person who tells us « Demain matin à 07.20 ». Can we buy the tickets now? : « Non». Can we book the tickets and reservation for Oran next week? : « Non ». This fellow is not placing customer statisfaction first! So I decide to see if the second Algiers city station, Agha (pronounced a-ra), is more service-oriented. On our way there, we have a call from the hotel - our visitors have come, so we go back to the hotel. Their train was delayed: the Stadler FLIRT units are working fine, but the Algier surburban network seems to suffer from frequent breakdowns of the signal system (of which more later). We decide to make use of their local knowledge and go straight to Agha station to arrange for the Oran tickets and seat reservations too, as the Oran trains are said to be well patronized. A (much friendlier) guichetier at the 1st class booth sells us return ticket to Oran plus seat booking for the very reasonable price of about 22 Euros (distance one way is 420 kms).
Our pleasant young rail enthusiasts tell us that, except for a few friendly railwaymen, they have no contacts with other enthusiasts or any group/club/website outside Skyscrapercity. This is Friday and they want to attend the 1pm prayers, so we just show them the La Régordane book and photocopies of the Lartilleux maps : they did not seem to have been aware of their existence. The weather is better and Abdel and I decide to drive to Tipasa, a seaside resort with Roman ruins about 70 kilometres west along the coast from Algiers. For about half of the distance there was once a tramway, then the CFRA (Chemin de fer sur Route d’Algérie) which looked like the Calvados or Royan system of former days, but there are no remains in these heavily built-up (and pretty awfull architecturally) outer surburbs. At Tipasa the weather has again turned poor and we cut short our drive to return to Algiers and the now much busier airport (on an European Friday night at a time of French holidays) to welcome Peter who is in coming from London with about + 30 minutes.
SATURDAY 02.03.2013 – ALGIERS TO CONSTANTINE
A PLAN OF THE LINES IN THE AREA – ALL METERGAUGE LINES ARE LONG CLOSED
We take no chances and the punctual taxi takes us down to Central station by 06.50 for the only daylight train to Constantine (463 kms) due out at 07.20. The formation is short : engine a General Motors CoCo diesel 060DS13 (built 2008) + 2 x 2nd class coaches + 1 x 2nd/Bar coach + 1 x 1st class coach, all Francorail Inox 1985 and in reasonable interior shape but windows are rather dusty. The 1st class coach is about 25 % occupied when we move out at 07.24. After stops at Agha and El Harrach (in French days, Maison Blanche) the occupation is somewhat higher but still under 50%. The suburban electrification ends at Thenia (previously Ménerville) km 43, which we reach at 08.29, so the average speed on this double track part of the line is only about 50 kms/h. We pass numerous familiar French-type crossing keeper houses. The line is henceforth single and goes up the Gorges of the Isser river – quite scenic. There are several slow spots at places where the winter rains have resulted in mud overflows, as well as one or two places where overturned freight wagons and a burned-out diesel are testimony of other problems (hopefully only track or operations related…). At Bouira (09.23/27) there is no trace of the long closed MG line to Sour El Ghozlane (Aumale). Our line runs across a high plain with snow-covered mountains of the Kabylie massif on the left hand side.
We reach the junction station of Beni Mansour km 171 (10.33/10.43), which is by far the most « genuine » station-cum-junction we will see during our trip, though it could also do with a bit of tender loving care. It is a pleasing rural spot : typical French station building, grass growing between the tracks, sun glinting on snowy peaks to the north. We are on track 2, the connecting train to Bejaia (previously Bougie) is on track 3 with engine DJ 13 at the head (type known in Algeria as « Juliette ») and soon our counterpart train from Constantine to Algiers rolls down the hill and stops on track 1 with DS 12 the engine. Very much the classic junction station lost in the countryside.
The line then climbs at 1 in 40 into the Biban mountains through some very spectacular scenery with tunnels and bridges through the so-called « Les portes de Fer », an area which must have seen its share of nasty situations during the liberation war as well as the « Dark Years » when rail lines and trains were not spared. A few kilometers before the Tunnel de Tierret el Merdj (km 220), we take a new line and cut through another longish tunnel (to shorten and speed-up the original line) before arriving at Borj Bou Arreridj (BBA) (km 238 - 11.40/11.48). BBA is a crew changing point and the junction for the new line to Msila and Batna > Biskra in the Sahara, which is served by at least one CAF railcar (ZZ 22 Class, a version of the RENFE 598s) to and from Algiers. We are now at 920 m. above the sea level and snow is not far up on the high hills beyond the town. The station is new, vast and has an overall empty look.
After crossing a lonely high fertile grain-growing plain, which had two short freight lines to mine de M’zaita (13.5 kms) and mine de Tocqueville (8.5 kms) which both seem closed, we reach Setif (km 308 at 12.33, alt. 1100 m.). This city still has its original station with authentic vintage appearence; the building and canopy have had a recent coat of paint. The Algiers- Constantine main line through here was opened in 1886, originally worked by 0-6-0s. Setif is an important place in the modern history of Algeria since on 8th May 1945, while the French residents were celebrating the victory over the Axis Powers, the first slogans and flags for an independent Algeria were outed, which resulted in a bloody shoot-out, and troubles all over Algeria. The seeds were sown for the war of Independence (1954-1962).
