France's historic train routes

Passengers still drawn by pulling power of historic train routes

Passengers still drawn by pulling power of historic train routes

CHUFFING, puffing, noisy trains have a fascination even in the 21st Century although the age of steam has long gone as a commercial concern.

Despite a network of TGVs travelling at 300+kph, France has not forgotten its railway heritage.

There are up to two dozen tourist train routes in the country, some on a small-scale, some large, some luxury and some just historical. They cater for lovers of steam, electric and diesel locos working on narrow or standard gauge lines.

At the luxury end there is the Orient Express from Paris to Venice costing from around €2,000 per person for one night and two days of travel. On this train it is usual to “dress” for dinner – DJs and cocktail dresses are the norm.

Connexion has selected five trains with an interest for both adults and children. Most, but not all, start at Easter and continue until the end of October, some with special events for Halloween and Christmas.

Le Chemin de Fer du Creusot

By far the most magnificent engine, and definitely the largest, is 241P17, which was built by Schneider at Le Creusot between 1947 and 1949.

This monster, with its 4-8-2 wheel configuration (4 bogies at front 2 at the rear and 8 driving wheels) is 17 metres long and weighs in, fully loaded, at 119 tonnes. It has been totally renovated since being withdrawn from service in 1969 and all lovers of steam locos say it is a “must see” or “must go on”.

In 2010, from April to October, it will be seen pulling carriages from the steam era, mainly through eastern and southern France. There are full dining facilities on board for those wanting a real trip down memory lane.

Provisional dates and departures are:

- Citadelle Vapeur Express – April 18; Le Creusot-Besançon and back. With optional visits to the Citadelle or Belfort.

- Les Lignes Mythiques – May 7, 8, and 9; Engine 241P17 returns to Paris for the first time on May 7 on the Ligne Impériale run from Le Creusot to the capital’s Gare de Lyon. May 8 sees the run from Paris to Mulhouse on Ligne 4 and the next day is the final leg from Mulhouse to Le Creusot.

- Des Portes du Midi aux Vallées Alpines – June 20; Round trip from Lyon to Valence, Grenoble, Chambery, Aix-les-Bains and back to Lyon.

- Le Savoie Vapeur Express – August 29; From Le Creusot to Aix-les-Bains and return.

- Visit to Switzerland – September 18, 19. Venues to be advised.

- Strasbourg et Colmar Express – October 9 and 10 with bateau-promenade in Strasbourg. http://parcdescombes.free.fr

When the major manufacturing industries around Le Creusot went into decline the mines at Montceau-les-mines and the locomotive production yard at Le Creusot fell derelict.

However, by the end of the century the phoenix had risen from the ashes and the Parc des Combes, a 70-hectare tourist theme park, was developed making full use of the narrow-gauge railway that had previously been used to take clinker from the factories to be dumped high above the town.

The sites have become major tourist attractions in their own right – together with the business of renovating steam locomotives – with the addition of a large artificial lake for waterborne activities at Montceau and the Royal Glassworks museum in Le Creusot.

Le Petit Train des Combes – The Two Valleys train

Using steam and diesel locomotives, the original 60cm narrow-gauge rubble-dumping railway operates from Les Combes station at Le Creusot and the one and a half hour trip takes visitors to look out over the town, the university and the remaining industrial zones.

It goes through the natural park with its rambling paths, to the plain, where events are staged during the summer, including a visit to a reconstructed working medieval village or an attack on the train by Red Indians or outlaws.

At the terminus at the top there is a karting circuit, summer luge, a fossil museum and the many other attractions of an excellent theme park – which is for all ages.

Trains run from April until All Saints’ Day and selected days at Christmas although times vary with the season. Booking in high season is advised. www.parcdescombes.com

Chemin de Fer de la Mure

THIS line was built to take coal from the Matheysin coalfields to Grenoble and ran electric locomotives, a very radical move in those days which helped gain it a reprieve during the oil crisis in the 1970s. It was not closed until 1989 – which proved a blessing as it was able to step into the tourist trade quickly and is now a major attraction.

