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Cerbère - Port Bou (France - Spain)

Nowhere else in France is there a pair of stations with such exiguous sites and where so many difficulties occur in operation than these twins, situtated on either side of the border. Indeed, each occupies a small triangle of naturally flat ground along the coast of the Albères hills at the eastern edge of the of the Pyrenee mountains. Their facilities, which have been expanded and rearranged several times in order to accommodate the evolution of the traffic, now fully occupy the site. The main geographical constraint preventing further expansion is the fact that they are each situated between two long tunnels.

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La gare internationale de Port Bou
La gare frontière de Cerbere
Panoramic view of Cerbère
Panoramic view of Cerbère
Panoramic view of Port-Bou
Panoramic view of Port-Bou
various panoramic views of Cerbère and Port-Bou
© Serge le foudurail

track layout of Cerbère (situation 2003)
thanks to Boris Chomenko

Although they have much in common with the other main pair of stations on the border, Hendaye-Irun on the Atlantic coast, such as the presence of tracks having different gauges and different power supply voltages (the SNCF's 1.5 kV and the RENFE's 3 kV DC), their operating procedures are significantly different. This is because Cerbère currently specialises, with Transfesa, in replacing the axles of freight waggons while Port Bou deals with the job of transhipping freight between broad-gauge and standard-gauge waggons - both involving an intricate series of shunting moves.

On the SNCF side, the tracks at Cerbère are subdivided somewhat inflexibly into five distinct sectors each with its own signal box, notably P1 and P2 which are of the types known as Peli (Unified electro-mechanical with individual levers) and EMU (unified electro-mechanical), dating from 1966 and 1963, respectively controlling the northern and southern accesses. Boxes D and F deal with the French sidings while box E handles all broad-gauge movements:

  • the 'passenger zone' consists of tracks A to D, with an average length of 420 m, which can also be used for the reception of freight trains, as well as the Spanish track which has buffers at its northern end; This track is used for the reception of nine broad-gauge regional trains arriving from Barcelona Sants and two expresses, one being a day train originating in Valencia and the other, which is known as the 'Costa Brava', running overnight from Madrid.
  • the 'freight arrival/departure plateau' with four tracks (43 to 46), the average length of which is unfortunately clearly inadeqate - only 310 m
  • the 'passenger stabling plateau' consisting of 15 tracks (3 to 19)
  • the 'freight formation group', consisting of single-ended French sidings (20 to 31, none more than 570 m long) and the dual-gauge track 168
  • the Spanish 'freight reception and formation group' consisting of single-ended tracks 168 and 71 to 89, with a usable length of up to 535 m
  • The Transfesa workshop is located between these groups. It deals with the replacement of the axles of the company's freight waggons. There is also a group of sidings where the SNCF locos wait between duties.

one to choose?
Inside Transfesa workshop
Entering Transfesa workshop
Siesta at 

various impressions of the Transfesa workshop at Cerbère
© Serge le foudurail

The whole track layout of Port Bou station is controlled from just one signal-box, of the PRG type (all-relay, cabled geographically), known as "l'Enclavamiento".

  • Its facilities for passenger traffic consist of:

    • the hangar where the axles of Talgo trains are reset from one gauge to the other as they pass through to reach the platforms (Intercambiador)
    • two tracks with platforms (1F & 2F, 431 and 437 m long) for the reception of SNCF trains
    • five tracks with platforms for the reception of RENFE passenger trains (1, 2, 4, 6 & 8)
    • a small group of sidings for stabling passenger vehicles and locomotives

  • the freight terminal, all tracks of which are single-ended, is subdivided into several specialised zones:

    • the hangar belonging to the Cadefer steel company, in which the various loads of steel products (coils and profiles coming from the Lorraine, Creil and Belgium) and the associated equipment are trans-shipped for onward transport to car factories in Spain (Renault, Peugeot, Nissan)
    • two groups of tracks for the trans-shipment of intermodal traffic, supervised by the three specialised operators (Novatrans, ICF and Transfesa Railmax), and conventional traffic (southbound eg timber and cereals, northbound eg ceramic tiles), with broad gauge and UIC tracks not more than 413 m long, served by straddle cranes
    • a small set of tracks for the trans-shipment of new cars
    • two side tracks suitable for the reception of short trains coming from France

gauge passenger section of Port-Bou

sidings at Port-Bou
intermodal section of Port-Bou
installations for trans-shipment of cars
areas of Port-Bou: broad gauge platforms and sidings, trans-shipment tracks
© Serge le foudurail

The twin stations are linked by a pair of reversible tracks through Balitres international tunnel, which is 1064 m long. One track is standard gauge and electrified at 1.5 kV DC; the other is broad gauge with catenary powered at 3 kV, and the traffic through them is controlled jointly under the block system from the signal boxes P2 at Cerbère and l'Enclavamiento at Port Bou. Tunnel 

between France and Spain
This tunnel, which has a speed limit of 30 km/h, may be regarded as the 'eye of the needle' through which it is not easy to pass.

  • The traffic on the SNCF track in particular is at capacity for much of the time. It consists notably of:
    • the passenger trains that terminate at Port Bou and the corresponding ECS workings to Cerbère,
    • eight daily through Talgo trains (4 each way) which run at walking speed via the gauge-changing shed and thus occupy the track for about 20 minutes each time;
    • French freight trains to and from the trans-shipment installations at Port Bou
    • local freight trip movements hauled by type 463500 diesel locomotives, needed to deal with the waggons detached or to be attached at Cerbère in the case of trains too long to be accomodated at Port Bou
    • locomotives running light between Cerbère and Port Bou
    • Currently no TGVs run south of Perpignan (whereas they do reach the border at Irun/Hendays)

  • The broad-gauge track is used by the following traffic:

    • RENFE passenger trains terminating at Cerbère and the corresponding ECS workings
    • northbound and southbound freight trains to and from the Transfesa gauge-change installation
The import-export traffic handled at the stations, which was 2.3 million tonnes in 1996, rose to 3 million in 2000 but fell back to 2.6 million in 2003, reflecting the reduction in economic activity. In that year, Cerbère handled 1.2 million tonnes and Port Bou 1.4 million.

In the summer service of 2003, the freight traffic handled by the twin stations included two long-distance flows across France with axle replacement at Cerbère:

  • an intermodal train between Dagenham (Ford UK) and Almeusafes, near Valencia, via Calais-Fréthun, Brives, Toulouse
  • an intermodal train from Mannheim via Forbach
  • a train of Ford parts from Eisenach to Grisen via Forbach
  • two mixed freight trains, one from Sibelin (Lyon) and the other from Nîmes with various waggons either empty or loaded, including some for Cadefer.

As for Port Bou, its trans-shipment facilities were the destination of various trains originating at points including Belgium via Quévy, Cologne via Apach, Sarrebrück via Forbach, Metz-Sablons (ICF), Milano via Vintimille twice weekly and a mixed freight from Miramas.
In two cases, these trains are so long that they have to be split at Perpignan Chef-de-Bien and forwarded to the twin stations in two parts.

In the opposite direction, Cerbère is the origin of intermodal trains for Dagenham and Eisenach, of two mixed freights for Sibelin and of car-carrying trains for Parma (FS), Geneva and Creutzwald. As for Port Bou, on the other hand, it is the starting point of intermodal trains for Metz, Sarrebrück (in two parts, combined at Perpignan), Mannheim, Quévy, Cologne and Milan.

Southbound trains leave the twin stations for various destinations, such as Constanti, Silla, Morrot, Granollers, Barcelona, Tarragona, Valencia, Zaragossa etc.; those originating at Cerbère have had their axles changed, while those from Port Bou consist of trans-shipped freight.