After Setif, we are on an unpopulated plateau, with long work sites for improving the track and doubling it (but for what traffic ?). For a second time our tickets are inspected. Time for a nap until El Gourzi (km 426, 14.00), the junction with the long line to Biskra and Touggourt, as well as Tebessa (partly new formation, partly ex MG). We are now not far from Constantine now and « brule » the station of Oued Rahmoune non-stop, from where the MG lines to Kanchela and Tebessa used to branch off. Two O&K 0-10-0T locomotives originally from CF Départmentaux de la Côte d’Or worked on the line during WWII. Today the station is clogged with redundant SG freight stock and only a typical French narrow gauge style engine shed can be seen from our speeding train. El Khroub is the next stop, from where the SG line to Guelma and Tunisia branches off, long breached at the far end between Oued Zenati and Guelma on account of flood damage. Any new direct Algiers-Tunis train would need to detour north via Annaba (Bône) on the coast. Our train has several slow points approaching Constantine, going past the large Sidi Mabrouk workshops and shed on the left, very 1930s concrete look. Constantine station itself is quite original (typical of la gare at a French provincial town in a past age), with a recently renovated original canopy over track 1 still with EA (CF Est-Algérien) initials on gable. It is 14.30 and only about 30 people leave the train, the loading being light after Setif. It had taken 7 hours for the 463 kms trip, an average speed of about 66 km/h, not bad in view of the steep climbs and very rugged terrain on some parts of this line.
LARTILLEUX MAP OF THE CONSTANTINE AREA – THE TEBESSA STANDARD GAUGE LINE DOES NOT IN FACT RUN THROUGH THE AREA MARKED « Possibly … »
REGIORDANE MAP OF THE AREA
During this ride, we crossed numerous Stadtler FLIRT units in the morning rush towards Algiers on the « banlieue » section, then beyond Thenia 3 x CAF railcars and one ‘rame banlieue’ train at Bouira. The Bejaia connection at Beni Mansour has already been mentioned. Further out the traffic was lighter with 3 diesels parked at BBA and one, 060DR07, shunting at Setif, while 060DR012 was on short mixed freight at El Eulma. That was about all.
Constantine is a rather special place. The city, in the hills at 694 m., is divided by the deep and rather sinister gorge of the Rhumel river, with the station and modern city on the east side and the older city on the west side, linked by some interesting bridges. It is a bit like Ronda in southern Spain but on a much bigger scale. The weather, clear during our rail journey, has now turned rainy and misty like in an Indian hill station during monsoon and it adds to the strange lost place feeling of this town. We stay at the central Hotel Ibis, with very large and well-appointed rooms for an Ibis (possibly the Novotel next door was too big for the demand and they made an Ibis out of one half of the Novotel building). In the gloom of the evening we go out for some purchases, but it is Saturday and most of the shops in the steep streets are closed. We find ourselves down at the station again, check the timetable for tomorrow and talk to station staff. Then a long walk back in the drizzle through dimly lit and empty streets to try and find a restaurant, but end up back near the Ibis at the (very) vintage Hotel Citra (the old name of Constantine), once probably top hotel in town, with its large old-style dining room (quite busy), before retiring early to our hotel, where the night will be accompanied by the uninterrupted barking of dogs…
SUNDAY 03.03.2013 – A GHOST AUTORAIL TO SKIKDA AND BACK
Our day started quite well at least: from the Ibis breakfast room we could see sunshine on the hills and gorges surrounding the town. We had been told by our contact in Algiers that there was a 10am autorail going north to the port of Skikda (Philippeville) about 90kms distant, and back from there about 15.00. The previous day, enquiries through a family member of Abdel’s as well as with a talkative guichetier at the Constantine station had revealed that a) there was indeed a train; b) it was often running very late; c) it was not a commercial success, running mostly empty.
Abdel, who is 75, was tired (not used to 7 hours rail trips…) and wanted to see his family since he was brought up in Constantine. This suited us fine: we would take a cab, visit the town’s picturesque Sidi m’Cid suspension bridge, stop at a patisserie to pick up some food (turns out a wise plan), then go to the station for the 10.00 (or later) autorail to Skikda. At the station, when asked about a return ticket, the employee showed some surprise and started to phone around. After some time, two one-way tickets were issued and we were told « departure about 10.40 » for the Skikda service. As with many of the Algerian stations, no timetable was displayed.
CONSTANTINE RHUMEL GORGE FROM THE SIDI M’CID SUSPENSION BRIDGE
The larger stations have a waiting hall next to the ticket office and the people have to wait there till someone comes and opens the door to the platform and waiting train. With potentially much waiting period, we used the open door to sneak out and sit on a bench on platform 1 beneath the arch roof. However soon we were told that being on the platform « c’est interdit » ; we rather angrily said we had the tickets: where is the train ? Confusion, discussion and finally we stood our ground, sounding the perplexed foreigners and it worked. We sat back on our bench in the 19th century station surroundings – no slot-machine, no advertisement, no electronic display and no other passenger - to see what action would take place.
