The International Steam Pages
French mountaineering – narrow and standard gauge, 2012
Robert Hall has been on holiday, he has provided a map to help those like your webmaster who are unfamiliar with the area.
'Googling' the various lines will produce plenty of images of the railways. In particular, for the “Le Petit Train Jaune” clicking on the thumbnail link on this page http://www.countrycousins.co.uk/verymisc.htm will take you to an excellent page on the railway - it's part of a 'Flash' presentation so the direct link doesn't work - hence the convoluted route to it.
Notes from a brief trip, made largely on impulse, to south / central France at the beginning of September 2012, to travel over a few lines of interest, never before visited by the author. The entire area traversed was new to me at first-hand. Budget flights were used from and back to Britain, to / from different locations.
An early-morning departure from East Midlands Airport led to touch-down at Carcassonne at 09.45 French time. A famously picturesque and historic walled-citadel town, whose touristic delights I regretfully admit to spurning, in haste to reach the station and slot-in as soon as possible, to tightly-packed rail-travelling schedule. From the airport-to-station bus, I did note passing over the broad Canal du Midi -- linking the Mediterranean to the river Garonne and ultimately the Atlantic – which runs through the town.
With the station attained, a brief memory of things further east was sparked. The town of Paczków, in Poland on the main line eastward from Kłodzko, is reputedly a walled architectural gem: its station nameboards bear (or did thirty years ago) under the place-name, the inscription “Polski Carcassonne”. Having long idly wondered whether Carcassonne station’s nameboards returned the compliment by being labelled “Le Paczków Français” – I discovered that, unsurprisingly, they don’t. A half-hour hop to Narbonne was achieved on the first working eastwards, a TGV set plying between Bordeaux and Dijon.
The earlier part of my tour involved much referring to George Behrend’s book “Railway Holiday in France”; his 1963 travels recounted therein included a couple of days in this corner of the country, involving lines which I was targeting. I first hit his route at Narbonne. At the time of Behrend’s visit, and for most of the decade following, Narbonne was a busy steam centre with a large allocation of the general-purpose 141R class 2-8-2s, working on the main line south to Perpignan and the Spanish border, and associated branches. This venue proved ultimately to be SNCF’s last centre of intensive steam activity. Behrend actually took no journeys behind steam in this area – silly man; but in fairness, his mission was to experience and tell about “something of everything” on the French rail scene in that era, not to do dogged steam-bashing. At that time, a fair number of passenger workings between Narbonne and the Spanish frontier were by diesel railcar, and it just so happened that railcar runs were what Behrend “drew” throughout. He does refer to copious 141R action observed in the area (and Spanish steam at Cerbère, the main-line frontier point).
Behrend and I both travelled between Narbonne and Toulouse, via “Perpignan and the mountains”, but in opposite directions: him anti-clockwise from the west, me clockwise from the east. All standard-gauge electric lines which I travelled on in this corner of France, are nowadays on the French standard 1500 V DC. I caught the 11.35 emu local working Narbonne – Perpignan. This 60-odd-km stretch is interesting visually, with the line running beside, and occasionally across, the various large salt-water lagoons which stretch a considerable way inland from the Mediterranean. The sea proper – my only look at it on the whole bash – is visible just for a few minutes, off across a wide area of sand near Port-la-Nouvelle. One feels that the line’s interaction with the lagoons would have afforded worthwhile photographic possibilities in steam days. From the train on this run, the peaks of the Pyrenees mountains could be seen rising up enticingly, immediately southward.
The majority of travel on this tour was over lines of the one-time Chemin de Fer du Midi – one of the half-dozen big standard-gauge companies which at nationalisation in 1938, were combined to form the SNCF. The Midi’s system basically spanned France from the Spanish border, up as far as Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Montpellier, with a few lines penetrating further north. It long worked closely in partnership with the CF Paris – Orléans, spreading out south-westward from Paris; in fact, the two companies amalgamated in 1934. The Midi was the first of France’s big companies to take enthusiastically to electric traction – this no doubt being influenced by the suitability for harnessing hydro-electric power, of the mountainous terrain which much of it served.
The real prize sought for this first day, was the highly scenic 63km metre-gauge third-rail electric line from Villefranche-Vernet-les-Bains to La Tour de Carol – colloquially known as “Le Petit Train Jaune” (the little yellow train – from the stock’s “ trademark” colour) or sometimes “The Métro of the Pyrenees” – the appearance of its stock, and the third-rail fitment, being found reminiscent of the Paris Métro. (For brevity and convenience, this line will henceforth be referred to as the PTJ.) The line is one of those rare bits of metre gauge which are, and have long been, an integral part of the SNCF: it was built, and owned from the start, by the Midi company – first opened for the greater part of its ultimate length in 1911, through difficult mountain country. With their love of electricity, the Midi made the line 850v DC electric from the start – with the unusual third-rail collection system. The stock is original from the line’s opening – much rebuilt and modernised – supplemented by some latecomers. Post-World War I, the line was extended westward a little way to La Tour de Carol, the Franco-Spanish frontier and break-of-gauge point on the rail route between Toulouse and Barcelona. La Tour de Carol is thus a three-gauge station: French 1435mm and metre gauges, and Spanish 1668mm.
To reach the PTJ’s lower terminus at Villefranche-Vernet-les-Bains, a 46km run is necessary along the standard-gauge branch from Perpignan. The Midi electrified this long-established branch, in isolation, in 1911 concurrently with their opening of the PTJ; the standard-gauge branch was electrified on 12000v AC, with overhead wiring. When Behrend travelled on this section in 1963, this original electric status still obtained, with the original motor coaches in use. By 1971, this equipment had worn out, and the branch was de-electrified, with diesel working substituted. Electrification on the branch was subsequently reinstated, on the standard 1500v DC system – some disagreement among sources, as to precisely when.
