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End of the line for a tragic Monaco train

La Turbie - Chemin de Fer a Cremaillere de Monte-Carlo - LL12.jpg
A railway line ran between La Turbie and Monaco for almost 40 years. © Jean-Paul Bascoul Collection

A rail link existed between La Turbie and the Principality, via Beausoleil, until 1932, when a tragic accident occurred. 

Let’s go back 130 years. The ambitious project to link Monaco to La Turbie had been gathering dust for over 10 years. Potential operators came and went but the local authorities and internal conflicts got in the way of negotiations. In 1893, work finally began on the line, which was declared to be in the public interest. The “Compagnie du chemin de fer d’intérêt local à crémaillère de La Turbie (Righi d’hiver)” commissioned a Swiss engineer named Stockalper to map out the line. Thanks to a rack and pinion system, passengers would be able to travel at a speed of 7 km/hr, covering the 2.5 km between Monaco and La Turbie in around twenty minutes. The line opened on 10 February 1894.

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It was a real boon for the locals. The town of La Turbie, landlocked between France and Monaco, had suffered from a lack of transport links between the two countries. The only possible route was via Roquebrune-Cap-Martin and the Roman road that runs along the coast.

Passengers boarding and alighting from the passenger carriage at La Turbie station © Jean-Paul Bascoul Collection

A technical feat

The special feature of this line is the 450 metre difference in altitude between the two towns. For historian and lecturer Jean-Claude Volpi, author of three books on the subject, there was one question on everyone’s lips. A few years ago, he framed that question on French TV station France 3: “How could we imagine, at that time, being able to scale the mountain and make a locomotive go uphill when it usually moves horizontally?”

Between the two rails, we can see a third, with the rack that pushes the locomotive up the slope. © Jean-Paul Bascoul Collection

The answer to the question lay in using a rack, a mechanical device fitted with teeth. In rack railways, the rack is the third rail that pushes locomotives up gradients of up to 48%. One or more cogwheels lock with the rack to give the train the traction it needs to climb these gradients. The gamble paid off, and the first passengers were amazed how easily they reached La Turbie, 500 metres above sea level.

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The passenger carriages could accommodate up to 60 people. © Collection Jean-Paul Bascoul

The train stopped at Bordina and Riviera Palace stations, which were also served by another rack tramway for a few years, from 1903 to 1914. It connected the Rue des Iris in Monte Carlo and the Riviera Palace.

The two trains meeting at Bordina station. © Jean-Paul Bascoul Collection

The accident

The rack railway was shut down because of an accident on 8 March 1932. A train was coming down from La Turbie, and had passed the upper Monte-Carlo station, when the axle carrying the cogwheel broke. With no brakes, the locomotive crashed to a halt in the lower station. Two people lost their lives that day, the driver and the conductor, and three tourists were seriously injured. It was the beginning of the end for the railway line.

Remains of the railway are still in existence at La Turbie. The line can be spotted between the Moyenne Corniche road and the foot of the montée de la Crémaillère. A fire station has been built on the same site as the former railway station. Just a few years ago, the mayor of La Turbie, Jean-Jacques Raffaele, said he hoped to see the return of this special track, which played an important role in the town for almost 40 years.

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