A freight train came in from the north (from Skikda or Annaba, or perhaps Djidjelli, a port to the west) then a well filled suburban passenger hauled by a DM class CoCo. After that, three lightly loaded CAF ZZ 22 autorail sets - one each from Djidjelli and Biskra (or was it Tebessa?) in the interior, and then an autorail from BBA, the one which was supposed to go on to Skikda. However we were told « no, it terminates here and you have to wait ». Then all the autorails progressively disappeared to the shed and we were left to kick heels, while the DM CoCo prowl around the station a bit. As often in these countries, the light service doesn’t mean an empty station : quite a large staff was moving around, greeting each other with many « Salaam Aleikoums ». But by 12.00 the station was absolutely deserted and all doors closed. They had all gone for lunch. We decided we would stick around till 13.00, then fight for a refund. But suddenly at 12.45 a CAF ZZ 22 autorail came slowly from the shed, stopped shortly - we asked « Skikda? ». « Oui! » - we jump in, together with another 4/5 people (who looked more like railwaymen than travellers) and off it went at 12.48.
We were heading north on double track, and the ‘nouvelle ville’ suburban stations were passed non stop with a large freight station at Hamma Marchandises (km 7.1) with also a stone plant with a Moyse-like diesel. The line winds through hills with first stop at Zighout Yousef (Condé-Smendou) where we waited for long for no apparent reason (13.15/24): like most of the autorail sets we saw, this one had dusty windows and so a quick window cleaning here from platform side. From Zighout Yousef only one track was in use through Ain Bouziane (13.40/45) then up to summit at El Kantour (col des Oliviers) and down the other side all the way to El Harrouch. The line, descending towards the sea through large sweeping curves, was partly on a new formation including new curved viaduct at one point.
Between El Harrouch and Salah Bouchaour is the triangle for the relatively new line west to Djijeli, though the Skikda – Djijeli side of the triangle seemed unused. A bit further on there was the only really active trackwork site we saw on the whole tour (there are many inactive or low-level activity locations around) where a double crossover was being reconstructed after what appeared to be a massive freight derailment, with wheels, bogie parts and overturned wagon bodies all around. At Ramdam Jamel (St Charles) (14.25) the line to Annaba branches off to the right and the track is henceforth single. As we approach the coast there are old colonist estates/farms near the line and, at Danremon, we cross a petrol train with 040DH 10 and 060 DR 09.
Entering Skikda there is a typical French roundhouse on the right, being apparently renovated as a kind of cultural centre (right at the place where a cable cars connects two of the hills surrounding the town; cable cars seem now a popular public transport mean in Algeria, new ones being in operation at Constantine and Oran as well as Skikda). We arrive at 15.19 i.e. after 2.30 hours for 86kms. Four people get out of the triple railcar. The station is interesting, a modern (late 1940s?) building with a grand, empty interior. Everything seems closed, except for a forlorn-looking tea bar, who needs 10 minutes to prepare us something hot. But no time for that … the white cap station master is already on the platform and we and the autorail are on our way back at about 15.35, the train being empty except for a couple of railway employees and one or two genuine passengers. On our slow way back to Constantine we overtake a freight at El Harrouch at 16.17 and cross one shortly before Constantine, which we reach just before 6 pm. The « in the gorge » approach to Constantine would offer good photo run-bys if Mr PTG or like-minded tours ever get permission… We telephone ahead for car and go again up to Cirta Hotel for dinner.
While yesterday’s run was quite good, today’s SNTF operations look very poorly managed. As an aside, a couple of days later, we read in one newspaper that the track staff at Constantine has gone on strike and are asking for the removal of the infrastructure manager for the area!
MONDAY 04.04.2013 – CONSTANTINE TO ALGIERS
We have an early wake-up, a small breakfast at the Ibis served in a friendly manner by the lone cashier/server/doorman and are at 06.00 at the station for the 06.20 departure. Tickets are quickly bought while the station comes to life. We are told the departure time is now 06.40, but – as per our watch – we leave early at about 06.35 with General Motors CoCo 060DS07 leading the usual 4 inox coaches formation, but the surprise is an added yellow Railexpress bogie van. Train staff are most friendly. We are a grand total of 5 in our 1st class coach, inclusive of the Constantine SNTF HR boss (see above re the strike). We keep close watch for the Sidi Mabrouk depot on our right going out, with its large turntable (remains of the time when the famous CFA Garratts were plying these rails on Constantine - Oran expresses), and have a short glimpse of a dumped former DB V 200 (ex 220.048 it seems). We stop at 07.05 at El Khroub, where the route formerly to Guelma and Tunisia seems to be still used as freight line for part of the way, and at 07.25 at El Gourzi, where 060DR07 is on a ballast train. At El Eulma (08.37) we cross the CAF Autorail from BBA > Constantine. The few settlement in this rich grain area have all leftovers of the French period in the form of interesting industrial/ agricultural warehouses.
