The history of the railway line
When Lourdes railway station was inaugurated in 1963, it marked the launch of modern transport in the Pyrenees, now connected to Paris. The line south of Lourdes to Soulom was commissioned in 1884. Over the following decades, several hundred thousand pilgrims and people taking the waters travelled to the Pyrenean valleys by rail.
The Lourdes-Soulom line was closed to passengers by the SNCF in 1970 before being closed to freight traffic in 1992.
These closures gave rise to the question: "What was going to become of the 17 km stretch of abandoned railway line in the most popular tourist valley in the Pyrenees?”
Definition of a greenway
Introduced in Bristol for the first time in 1978, greenways are stand alone structures installed on sites reserved for non-motorised travel. They are intended for use by pedestrians, cyclists, skaters, people with reduced mobility and, in some instances, horse riders, for the purposes of tourism, leisure and travel by the local population. They must be accessible to the greatest number, without the need for any specific physical requirements, and must be secure and signposted. The definition of greenways by the European Greenways Association: here
A local wish
Abandoned since 1992, the old Gaves Valleys railway line in the Pyrenees was starting to become a serious problem in terms of safety and its impact on the landscape. When, in 1995, Jean-Pierre ARTIGANAVE, President of the Syndicat Mixte pour le Développement Rural de l’Arrondissement d’Argelès-Gazost (SMDRA), suggested to the syndicat’s members to consider turning it into a greenway, despite some initial reservations, it was decided to initiate the project with a certain degree of caution.
After market research and field visits, the project started to take shape. In effect, it became apparent that all the necessary conditions were combined: the site was exceptional, 18 km of outstanding landscapes between Lourdes and Pierrefitte-Nestalas, the route was already there and offered a very small gradient, the surrounding villages were ideal for visits. This route appeared to offer an opportunity to “spread” tourism from Lourdes to the surrounding area...
The aim of this project was to contribute to the balanced development of the Gaves Valleys. Several objectives and challenges were involved: respect for the environment, regional development, promotion of sports and leisure activities, access for all.
After the project’s official launch, the first step involved buying the former railway line and its land from the Réseau Ferré de France in December 1999. Technical studies followed before the start of works. Since 2000, three works phases have been completed.
Phase 1 = transformation of the former railway line into a greenway (1999-2000)
The first works involved three aspects: surface, structure, safety. A track for cyclists was surfaced; the path was secured with road signs and installations at intersections. In order to promote the region, tourism signposting was installed and rest areas were created to increase the path’s attractiveness. The path was inaugurated on 1 July 2000 and was recognised by the European Greenway Association.
Phase 2 = equipment for accessibility (2004-2005)
Very quickly, a new approach was adopted in line with the creation of the national Tourism and Disability certification. The SMDRA mobilised its councillors and obtained the necessary funding to ensure that the greenway would be accessible to all types of disability. These new works enabled the creation of a pedestrianised track on each side of the cycle path and access to the path and signposting was improved. In December 2005, the Gaves Greenway became the first French “Tourism and Disability" certified greenway for three types of disability: audio, motor and mental.
Phase 3 = installation of appropriate signposting (2010)
Equipment for visual disabilities was not installed in 2005 owing to a lack of funding. After ten years, it became necessary to renew the tourism signposting and the SMDRA's councillors took the opportunity to complete the equipment and make the greenway accessible to all disabilities. This new signposting offers about twenty information boards along the route’s entire length. All offer information in Braille and the path’s main entrances are equipped with audio terminals broadcasting a welcome message in three languages. This signposting helped to obtain Tourism and Disability certification in December 2010 for four disabilities: motor, mental, audio and visual.
Since 1999, the creation of the Gaves Greenway has cost €1,265,000. The strong participation of local, national and European funding has helped this project to be completed quickly. It is also interesting to note the strong commitment to the project by the communes which the Greenway passes through, all of which made a considerable financial contribution.