Madagascar: Railways at their Limits

Jungle Trains: 27/4 – 11/5/2018

The Land of the Baobab: 10/5 – 17/5/2018

Railways in Madagascar

Madagascar is a fascinating tropical, African island. Once upon a time the colonialists built several railways to improve the very basic infrastructure of the country. The remains of these railways still exist and are partly in operation. The condition of some of the lines, though, is “interesting” to say the least. On one of the lines we’ll visit, the so called “Jungle Express” offers six trains a week with a single train ride lasting as long as 35 hours – and only one lonely serviceable locomotive! Of course, the scheduled time is much shorter, but what does a timetable mean if the rolling stock and the track doesn’t match up to it?

We started our negotiations at the lowest imaginable level - no, not possible; no, not allowed … but after a year of negotiations and several personal visits by our local agency to all of the lines, we now have access to the managers of the railway and have even been granted permission to travel in the cab of a locomotive. They have also agreed to use their Michelin railcar for a special charter train event. Those Michelins are French tyre driven railcars and can’t go out from the capital on the line because of the poor track conditions. But on the line from Fianarantsoa we can take the streamlined railcar out for several kilometres. There are only two serviceable Michelins, one in Fianarantsoa, the other one in the capital Antananariva … known in short as Tana.

Railways in Madagascar

Madagascar is so famous for its Baobab alley that we’ve added a tourist part to follow the railway programme. If you wish, you can add this tourist programme after the railway tour or visit the remains of a remote sugar mill and their locos on your own. Travelling through Madagascar is a challenge, however. You should not underestimate the time you need to cover large, medium or even short distances. It will all be quite an experience! The rich natural life (Lemurs for instance) will reward all the efforts, however.

Railways in Madagascar

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Itinerary

Day

Itinerary

27.4.

Depending where you start from, you may need to depart on the 27th of April.

28.4.

Departure from home via Paris with Air France. Arrival at 22:30 hrs in the night, transfer to our hotel in the capital Antananarivo (Tana).

29.4.

Taking pictures of trains is a difficult enterprise in Madagascar. We’ve established contacts with the railways allowing us to know about freight trains on the line. If there are some, we’ll take pictures in the section Andasibe – Ambila. The travelling time from Tana to Brickaville is around five hours by road. But for the 13 kms from Brickaville to Ambila we must allow one hour, because we need to use a ferry boat. We’ll reach our hotel in Andasibe probably after dusk.

30.4.

By train we’ll travel from Andasibe to Andranokoditra. We’re permitted to travel in the cab of the locomotive – of course, not all together, but we can change from station to station. By boat we’ll reach the Palmarium Hotel.

1.5.

We try the impossible: to chase a train. We will do this with a charter bus and a speed boat – because the water has no potholes! The train leaves at 08:30 hrs. We will need to leave our hotel around 5 am to get by boat to the large bridge over the Pangalanes near Ivondro in good time. Then we’ll rush to the river bank where we’ll change over to our charter bus. We try to catch it a second time before it reaches Brickaville, where the train crosses a combined road/railway bridge. During a field test in late 2016, it took the train an unbelievable 5 hours and 40 minutes from Tamatave to Brickaville. Just after Brickaville we have a third chance to get a line shot but after that the line is no longer reachable by road before complete darkness. Hotel in Andasibe

2.5.

In the morning, we’ll continue by our charter bus to Moramanga. At 10:30 the “Trans Lemurie Express” leaves from here, but the train is not really the express its name suggests. It’ll take the train until 16:00 hrs to reach its destination, Ambatondrazaka. In Ambatondrazaka we’ll use the best hotel in town, which is really very basic.

3.5.

By charter bus, we’ll chase the uphill “Trans Lemurie Express” which leaves Ambatondrazaka at 7.00 am. In the afternoon we’ll continue to our hotel in Ambatofotsy, south of Antananarivo (Google Earth calles this place “Tsiafahy”).

4.5.

Because domestic flights to Manakara have been terminated, we will enjoy a long bus ride to Fianarantsoa. We’ll pass through the typical, hilly countryside of Madagascar on one of their few main trunk roads. In Antsirabe, we’ve planned a brief stop to visit the abandoned railway station. Hotel in Fianarantsoa

5.5.

Trevelling into the blue: we’ll board the “Jungle Express”, Fianarantsoa – Manakara, famous for its hefty delays. The 163 km long ride can take 8 hours, or 18, or 35 – who knows! Hotel in Manakara

6.5.