Setif is reached at 09.06 where we overtake 060DL09 on a freight. The staff change at BBA is quick (09.55/10.00) ; we see 060DF12 in a siding. On down through the steep « Les portes de Fer » section and we get to Beni Mansour junction at 11.00, so we must be about 15 minutes late compared with the « right time » crossing of two days ago. Today 060DS02 is on the Algiers-Constantine fast, but there is no connecting train to Bejaia. Perhaps he is already gone, after our conductor had ascertained that he had no one in our train for this connection: mobiles are extensively used by the rail staff in Algeria. The stop is swift and we are on our way at 11.02, snowy peaks of the Kabylie mountains in sight to the north. We reach Thenia and the catenary and double track at 12.54 but there is something wrong and the progress onwards to Algiers is slow, culminating in 35 minutes for the final 11 kilometers between El Harrach (Maison Carée) and Algiers, which is mostly 3 tracks with the suburban platforms packed with waiting passengers. Only when we reach the Gare de l’Agha do we meet a steady flow of Stadtler FLIRT sets coming out of the city centre. The signal system must have crashed again. Algiers Gare Centrale is reached at 14.15 instead of the scheduled 13.15.
Back to our Hotel Albert then walk round the city centre, visit la Grande Poste and other sites of WWII and 1956-62 history during the evening.
TUESDAY 05.03.2013 – ALGIERS TO ORAN
The fast train west to Oran (422kms) is named « AO » and leaves at 08.00 from the Agha station, not from Gare Centrale: one better know this, otherwise... Our train is hauled by 060DS05 + 2 x 2nd class coaches, 1 x 2nd/bar and 2 x 1st class coaches of which one is 100 % occupied and the other about 75%, hence the need to reserve, as advised by our railfan friends.
The train departs dead on time and goes like a rocket on the 3 tracks section down to El Harrach where more people join. Onwards to Blida it is fast and slow by turns and hard running on a poor track, making the trip not too comfortable. Blida, km 50, is reached at 08.50, so nothing special for what should be the best and most trafficked line of the country.
AT ONE TIME BLIDA HAD A TOWN LINE SERVED BY THESE AUTORAILS
Behind the town of Blida the Atlas mountains rise steeply, and one can make out the valley through which the 1.05m gauge route south to Medea and Djelfa route used to run. As we leave Blida station we see the 1.05m rails of the Djelfa line along the platform on the left, as well as the extensive sheds and workshops, looking as if closed yesterday, while the passenger traffic terminated in 1978 already. Is there any MG stock inside? This was the line which had four 241-142 YAT class Garratts from Franco-Belge in 1932 to work the continuous 1 in 40 gradient from Blida south through Medea into the mountains. It is reported that the line has been re-gauged a short distance up to Medea, but we see no trace of anything. Apparently, the 1.05m track is still in situ on to Djelfa and it is scheduled for re-gauging.
At El Affroun, the electrification and double track stop and we see no remains of the MG / 1.05m railway to Cherchell (km 48), which some maps show as having been re-gauged up to Marengo (km 19). West of El Affroun our line then enters the picturesque section, climbing to the col de Zaccar and crossing it in the so-called tunnel de l’Atlas of 2,312 metres. This long rampe at 1 in 45 (but looks steeper?) with many curves was where the 231-132 BT Garratts of 1936 were put through their paces on the Algiers-Oran expresses. On the other side of the Atlas tunnel it seems to go back to double track after Miliana Margueritte (10.08) where we cross one of the morning Oran - Algiers trains : however one of the tracks does not seem to be used or even connected for many miles… On downhill to Chlef (Orléansville)(10.50/52) from where a 1.05m railway went down to Tenes on the coast, worked latterly by primitive Berliet autorails: the line does not show up in the 1956 Algérie Michelin map.
THE REGIORDAME WESTERN AREA PLAN
Further on across the plain we get to Relizane (11.40/42) which on the north side still has the very CFD looking station building of the État Algérien’s 1.05m lines to Tiaret and Mostaganem, closed after 1956 : they are shown on the Michelin map of that year. On the right towards Oran are also the 1.05m system’s workshops and what appears to be the shell of a 1.05m. diesel, possibly a 060 YDB, though this would need a much closer inspection, since – as often – dumped SG stock makes any observation difficult. The next station is Mohammedia (Perregaux) where the État’s 1.05m Méditerranée-Niger was crossing the SG main line, but much of the station area has been reconstructed and only on-the-spot research would tell us if anything is left of the NG. Beyond Oued-Tlelat junction (where the former Artère Impériale route goes away west to Tlemcen and once Morocco) we pass the station of Arbal where the busy Oran to Hammam-Bou-Hadjar light line crossed the SG to Oran: the 1.05m rails are still there in the grassy roadbed but no sign of any Tubize 0-6-0Ts (70 years too late ?).
We must be running late as the conductor is going through the train asking if any passengers are connecting to the autorail to Sidi Bel Abbès and Tlemcen. We reach Oran at 13.00, betwen 15 and 30 minutes late - and who is running to catch l’autorail: our conductor! The station of Oran Karguentah is one of the architectural highlight of Oran, although there is not much competition in an otherwise rather disappointing urban environment. Even if somewhat underused (the majestic Buffet building is closed since ages), it has a proper information system for departing trains, the only one we have seen in Algeria that is up to standard. The booking hall has a magnificent ceiling and the whole station has the authentic PLM period air (but with Moorish style too). The Tlemcen ZZ 22 railcar set (very dusty and uncared for, though only a few years old) departs as soon as the few passengers who connect have climbed into it.
