FRANCE: 'We see an amazing future for this line', proclaimed SNCF President Guillaume Pepy on July 6, when he joined the celebrations to mark the centenary of the metre-gauge line between Chamonix and Vallorcine in Haute-Savoie.

Accompanied by the President of Rhône-Alpes Jean-Jacques Queyranne and the regional Vice-President in charge of transport Bernard Soulage, he explained that a major programme of investment was enabling a 'relaunch' of the line, which is now being marketed as the Mont Blanc Express.

As well as inaugurating a new intermediate halt at Vaudagne, the VIPs named three of the six new Class Z850 EMUs being supplied by Stadler at a cost of €31·4m. Electrified at 850 V DC third rail, the 37 km line is one of the steepest adhesion-worked railways in Europe, with 9% gradients. Owned by RFF, the line is operated by a multi-functional team of 150 SNCF staff in a dedicated business unit known as Etablissement Mont Blanc.

Addressing guests at Vallorcine, Pepy thanked the politicians for 'excellent co-operation which bodes well for the years ahead'. The line has been supported financially by Rhône-Alpes since 1990, and saw the launch of a regular-interval TER timetable last year. ?According to Pepy, revenue only covers around 40% of operating costs, as the region has decided to keep the fares low. Thanks in part to free bus-rail transfers introduced in 2000, patronage has jumped by 25% in the past five years to around 500 000 passenger/year. Queyranne explained that the local authorities see the railway as essential in ensuring a sustainable tourist industry in the French Alps.

Rhône-Alpes is contributing €45m towards the €50m first phase of a comprehensive modernisation of the line, covering the new rolling stock plus renewal of track, stations and infrastructure. RFF awarded a €1·3m contract in April covering track renewals between Chedde and Servoz, to be completed by the end of 2008.

Two further phases of investment scheduled for 2010-15 are expected to see the construction of a new halt at Chamonix connecting with the Aiguille du Midi cable car, and further enhancement of the passenger service which currently comprises 34 trains per day. By 2015 Rhône-Alpes would like to see a 'tram-train' service operating at 20 min intervals all day.

Pepy says this would require the purchase of 'three or four' more EMUs to augment the six Z850s and the three Z800 rack-equipped sets bought in 1997 to permit through services to Martigny in Switzerland over the connecting TMR line from the border at Le Châtelard, 2 km beyond Vallorcine. Further trains would also be needed to replace the last of the eight Z600 electric railcars that arrived in 1958 and are still being used on some peak-season shuttle services.