Our day starts with the train departure. It should leave the station at 7.00 am. In the first section we have the chance to take some line shots. Soon after setting off, the train crosses the runway of the unused airport. We asked for permission to get access, but they said, “do what you want. No-one is responsible for the airfield”. Then we start a wild chase to Sahanisaka (about 40 km), because there is a scenic viaduct which can be reached by 4 WD cars, as long as there has been no serious rainfall over the previous few days. After this shot, we must reach the station before the train leaves. We talked to the railway men to, hopefully, make this happen ... If you don’t like the thrill, you can take your seat earlier in Manakara. Our bus cannot reach the line before Sahambavy, about 20 km before the terminus Fianarantsoa. It is likely that the train will reach Sahambavy well after dusk. Hotel in Sahambavy

7.5.

On Mondays, there are no trains on the line. That’s why we’ve chartered the gem of the line for the afternoon: the Michelin railcar, known as “La Micheline”. With the tyre-driven railcar, we’ll go from Sahambavy to the terminus in Fianarantsoa. Here we’ll visit the station and the small workshop of the Fianarantsoa Cote Est, where the one and only serviceable diesel locomotive is maintained. If time permits we’ll also have a look at the city with its colonial style buildings and the Ambozontany Cathedral. Hotel in Fianarantsoa

8.5.

According to the timetable the train to Manacara should leave Fianarantsoa at 7.00 am. But this is only written in the timetable … Our way back to Tana is long and we might not be able to wait until the train finally leaves the station. Charter bus back to Antananarivo (Tana). We’ll reach the capital in the evening. Hotel in Tana

9.5.

If there are freight trains we’ll go to Anjeva (about 20 km) to take one of the nice line positions which are available here in both directions. Depending on the regular trains, we’ll plan our visit to the main workshop of Madarail in the capital. Here we’ll find the second serviceable Michelin railcar. We’ve chartered it for a short shunting operation within the bounds of the railway station. Hotel in Antananarivo.

10.5.

For a final time, we’ll watch out for freight trains on the line Tana – Tamatave. Our focus will lay on the line around Andasibe. In the evening we’ll return to the capital. If there are no trains to be expected we’ll return earlier and take a city tour through Tana. Hotel in Antananarivo until our return flight or you can book the cultural extension.

11.5.

Early morning transfer to the airport and return flight home, arrival in Europe in the same evening.

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Madagascar – Land of the Baobabs

Railways in Madagascar

Day

Itinerary

10.5.

Departure from home via Paris with Air France, arrival in the late evening, transfer to a hotel in Antananarivo

11.5.

Transfer to the airport for a domestic flight to Morondava, transfer to our hotel in Palissandre

12.5.

Chartered 4 WD cars will bring us to Kirindy. In the game reservation of Kirindi you’ll find the Fosa, an endemic wildcat which looks like a little panther, and many other interesting species. Hotel Auberge de Kirindy. We offer a night walk through part of the reservation to watch the active wildlife after dusk. We’ll have an experienced guide with us.

13.5.

In the morning, we’ll have another chance to watch the wildlife on an extended walk through the game park. Afterwards we’ll continue to the famous Baobab Alley with its amazing baobab trees. Accommodation in the Palissandre Hotel in Morondava.

14.5.

On our tour today we’ll see the typical, rural life of Madgascar. Roads and unpaved ways can be passed only slowly. That’s why we’ll make it only up to Miandrivazo and will stay in the Princesse Tsiribihina Hotel.

15.5.

We’ll continue to Antsirabe, the famous “water city”, known for its thermal wells. In the afternoon we’ll continue to Antananarivo, Grand Mellis Hotel.

16.5.

Visit to the world heritage site in Ambohimanga. Here you can see and touch the history of Madgascar. We have a day room in the Grand Mellis Hotel until we must say goodbye and head for the airport in the middle of the night.

17.5.

Transfer to the airport and return flight. Arrival in Europe the same evening.

Railways in Madagascar

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Line description

Railways in Madagascar

Madagascar became independent in 1958. They formed the state owned railway Réseau National des Chemins de Fer Malagasy (RNCFM). After three decades the railway was completely run down, with only one locomotive remaining in service and the employees not having been paid for seven months. With this situation continuing, in 2002, they split the railway into two parts and privatised them.

The northern network went to Madarail. They had high-flying plans of re-animating the railway system and foreign funds came in. It took twelve years, and Madarail also needed support from the state to survive. The planned refurbishment of the tracks wasn’t finished. So the system is partly in a very sad condition (again) and trains are slow. Because roads are even slower and dangerous the railway sector is still important. The modal mix shows about one fifth of all freight is moved by rail (numbers from 2012).