LARTILLEUX PLAN OF THE ORAN AREA
THE IMPRESSIVE ORAN STATION FRONT
THE BOOKING HALL
We are expected by a contact of Abdel’s + taxi and head straight for the Le Mediterrannéen fish restaurant with superb but also, for once, rather pricey seafood. Then to our hotel (Hotel Charm El Cheick) which we selected on Tripadvisor because it is relatively close to the station, not knowing we would have a full-time taxi, but would only recommend with reserves, being more Middle East style then Algerian, hence incredibly noisy inside. Once the country’s most European city, Oran seems very dilapidated, although the new urban tramway (to open in May 2013, we saw cars on test running) may help revive activity. We soon go out to have a grand view of Oran up from the (at one time Spanish) fort Santa Cruz on the hill overlooking, but the weather has turned atrocious and we just go for a look at the famous Mers-El-Kebir anchorage (check Wikipedia for WWII naval drama). By now it’s past 5pm and the traffic is heavy, so we return through the crumbling streets to the hotel for a rest and a short dinner, where everyone else seems to be gripped by the MU/Real Madrid match, inclusive the servers ; sorry for our UK friends, but the crowd seemed mostly pro-RM; after all Oran had for long a very strong Spanish minority and there is still a car ferry to Alicante.
WEDNESDAY 06.03.2013 – FROM ORAN TO TLEMCEN AND BACK WITH DETOURS (BY CAR)
The initial plan was to take the 07.15 autorail to Tlemcen in the Atlas foothills, to visit the historic town during the five hours before our return train at 3pm. But we had had our share of early wake-up, so decide that we would have a later departure by car at 09.00, and head west along the coast towards Morocco, aiming at Beni Saf and Ghazaouet (Nemours), ports which should have industrial and railway heritage according to our researches. Later on we would head inland for Tlemcen to catch the last Oran train of the day at 3pm, and let the taxi return to Oran with Abdel (by now rather train travel weary). The only problem is that I misjudged the distances we would need to drive. The Morocco border (closed for rail as well as road, but not smugglers-on-donkeys) is about 200 kms away from Oran. Not 120 as I thought. First we follow the coast through Mers-El-Kebir, Ain-El-Turk, all pretty shambolic and totally mis-planned places for seaside resorts with no remains whatsoever of the tram that went there. Later on we cross some wonderful green agricultural country before heading down to Béni Saf, a port which had a complex web of mining lines (apparently 80cms gauge with Z reversals) and a huge ore loader, long closed, still overbearing on top of the modest town: memories of Bilbao and North Spain in the 1960s and 70s very much come to mind! No obvious remains of the 80cms line, but Béni Saf also had a 1.05m freight-only line south to Tlemcen, closed circa 1950-55 and the remains are clearly visible when driving on the way to Tlemcen (formation, bridges, buildings), but after a while we turn right onto the road to the pleasant ferry harbour of Ghazaouet (previously Nemours) where the basic restaurant Le Dauphin inside the port has fish soup + a fantastic fresh seafood platter for about 10 Euro!
OLD PICTURE OF THE BENI SAF 80 CMS MINE LINES SHED
We are only about 50kms from the Morocco border here. Nemours was the port of shipment for the Moroccan minerals off the Bou Afra line before the Independence (and possibly after) and still has a SG gauge line, which we believed to be freight only ; however, a SNFT employee at Tlemcen station told us there is a daily passenger. Indeed it shows up on the Fahrplancenter site, leaving Tlemcen at 16.30 for arrival at Ghazaouet at 19.40, return from the coast at 04.30 for arrival at Tlemcen 07.30, of course 2nd class only. Would the ultimate trackbasher please go and report, also on the standard of the overnight hotel at Ghazaouet !
We had been advised to go to Tlemcen via Nedroma, a « mountain village » (in fact, a small city) which had a large Jewish artisan population until Independence. The place is the cleanest settlement we have seen in Algeria, perhaps because President Bouteflika is coming from there (and/or his family still live there). After a drive with excellent views we reach Tlemcen only at 5pm and ask a local taxi to guide us the (complicated) way to the station, a striking building of about 1935, with a concrete overall roof, but all doors are closed as all trains for the day have arrived or departed (for a city of about 150,000 inhabitants). A CAF autorail set, ZZ22 09, waits under the roof for the morning run back to Sidi Bel Abbès and Oran tomorrow morning but there are no other trains. This was the Algiers – Casablanca main line in the days of the Artère Impériale and the building is of a size to match (in E D Brandt’s book about travelling on North African Railways in the 1960s he describes the through service from Morocco, the buffet here and many passengers), but all seems quiet now.
NICE EVENING SUN AT SLEEPY TLEMCEN STATION
We find a side door and enter the station to look round. Immediately two employees notice the foreigners and come over to us: at first it seems likely that the conversation will shortly include the word « interdit ». We pacify them with our maps and train info, since the station has some interesting features and memories to discuss. At the west end of the station are all the workshops and sheds of the former Béni Saf 1.05m gauge line, now used as the civil engineering works, while to the east on the way out towards Oran a two road typical PLM shed hosts a few freight wagons. The two railway fellows turn out to be friendly, and tell us about the train up to Ghazaouet.