Every day, the twin stations receive or dispatch a total of about 600 waggons, but when the need to split or combine the trains handled at the Transfesa yard, transfers between the tracks alongside plaforms and those used for trans-shipment, and local movements of empty waggons are taken into account, about twice as many waggons are in fact shifted daily. This corresponds to roughly fifty train movements daily through the Balitres tunnel.

The regularity of this international traffic seldom corresponds exactly to the schedules, which inevitably has an impact on the connections on the RENFE's network and leads to congestion within the stations because of their operational contraints. In practice, the time needed between the arrival of a waggon on one gauge and the moment that its load is ready for departure on the other varies from 4 minutes for trans-shipment of a container and 5 minutes to change the gauge of a Transfesa van or flatcar to 14 minutes for a car-carrying waggon, 20 minutes for a cereal hopper unloaded by means of a pipe with an Archimedes screw, 45 minutes for trans-shipping a load of steel beams and an hour for a carload of scrap metal.

Other factors liable to hinder the transfer process include:
  • the presence of passenger traffic (TRN and TER), which is particularly heavy in summer
  • the unreliability of radio communications, due to the mountainous environment
  • motive-power problems, such as insufficient or faulty locomotives

There are also several noteworthy differences between the operating practice on the SNCF and that on RENFE, including:

  • the maximum length of freight trains, which is 750 m in France, but 500 m in Spain
  • the maximum train loading, which is 1200 to 1900 tonnes in one case and 900 to 1500 tonnes in the other, depending on the type of locomotive
  • the coexistence of two freight operating companies in Spain (UN Combinado for intermodal traffic and UN Cargas for other traffic), which involves the communication problems arising notably because many of the RENFE staff don't come from Catalonia and are not fluent in either French or Catalan, the language mainly used in the border zone.

During the last few years, the SNCF and RENFE have participated in various projects intended to improve the fluidity of the traffic in transit. One of the most noteworthy is the creation of the MUM (Mundo Unica Mercancia) at Port Bou in May 1998. This joint service, which provides an interface between the railway companies and the transport operators (ICF, Novatrans, Transfesa, Cadefer) 24 hours a day, has the tasks of improving the fluidity of the exchanges, defining operational priorities, optimising the means for eliminating unproductive time, updating the transport plans of both stations, anticipating the growth of through traffic and devising solutions for any problems encountered.

Furthermore, several specific improvements have been made in the arrangements for handling waggons in the stations concerned:

  • at Port Bou, in May 2003, four tracks 150 m long (to be extended in principle to 250 m later) were taken into service for the storage of empty or unsuitable waggons, and trains to or from France were limited to 450 m in order to ensure they can be accommodated on all tracks
  • at Cerbère, the Transfesa installation was modernised to improve the quality and speed of operation.

Apart from these improvements, which have helped to reduce the time of transit for waggons to between 5 and 8 hours, some other actions have been taken to increase the regularity of the flow of incoming traffic, such as:

  • retiming the periods reserved for track maintenance in the southbound direction between Lyons and Narbonne, and in the northbound direction between Cerbère and Lyons
  • rescheduling the slots for traffic between Metz, Perpignan and Cerbère/Port Bou over the 24 hours
  • simplifying the roster of locomotive duties over this route.

Other projects currently under study include:

  • extending, to 710 m and 670 m, two tracks in the group at Perpignan Chef de Bien that are used for temporary storage and for splitting and assembling the cross-border traffic concerned into pick-up and set-down freight trains between Perpignan and Rousillon
  • laying a third rail and arranging to supply the catenary at 1.5 kV to enable SNCF electrically-hauled trains to run when needed via the normally broad-gauge track through Balitres tunnel.

All these projects have long-term utility, because the twin stations will continue to plan an important role even after the high-speed line between Perpignan and Figueras enters service, especially in the event of any operational problems with it.
taken from Rail Passion 75, Novembre 2003
article provided by Wesley van Drongelen; translation by Alan Reekie

page last updated: 26. March 2018 ©1998-2013 Thorsten Büker