The lower quarter of Paola is practically at sea level; Cosenza, surrounded by forested mountain ranges, at the confluence of the Busento and the Crati, at an altitude of 232 m. Snow is not uncommon in winter. Trenitalia will take you as far as Cosenza Vaglio Lisi station, a hideous essay in concrete which looks as though it has been dropped in from the former Eastern Bloc but which in fact was designed by architects from Studio Nervi, in Roma. It was inaugurated on 31 May 1987. Go outside and you will find no pedestrian access – just a miniature Spaghetti Junction with grim blocks of flats rising beyond the asphalt and waste ground. You will conclude, like I did, that this is not in fact Cosenza, in spite of the nameboards. It is, however, where the 1435 mm gauge ends and the 950 mm gauge of the Ferrovie della Calabria (FC) begins.
950 mm gauge marvel
What happened is that until 1987 Cosenza FS terminus really was in the city centre, right at the confluence of the two rivers, and adjacent to the FC terminus. When the new station was built (why there? one wonders), the 950 mm gauge was extended northwards by 2.65 km, partly on the old FS formation, and partly on a new one to the east of the latter. On its new line FC built two new halts, and all its long-distance services start and finish min bays on the south side of Vaglio Lisi. There is also a shuttle service – ten train pairs daily – to and from Cosenza Centro. My advice is to head for the latter just as soon as you can – but be warned: FC does not run any trains at all (except its tourist one) on Sundays and public holidays!
Cosenza is well worth a visit. The old quarter – a labyrinth of steep, narrow, crumbling footpaths - sprawls up the hillside to the south of the confluence, overlooked by the castle. From the road bridge over the Crati and the high-level promenade beyond there are some photogenic views over the FC girder bridge. There are a couple of hotels within very easy walking distance of the station, and just outside the latter a self-service restaurant which offers an impressive range of cheap and healthy dishes. Sensibly, they store their wine in a cooling cabinet, a Spanish habit which I much appreciate. ‘Room temperature’ rosso can taste distinctly vinegary on a warm day. The old FS station survives as a railway employees’ clubhouse. Like most other Italian towns and cities, however, Cosenza (except for parts of the old quarter) suffers from one mighty big problem – the infernal combustion engine on four wheels. Thank goodness cars are unable to scale steps!
The story of FC dates back to the early years of the 20th century. When FS was founded in 1905, the Società per le Strade Ferrate del Mediterraneo held out hopes of retaining its own 1435 mm gauge network in the far south, but lacked capital. Instead, it decided to take advantage of an Act of 1910 to build a complementary 950 mm gauge network, using its own resources. A contract was signed with the State in 1911. In 1915 the company changed its name to the Società Mediterranea per le Ferrovie Calabro-Lucane (MCL) and shouldered the task of creating 1271 km of new railway, 60 km of which were by then already under construction. Of this network, 203 km comprised existing 1435 mm gauge lines on which a third rail would be laid, to create an integrated 950 mm gauge network which would have linked most of the major urban centres of Calabria, Basilicata and Puglia, even penetrating Campania (see table and map). This ambitious project was only partially realised. A decision to scale it down was taken in 1926 and by 1934, when work was suspended, 765 km of route had been completed. Camigliatello to San Giovanni in Fiore was an afterthought, inaugurated in 1956.
In 1961, following a serious accident near Soveria Mannelli, the State withdrew MCL’s concession, management of the lines being taken over by the Gestione Commissariale Governata delle Ferrovie Calabro-Lucane (FCL). A modernisation plan was prepared, steam being ousted in 1977 when the Spezzano to Lagonegro line was closed (lifted in 1984). The 1980 earthquake prompted the closure of the Potenza to Laurenzana line. In 1985 the Piaggio railcars, dating from 1936/7, started being replaced by M3 FIAT vehicles from the Ferrosud works; the last were withdrawn in 1989. The following year the FCL split into two separate concerns, FC and Ferrovie Appulo-Lucane (FAL). A batch of M4 FIAT railcars, again from the Ferrosud works, arrived in 1994.
In 2003 FC owned 40 railcars, seven trailers, and 17 locomotives, of which three are steam. There were plans to acquire eight more railcars, both rack and adhesion, five trailers, and a dresina. That year the company carried 1,368,000 passengers on its trains (26.3 million passenger km and 1.17 million train km).