TYPICAL FRENCH COLONIAL RAILWAY WORKSHOP-CUM-SHED, NOW PW DEPOT
It is time to return to Oran and our taxi heads out onto the brand new highway, 2x 3 lanes, excellent civil engineering, no expense spared and with very modest traffic. At various places we can see that the railway between Tlemcen and Oran via Sidi Bel Abbès is also being improved, curves taken out and what looks like double track being built on new formation through the olive groves. Planning for the future, it would seem. Racing along the 3 lanes motorway into Oran in sunset the roof taxi sign falls off: the driver runs back into the middle lane to find it – and survives. Entering the city we see a new 3-cars tram on test: smart red/white/black livery. Then to the seafront to have excellent mint tea at our contact’s flat which overlooks the port with a nice balcony view (a bit industrial but interesting). Our trained eyes and ears notice a diesel coming down the port branch right below us in the dusk, apparently a recent new traffic as the branch was inactive for years - looks like grain wagons. We walk in the nearby streets on the seafront where they still have a few nice and well maintained buildings built ca.1955-58, while the French colons still had hopes that … Dinner is in busy fast-food restaurant, where the serving waitresses have headgear, but also tight jeans!
THURSDAY 07.03.2013 – ORAN TO ALGIERS (BY CAR)
We have been advised to take the 15.00 fast back to Algiers but instead decide to use the 12.00 (eventually 12.30) semi-fast because, after a morning stroll through Oran (change money, buy a few things and some books), we are done with this city and want to do as much of the line by daylight, as before.
But first, we try to find the old État station of the 1.05m Mediterranée-Niger line, shown on the Lartilleux town map about 500m out of the main station and to the west. A garish hotel seems to occupy part of the spot, but behind it are some typical French workshop building and stock sheds with some NG track still in situ. A friendly young employee talks to us, but the whole conversation starts to freeze when a somewhat self-important chef comes out : « Qu’est ce que c’est ? ». The other Algerians seem a bit petrified, but out come the maps and the request for information, so finally it gets friendly : we politely refuse invitation to see the old machine shops. From this 1.05m station, trains (worked by État Algérien 4-6-0s and 2-8-0s by SACM) set off on the 711kms journey south to Colomb Béchar on the edge of the Sahara.
THE INITIAL 1055 mm ORAN STATION
LATER ON THE NG STATION WAS APPARENTLY MOVED CLOSER TO ORAN SG STATION (IN THE BACKGROUND). THIS AREA IS NOW EMPTY / A PARKING
We did not go and search nearby for the third Oran station, that of the independent NG line to Hammam-Bou-Hadjar whose rusty metals we had seen at Arbal on Tuesday, as we are told it has been replaced by the police headquarters !
At the main station the more relaxed ambiance of Oran also shows - the door to the tracks seems permanently open and at 11.30 our train is already at the platform in the older part of the station, exactly at the same place as 230.3416 on the wonderful postcard picture on page 30 of the Régordane book. But even at this early hour (especially if the train is really leaving only at 12.30) our 1st class coach is quite full. The formation is 3x 2nd coaches (of which one will fill up with armed military personnel on weekend leave), the usual 2nd class+Bar, one 1st class coach (though with somewhat less comfortable 1 + 2 seating then the ones used on fast trains) and – a novelty – a « fourgon à boggies » which will even see some parcels loaded into it the traditional way with a wooden cart. One engine is shunting some freight stock, and over in a siding is the stock of the overnight train to Colomb Bechar, which – with at least 7 coaches – seems to be the longest non-suburban passenger train circulating in the country. From a distance the facilities seem to be mainly seat + a few coaches of couchettes though we can not see whether 4 or 6 per compartment. Another must-do trip for the hardcore track-basher and night train aficionado!
A SUPERB POSTCARD : ORAN GARE CIRCA 1910
AND NOT MUCH DIFFERENCE WITH MARCH 2013 EXCEPT FOR THE TRAIN !
Before departure from Oran, a controleur comes through the full 1st class coach and offers a rose to the ladies (and whoever else wants one). Did I write earlier that PR was not a priority at SNTF ? General Motors CoCo 060DS12 is on our train and we depart sharp at the (new ?) advertised time of 12.30. Going out of the station, the shed/rotonde, still in use is on the left. The train is stopping more often than the Fast on the way in, but by no means at all stations, the only lengthy stop being at Chlef (Orléansville) (14.45/52). No ‘vente ambulante’ service on this working, so some coffee in the Bar coach, where the other customers are mainly smoking – another retro ambiance for us west Europeans. The line rises steadily through farming country all the way from Relizane through Chlef to Affreville but our big diesel is not held back by only 6 coaches and progress is good. Interestingly the train is less busy after Chlef, but still well occupied. The climb to the col de Zaccar is less steep from the west and before we enter the Atlas tunnel we stop at Miliana Margueritte station; the 75cms line which ran up to the mines at Miliana had Africa’s first Garratt, a 0-4-0+0-4-0 from St Léonard in 1911. A few passengers join the train at Blida but it empties at El Harrach (17.50), the near suburb of Algiers. Only a few people remain till Algiers Agha but the whole train, by now almost empty, goes right on to the Gare Centrale. So could it be Agha station for departures to Oran, but Central terminus the other way ?