The line opened in July 1868 and the locomotives are Swiss-built and more than 50 years old – the carriages are equally as old.

Starting in St-Georges-de-Commiers, 20km south of Grenoble, and running to La Mure, the journey of just under two hours has magnificent scenery and includes a stop of 20 minutes at La Motte-d’Aveillans to visit the museum, dedicated to the life of the bee (and perhaps purchase some local honey).

En route you enter the Mysterious Tunnel, a dark, 1070m tunnel with a magic lantern show along the walls – which comes to “life” on the Halloween Specials where one of the highlights are the “spooks” who also travel on the trains. Trains operate from April until October and in summer there are special tickets to include visits to the Mine Museum and a boat cruise on the lake.

Booking in advance is advised for the best seats on the train. www.traindelamure.com

Le Train des Pignes – Chemin de Fer de Provence

This train is the most commercial but has the most spectacular scenery.

It is a daily service from Digne-les-Bains (04) to the Chemin de Fer de Provence station in Nice. Only the facia of the old Gare du Sud remains, the rest is now a car park and the train leaves from a modern station nearby.

The Nice-Grenoble railway line was first envisaged in 1861 but it was not until 1911 that the section between Digne-les-Bains and Nice was opened. Originally part of the Chemins de Fer du Sud, nowadays only this latter section of the narrow gauge line exists, using adapted diesel rail cars.

Over three and a half hours the 151km journey from Digne goes up the Verdon Valley to an altitude of 1022m and then down the valley of the Var to Nice. The leisurely journey reveals some of the most spectacular scenery, from grazing land, lavender fields, mountains, and waterfalls to vineyards and palm trees, and finally through the streets of Nice.

On summer Sundays you can do part of the journey between Puget-Théniers and Annot by private steam train.

Another stop at Entrevaux allows a visit to Maréchal de Vauban’s architectural masterpiece at the bastion high above the village.

Fares vary with distance but Digne-les-Bains to Nice is around €35 return. Four trains a day operate in each direction and it is used by Nice residents as a commuter service to the Plan du Var. www.trainprovence.com

Train de La Rhune – The Basque region's Little Train

LA RHUNE mountain at 905m dominates the Basque coastline from Biarritz to Hendaye and a 15km rack and pinion narrow gauge railway was built to the top in 1924. It is a very popular journey as it gives views over the Pyrenées and the French coastal plain and boasts more than 35,000 visitors a year – with many opting for the challenge and the views of the walk back down.

Open from Easter to All Saints’ Day, it starts in Saint-Jean-de-Luz and takes 35 minutes for the uphill journey on a maximum gradient over the 4.2km climb of 25%. A 15 tonne electric engine drives the locomotive and the carriages, seating 60 visitors each, are of varnished wood from trees grown in the region and have curtains in the interior.

During the journey visitors should look out for the huge variety of wild life (both animals and birds – particularly the Egyptian vultures) and also the many peat bogs. www.rhune.com

Find out more

There does not appear to be enthusiast groups on a national basis, but many of the small railways do have 'friends' or volunteer groups. The Union des Exploitants de Chemin de Fer Touristiques et de Musées (UNETCO) has a rather chaotic website listing a number of historic lines around the country - www.trains-fr.org

The National Train Museum (Cité du Train) in Mulhouse is an absolute must for any true 'trainy'. They have a number of events during the year for adults and children's groups. Admission is €10 for adults see www.citedutrain.com

French rail facts

1832 - First passenger railway service opens in France between Lyon and Saint-Étienne 20km away.
1880s - Introduction of electrification on some railways.
Early 1960s - End of steam era.
1981 - First TGV enters service travelling between Paris and Lyon.
2007 - A modified TGV breaks the world high speed train record at 574.8 kph on the Paris -Strasbourg line.
French TGVs also broke world speed records in 1981, 1983, 1988 and 1990.

The SNCF rail network covers 32,000 km of railway - 1,800 km being specially constructed high-speed lines. About 14,000 trains run every day.

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