Railways in Madagascar

Currently Madarail owns 836 kilometres of which these lines are in use:

At the beginning of 2017, there were no regular trains to Antsirabe. The number of freight trains on the other sections is unpredictable. Usually, there should be at least one pair of freight trains per day plus the following passenger services:

Railways in Madagascar

According to the timetable the train should take 9 hrs 14 minutes, but giving a time in minutes is a pure joke. The departure is usually on time, the arrival time varies. That’s why we’re giving a range of usual arrival times. On the line Moramanga – Ambatondrazaka at the Alaotra lake, Dia Soa is responsible for the passenger trains, called “Trans Lemurie Express”:

These trains are usually on time, clean and offer first and second class.

Railways in Madagascar

Railways in Madagascar

For the southern section, they couldn’t find a private company interested in taking over, so they formed the state owned company Fianarantsoa Cote Est (FCE) The total length is 163 km, most of it steeply graded (Ampitabe, 28 km to Sahasinaka, 116 km). After several accidents, they have only one locomotive left in service. Hence, traffic can be ceased at any time. As this situation has remained unchanged since 2012 and the train is still running, we see a fair chance that we can experience this so called “Jungle Express”. It’s a social service for the locals who are living far from any road access, hence stops at stations are usually very time consuming.

Other than Mondays, the passenger train runs every day, one day up and the other down. On Mondays you may find a freight train in the upper section of the railway. It’s unpredictable when the train will depart and arrive, usually the departure is in the morning but the arrival time varies enormously.

Railways in Madagascar

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Small print

The area covered by the railways is sometimes without any nearby road connection. The technical conditions under which the railways are operating are dire and unsafe. The tour is not tailored for the “full comprehensive insurance person” who insists on his 4 pm tea or Brazilian highland coffee! It’s for the adventurous traveller, who likes to travel far from the beaten track, discover new horizons and is happy with the mentality we’ll find on the tropical island. All timings given are intended times. Nothing, really nothing can be guaranteed on this tour. For instance, if the one and only locomotive of Fianarantsoa fails, there will be no movement at all. No matter whether we’re sitting at the line, waiting for the train to come, or sitting in the train in the middle of the jungle, nothing will be moved before the locomotive is repaired. This may take its time, and questions about how long are absolutely inappropriate. It takes as long as it takes. Take a family pack of Valium with you if you’re keen to see the country and the railways but can’t stand the tropical African island approach to sorting things out.

Railways in Madagascar

If you can accept all this, a new world will be open to you and you’ll take many impressions home which can’t be gained from watching TV. On the cultural extension, we’ll see the famous Baobab Alley as well as the rich flora and fauna of Madagascar.

Madagascar is among the poorest of African countries. The infrastructure is not comparable with any European or North American country. Roads may become completely impassable following heavy rainfall, which may occur at any time. The railway is not a sure runner as well - locomotives may fail, trains may derail, tracks might be blocked. Once again: this tour is an adventure and you should prepare for it. Train rides, as well as travelling by road, may produce enormous delays. Our travel agency will make sure that we’ll always be able to feed you, and this is something very simple because on every station there are plenty of vendors selling food and drinks. But there are no set times for meals and it might become very late in the evening for dinner. Train delays of several hours, even days, are known in Madagascar. Carrying some muesli bars and drinking water with you might not be a bad idea.

Railways in Madagascar

This is a road! Even 4 WD cars may give up under such conditions.

Railways in Madagascar

This used to be the second last locomotive in use in Fianarantsoa ... Now only one left in service.

You need a certain level of fitness on the tour. We’re travelling under tropical conditions, times for meals are not set and some of the hotels are not what you would expect to find in a western country. Wherever possible we’ve chosen appropriate middle class hotels - and sometimes we’re booked in the best available hotel – which means nothing other than there is no hotel with a decent standard within a reachable distance.

It’s advisable to be fit for travelling in difficult circumstances, with delays and the need to walk a kilometre or so occasionally to reach photo locations.

Railways in Madagascar

Hygienic and environmental standards in Madagascar do not conform to Central European, Australian or North American expectations. Carrying some toiletries in your photo bag is hence advisable. Please bear in mind that accommodation and transportation in Madagascar completely falls short of EU/US safety standards. Always use common sense when crossing roads and railway tracks. Neither FarRail Tours nor the local agency or the railways can be held responsible and neither will accept any liability whatsoever in the case of any accident, damage or delay. We suggest you take out a comprehensive overseas accident and health insurance policy. Trip cancellation insurance is recommended as well.

Railways in Madagascar

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Price

Madagascar
Madagascar: Railways at Their Limits 15 to 22 participants £2,920
27.04.2018 – 11.05.2018 10 to 14 participants £3,070
  Single room surcharge £360
Registration Deadline: 26.01.2018
Land of the Baobabs 11 to 18 participants £1,770
10.05.2018 – 17.05.2018 5 to 10 participants £2,040
  Single room surcharge £340
Registration Deadline: 26.01.2018
 

The price includes:

Not included:

Railways in Madagascar

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