After a wash and a short rest, we have dinner at the busy La Brasserie de la Faculté (« La Fac ») on the main Algiers artery, rue Didouche Mourad, formerly rue Michelet. After the satisfying meal we pace the street to try and find a terrasse for a green tea since the temperature is very balmy, but see nothing until we are almost back near our hotel, where one bar has some tables and chairs on the wide pavement. Not much of a Mediterranean style late evening life in Algiers (despite potential of elegant surroundings) !
FRIDAY 08.03.2013 – AROUND ALGIERS
We had kept today as a « safety valve » in case something went wrong with our original schedule – but it is now free. With our chauffeur we go first to the famous Church of Notre Dame d’Afrique, on a hill overlooking the bay and the neighbourhood of Bab El Oued. A very scenic spot with shady terrace under the trees looking down on the sea, but the church itself is closed now, so we will return in the afternoon. On the way down, we see the only remant of the trolleybus, a pole with two trolley line hangers exactly at the place where a small trolleybus is pictured (it’s a curvy, narrow and steep road) in Lartilleux (page 83, photo 4). Then up above city centre to the Hotel El Djezair (ex St George) for a tea/coffee on the top-end garden terrace with WWII military memories (hotel was Allied HQ North Africa), but only after our car gets a very sharp check before entering the courtyard. On to the Martyrs Memorial (a modernish tower with a beautiful view of the bay including SNFT installations – we see a locomotive ambling into the docks) and back to the hotel since at 11.00 we have another meeting with the local rail enthusiasts, who are again delayed (« problems on the line »).
THE VIEW FROM NOTRE DAME D’AFRIQUE TOWARDS BAB EL OUED AND THE BAY. GARE CENTRALE WOULD BE AT SEA LEVEL BEHIND THE GREY BUILDING AT THE EXTREME RIGHT
THE SERENE GARDEN CAFE AT HOTEL ST GEORGE
In the afternoon we return to Notre Dame d’Afrique, which is well kept and survived « les années noires » without apparent damage. Then we head out to the Club des Pins to the west, where Peter’s father was based in 1942-43, along the corniche, very busy on this holiday afternoon. However the entrance to the Club (now in fact a gated resort for top government types) is strictly controlled, and the comments of our driver on its inhabitants will better remain confidential. In the evening, we are invited for a couscous with some family relations of Abdel, in a well maintained house up narrow winding streets above the city and with a magnificent night view over the bay from the roof terrace (a warning : couscous is a bit heavy on the stomach when taken at night). And then back for final night at Hotel Albert 1er with its « our holiday hotel in France about 1965 » ambiance ; in fact it has been most convenient for location and we enjoyed the restaurant and bar, but rooms a bit noisy.
SATURDAY 09.03.2013 – FLYING BACK HOME
Lots of outgoing flights on the Saturday morning so Algiers Boumedienne airport is a busy, but not crowded, place. If you have changed money officially, its time to change back the remaining dinars (into Euros only). Peter gets off to Londres on time, also Air Algérie. Our plane to Geneva at 11.00 is very early at its dock, but the loading is not « easyjetesque » (additional security search as you go on board) and the almost full planes leaves with + 35. Apparently quite a few people are using Algiers as a transit point from black Africa, in our case Niamey, Niger.
The landing at Geneva is somewhat late and with the ski season still on and the Salon de l’Auto just opened the airport is total mayhem. But SBB/CFF is up to the task and my train to Aigle departs on the dot at 14.24.
ARE YOU CRAZY ?
So in spite of all the « are you crazy ? », « tired of your retirement ? » and other such comments from friends, family and well wishers, we have survived our Algeria week rather well, completed our programme, seen many interesting things and not been too bothered by other tourists. In fact only the weather, very unsettled (mixed rain and sun on most days), has been a bit disappointing, so instead the end of March/early April should be considered (but we were keen to get away from the long bad winter of 2012/13 and had only this time free).
Of course, Algeria is not a « fun » country and it could be hard to find the way around for someone who did not speak French (and already the younger Algerian crowd, unless at college, do not seem that familiar with French). Having a car/taxi to hand in each city (arranged by Abdel for us - but also possible through an agent ?) made local travel no problem, and also useful for calling in at la gare to check train times, for inspecting closed NG routes, and for coffee stop at historic hotel etc. While we were refused a photographic permit by Madame Houira at SNFT PR, you can take pictures of the railway if you are careful and behave like someone travelling on the trains : nobody got « heavy » anywhere.
If you are hoping to go there, start by reading some of the books/websites mentioned at the beginning of this report (also Le Petit Futé : L’Algérie guide). You need to do some planning of your journeys in advance and must be ready to face misunderstandings and unannounced changes rather than hostility, since what we heard most was : « bienvenue dans notre pays ».
For the rail enthusiast, the mixture is modern infrastructure (and with more happening – some rather slowly !) along with retro 1980s train travel and some excellent 19th century station buildings. It seems too that there are traces of the old NG to see as well. There remain a number of to-be-explored corners especially to the south of the coastal area, but we will leave them to younger forces than us (at 60+). In most cases these train journeys would involved a mid to late afternoon trip from the main city to « le bled » (meaning a country place, boondocks or « the sticks », and a word now commonly used in France), staying there overnight and an early morning departure back to the main city.
