Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Port-d'Envaux station on the Taillebourg - Saint-Porchaire narrow gauge railway line

The grand houses built by ship owners along the western bank of the River Charente in Port-d'Envaux, France, testify to the importance of the river for the local economy. For centuries barges and ships carried local products such as stones, ceramics, salt, and foodstuff upstream towards Saintes or downstream towards Rochefort, where goods could be loaded onto seagoing vessels.
However in 1867 the Compagnie des Charentes built the Angoulême-Cognac-Saintes-Rochefort railway line, which followed the eastern bank of the River Charente. Its opening led to the rapid decline of inland navigation. Still, since the nearest station was located a few kilometres away on the opposite bank of the river in Taillebourg, a few boats continued to sail in and out of Port-d'Envaux for a while.
The isolation of Port-d'Envaux and its hinterland from the railway network came to an end in 1904 when the Chemins de fer Economiques des Charentes built a narrow gauge line between Taillebourg and Saint-Porchaire. Shortly after leaving Taillebourg station the railway crossed the Charente by means of a metallic bridge. The first station was Port-d'Envaux. Then came Crazannes, Plassay (a halt only) and finally after a 13 km journey, Saint-Porchaire. Like many rural railway lines with small levels of traffic and low returns on investment (if any), it was built as cheaply as possible. Apart from the bridge over the Charente, the only major engineering works were a short trench spanned by a road bridge followed by an embankment between Port-d'Envaux and Crazannes, and a couple of very short stone bridges over streams. As the station of Port-d'Envaux above illustrates, the company did not spend much on buildings either. One half was used to store the equipment needed to run the railway, from shovels to lanterns, while the other half housed the railway office. From the beginning three mixed trains a day ran in each direction. They usually consisted of two or three passenger carriages and six or five wagons pulled by a 0-6-0T built by Corpet-Louvet. The maximum speed was 20km/h.
The First World War had a dramatic impact on the railway. Traffic and maintenance were reduced to the bare minimum and part of the rolling stock was requisitioned and used on the networks near the front line. The Taillebourg - Saint-Porchaire line never really recovered. Facing increasing competition from cars, buses, and trucks, it laid moribund for a few more years. Finally in 1925 the railway company received the autorisation to close this loss-making line.
The Port-d'Envaux station is the only one that survives. It was restored a few years ago and is used by a local association.

The trench with the bridge carrying the Route de la Garenne. The stones at ground level on the right of the track bed are part of a small bridge over the local stream.

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