The train travels between the towns of Fianarantsoa in the highlands (elevation 1100m) and Manakara on the coast. The gradient of the line partly explains its slow going – the constant breakdowns and heavy cargo are the real issue. The train crosses areas not accessible by road, so it is a lifeline for local communities who use it to trade and travel. It is this amazing spectacle – the road-less landscapes and the loading/unloading theatrics at every station, 18 in total – that make the journey so special.
This kind of slow (and unpredictable) travel isn’t for everyone. It’s either your idea of an authentic experience, or your worst nightmare in your carefully planned two-week holiday. We won’t judge; all we’ll say is that being prepared for inevitable delays and factoring them in in your itinerary is probably the best way to approach this trip.
A little history
The FCE railway was built by the French colonial administration between 1926 and 1936 to open up the east coast and facilitate the export of agricultural products from this fertile region. The tracks were imported from Germany, the carriages from Switzerland.
In its heyday the railway had two locomotives, with five services a week carrying 150,00 passengers and 20,000 tonnes of freight a year. Unfortunately, with Madagascar bumping from one political and economic crisis to the next since the 1960s, little money has been invested in the railway’s upkeep, which explains the record-breaking delays and the serial derailings and breakdowns. There is now one locomotive only and just two passenger services a week (and one freight only), which results in overcrowding and overloading.
The carriages too have seen better days: you may like the idea of travelling second class, but one look at the stationmaster’s appalled face upon your request, and a quick look at the carriage, will likely put paid to your plan in quick order. First class it is then, and not a bad choice at that: the seats are relatively comfortable, the glass is clear and the windows open and shut.
The highlands’ stretch of the journey is arguably the most scenic: the train snakes through steep mountainsides dotted with forest, waterfalls, terraced fields and fruit plantations. With so many mountains to link and rivers to cross, there are no less than 48 tunnels, 67 bridges and four viaducts, including the spectacular one at Ankeba, which towers 40m above a sea of rice paddies.
Travelling through such majestic landscapes is rail travel at its best: the speed is slow (20km/h on average), the windows are usually left open so that the air fills with the scent of the branches the train brushes past. You quickly get to chat to your neighbours, be they fellow tourists or Malagasies. It feels as if for just a few hours, you’ve taken a break from the 21st century’s frenetic pace.
The environment starts changing around Fenomby, about 100km into the journey – the landscape is flatter, the air is warmer, and rice paddies and palm trees replace the forested slopes.