The night train fans community on the German DSO forum could try their luck with the two night trains running : Algiers - Constantine - Annaba and back, as well as Oran - Colomb Béchar and back, but it seems no wagon-lits, only couchettes !
The more interesting (scenic and infrastructure-wise) lines are probably in the east, and for an innovative diesel railtour operator there is a dream programme: Constantine – Djejeli – Skikda – Annaba – Tebessa (+ the phosphate branches) – Constantine – Biskra – Touggourt – Biskra – Batna – BBA - Algiers, a long and possibly hardship tour ! Besides the non-railway issues going on in North Africa, a problem might be to find suitable stock : the only coaches we saw for main line trains all have non-opening windows, but perhaps a buffet cars could be spared as well as 3 or 4 couchettes cars, to be used at two per compartments for a couple of night stops in places were local hotels could well be somewhat below the minimum standard.
My thanks to my companions de route and I do hope to have more reports from other readers about trains in Algeria/DZ from now on.
JFA + PL / April 2013
All actual pictures are copyright PL
PS : This my first trial at posting such a report with « Photo Einstellung », sizing the titles and all that ; quite a hard job at first for someone from the before-internet generation. So as they say in India : your kind understanding is required !
A correction, as things go fast in this word!
Mr. Pascal Bejui, the owner and redactor of the La Régiordane book on the Chemin de fer coloniaux français, band 2 North Africa + the Trans Sahara project, tells me
that the name Meditérannée-Niger only applies to the standard gauge line that went from the port of Ghazaouet (Nemours) to the border near Maghnia (Marnia) at Zoud-el-Beghal then into what is nowadays Morocco to Oujda and Bou-Afra and on to Colomb-Béchar, which is anyhow right on the (closed) DZ/Morocco border. The 1.05 cms line from Oran through Mohammedia (Perregaux), Ain Sefra to Colomb-Béchar was always an ETAT Line, later integrated into CFA (Chemin de fer Algérien). One wonders why there was a need for two lines in such empty spaces, though the Etat line had some coal trafic from the mines at Kenadsa near Béchar? This is the line which has been partly standard gauged. The Moroccan line appears to be rather dormant between Oujda and Bou Afra and certainly abandonned (but in situ according to modern maps) after Bou Afra towards the DZ border.
thank you for this very interesting view on Algeria. Well, it's not quite a "not to be missed contry" for rail enthusiasts, but the french style railway looks (except the Stadler Flirts which are running on my local line as well) quite attractive.
Might be an idea for our annually autumn holiday with the family, I started planning a trip by boat from Marsaille last year but it was more or less impossible to get reliable information so I quitt. Do you know if the rail timetable at Thomas Cook on the branch lines in the east is still working?
And one final question: how did you manage to get the viasa? The algerian embassy in Germany insists on invitations by locals. Did you had one of them?
Once again I'd like to thank you for takeing us on this journey. Or as we say in Germany: Saustark! Weiter so!
There is a great "Railfanning in Algeria" group on Facebook, they answered many of my questions about the locos already :)
Re the PTG mentions, thank you, I plan most of the "diesel freak" tours. We just ran one in Morocco, but sadly ONCF did not supply "requested" freight locos for our train, nor give access to freight lines (apart from Jorf Lasfar), photos from visit here. We got tired of passenger loco DH-372 on our train each day :(
- Regarding the visa, it seems indeed every consulate/embassy has its own rules. Geneva is insisting on either firm hotel bookings or a personnal invitation. I am surprised that firm hotel bookings do not work in your case; worth another try at the embassy/consulate in charge of your area?
By the way and if I dare make such a remark in this excellent and most informative Forum this side of the Atlantic (at least aus far as Ausland / HIFO, which I do consult almost daily) is concerned, the Algerians are indeed a bit "stur" and it reminds me of a decade old remark by a business partner from Tunisia who was having a hard time with his dealings in DZ and (except for the women...) was not too enamoured with the country: he said to me "mais, mon ami, les algériens, c'est les prussiens de l'Afrique du Nord" (but my friend, Algerians are the Prussians of North Africa)!
- There are indeed a surprising number of ferries ex France and Spain playing to Algerian ports, but I suppose its like in the planes: 90%+ "ethnic" travelers.
- I didnot consult Thomas Cook (in fact I forgot...) but Fahrplancenter Algeria is the most accurate we found. In the East there is no daylight train from Annaba (Bône) to Constantine, only the night train to Algiers at unfriendly hours both ways, but otherwise most lines seem to have at least one day train up and down and that's what we indeed experienced when waiting on the bank on platform one in Constantine. Oran-Béchar is night train only also, but all the other lines seems to have one day train, sometimes as I said, very early morning one way, later afternoon/early evening back.
To be frank, the pictures of my friend show a much clearer place and blue sky than what I do remember! But the core center of Algiers is of course reasonable. Overall no, it is not that clean, especially the suburbs, with the usual problem of plastic bags everywhere.
On the railway, the main city stations are quite reasonable if very oldish looking, but not the smaller one; especially for the sidings and surroundings (well I wont make any impertinent remark or comparison about that aspect at DB stations...).