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European Times Caen, Normandy: Why we cyclists can never go off the rails

EVER SINCE I was three I've wanted to drive a railway train. This week, in deepest Normandy, I fulfilled my life-time's ambition. The catch was that I had to pedal the train myself.

Passenger trains are running along a section of abandoned railway line south of Caen this summer for the first time in 29 years. The trains resemble a cross between the large pedalling go-karts that infest the promenades of French seaside towns and the pump-action platelayer's trolleys beloved of the makers of silent movies.

Each vehicle takes four people - two cycling and the others sitting in a large deckchair. The beauty of the idea is that, if the train is late, the passengers have only themselves to blame. It is a concept that could appeal to Connex South Eastern.

The cycle-trains give you an authentic railway experience: the music of steel on steel; the clickety- clack of the rail joints. You pass two ungated level-crossings and an abandoned railway station, and kilometre posts counting down the distance to the Gare St Lazare in Paris.

Up, or northbound, traffic gives way to southbound traffic. When you meet a train heading south, you have to lift your machine off the single track to let it pass. Everyone from both "trains" politely helps with the lifting. There is no rail rage here.

Velo-rail, invented in Scandinavia, has been brought to Normandy as an act of love and a gesture of political defiance. The railway line between Caen and Flers, through la Suisse Normande, ("Norman Switzerland") is - or was - one of the most beautiful in France.

Since 1978 (1970 for passenger traffic) it has been one of the few branch lines in France to be completely abandoned. France has never had a docteur Beeching. In other parts of the country, lines still operate to the most remote places, for the benefit of half a dozen passengers a day. The Caen- Flers line was not so lucky, despite its considerable tourist potential and rich history.

Gigantic freight trains, with steam locomotives front and rear, once pounded up the valleys of the rivers Orne and Noireau from the iron ore mines south of Caen. During the Battle of Britain, Hermann Goering, the head of the Luftwaffe, would hide his private train from the RAF each night in the tunnel des Gouttes, half-way along the line.

He became so bored with staring at the black tunnel walls that he had part of the three-kilometre length of the bore painted white.

Railway enthusiasm is not as entrenched in France as in Britain. None the less, for more than two decades local people, ecologists and railway lovers have been fighting to revive the Caen-Flers line. An experimental tourist railway on part of the line failed after two years in 1993, partly because the French railways insisted on charging an impractically high rent for use of the track.

Inevitably, an Englishman is part of the effort to save the line. Peter Gray, 71, originally from Worthing in West Sussex, is leading the team that is rebuilding an 0-6-0 tank engine at Pont Erambourg station. (The engine is "Porter", built in the US and shipped to Cherbourg just after the war: sister engines worked in Southampton Docks until the 1960s.)

"Our next step is to investigate the tunnel, which has been bricked up for years," said Mr Gray, a retired engineer. "I can't wait to get inside. Those who want to rip up the line say the tunnel is dangerous and about to collapse. The old gangers who looked after the track are sure that it will be fine. They also say that, on sections of the tunnel walls, you can still see Hermann Goering's white paint."

Herve Chancerel, 43, is the President of the "Amicale pour la mise en valeur de la voie ferree de Caen a Flers" ("Friends of the Caen-Flers railway"). He is also the man who sold us our tickets at Port Erambourg station - which is an old travelling post office.

"It was important to show, in some practical way, before it was too late, that this line will attract and entertain tourists," Mr Chancerel said. "Our funds are limited. We could not put on a proper train service, although we hope to in the future. The velo-rails were a first step."

The project has been successful beyond the association's dreams: 1,500 pass- engers have already been carried in August alone. Last Sunday afternoon, 40 "trains" ran; the waiting time was two hours. Embarking on our own journey, we resembled a rail-borne version of the Swiss Family Robinson: myself and my nine-year-old son pedalling, my wife and two small daughters sitting in the deck-chair between us.

I lasted almost the entire five kilometres (three miles) of the outward journey. At that point, my wife took over the pedals and I retired, like the Fat Controller, to the deck-chair. Charlie, aged 9, cycled all the way there and back.

Velo-Rail is open at Pont Erambourg station every day until 4 September and then every Sunday until November.