As per my original plan, the 11.53 from Narbonne would make a neat eight-minute connection at Perpignan, with the 12.44 branch working to Villefranche-Vernet-les-Bains; connecting handily in turn, with the 13.50 PTJ departure for Font-Romeu, about half-way up the metre-gauge line. Foreseen, was a relaxing several hours hopefully in beauteous Pyrenean scenery at Font-Romeu, until picking up there, the 17.25 VVLB – La Tour de Carol train. The 12.44 – formed “when found”, of a modern two-car emu with designations ZBdu / ZRBux, under the aegis of “Transports Régionaux en Languedoc-Rousillon” and prominently labelled thus -- proved delayed by a quarter of an hour. (France’s surviving local rail passenger services are financed and administered by the relevant local-government authorities – which became visually evident throughout the tour.)
It was figured that if the staff at VVLB had any sense, they would hold the narrow-gauge train until its standard-gauge connection arrived; if not, no big problem – would just mean a few hours at VVLB until departure of the 1725, on which I would have ended up anyway. The branch from Perpignan runs initially through copious vineyards on the coastal plain, before – in its latter stretches – starting to climb interestingly into the mountains.
At VVLB the yellow vehicles of the 13.50 for Font-Romeu were still in the station, five minutes after scheduled departure time. All was still not well, though -- the PTJ is known for a tendency to make life difficult for those wishing to travel on it. As passengers from the standard-gauge train made their way to the nearby narrow-gauge platform, a stationman standing at a chain blocking access, announced that the train was very nearly full up; his initial edict was, only four seats left – and we numbered some ten or twelve would-be travellers. I quickly decided to forgo the 13.50 (only running part-way in any case) – even if one of the available seats were got, the crowded conditions would hamper enjoyment of the scenery; plus, with the option available of getting the 17.25, it seemed considerate to hold back and allow travel to others whose circumstances might make the 13.50 their only chance to experience the line. After a little dickering, it was ultimately found possible to accommodate IIRC seven people on the about-to-depart working – I stuck with my choice of getting the next one. The crammed-to-capacity train duly set off, a little after 14.00. It comprised what seems to be the standard rake for the line: a motor coach each end, with in between, a closed-in trailer, and a roofless open trailer – this latter reckoned to give the best opportunity for “valuing” the route’s scenery.
Some three and a half hours to kill at – to give the station its full name nowadays – Villefranche-Vernet-les-Bains-Fuilla. The PTJ seems fond of double-barrel-or-more names for the places which it serves: other notable “little stations with big names” are Olette-Canaveilles-les-Bains and (to give the location its full title) Font-Romeu-Odeillo-Via. With a largish rucksack to consider; and somewhat tired from the previous night having not been in a bed; I spent the time “chilling out” at the station, and over a snack and a couple of beers in the nearby café.
It turned out that a certain amount of “angst” and tension, was imminent. As previously mentioned, the PTJ does seem somewhat bedevilled by hiccups-and-hazards re the possibility of travelling on it. Some years ago, a friend of mine was on an organised tour of rail attractions in these parts, which included a run on a regular-service train of the PTJ. The train concerned was cancelled at short notice, allegedly because of the driver’s having phoned in sick. There might have been alternative possibilities involving taking a later working for at least some of the route; but the tour’s organisers decided against such ploys, and the party went on its way in its road coach, with no travel on the PTJ at all – to the fury of many participants. If I had been in that party, the situation would most likely have occasioned outright mutiny on my part – would have told them “drive on; I’ll catch up with you ‘as and when’ “.
As the afternoon went on, there came up on the departure-indicator against the 17.25, the dread words “train supprimé”. Worrying; because whilst there was a still-later departure at 18.47, roughly the last hour of that one’s two-and-three-quarter hour run, would be in darkness. With this line’s reputedly breathtaking scenery, that situation would involve some painful choices. Enquiries of the station personnel revealed that notwithstanding the words on the indicator, there was a possibility that the train might run after all – the problem seemed to involve a shortage of staff.
Clearly, the only thing to do was to sit tight and hope that the 17.25 would, in the end, run. Around 16.30, there were some two dozen would-be passengers waiting hopefully on the narrow-gauge platform (I had made sure to be one of those nearest the front). The French are often thought to be stroppy, peevish folk, given to bitter complaining when things go the slightest bit wrong; but those in this situation on this afternoon were extremely patient and stoical – not a word of irritation was heard. Maybe people here in the far south have different ways; or maybe the popular view is something of a calumny.
The return working from Font-Romeu came back on time at 17.13, running past the “boarding” stretch of the platform, to unload its passengers further back. No staff member offered any information to us “hopefuls”; we continued our vigil. After a little while, a single motor coach moved back up-line and halted at the “boarding” platform. An encouraging sign, as far as things went. A couple of crew members did some tinkering with the vehicle’s underparts; one then came to the access-restricting chain, and asked people’s planned destinations. I was the third in line: my reply of “La Tour de Carol” was judged satisfactory, and I was beckoned through, and hastened to get on board the motor coach and bag a window seat facing in direction of travel. Was expecting the vehicle to fill up to bursting; however, though a fair number of passengers got on board, things remained considerably below “wedged” level. Maybe there were fewer travellers than there had appeared to be; or perhaps the French equivalent of Hogwarts is just down the road, and someone was roped in from there to do a bit of “wizarding” capacity-adjustment... our one-vehicle working set off at 17.39 instead of the scheduled 17.25. No explanation was offered, of these goings-on; a slight inference could perhaps be drawn, that the problem might in fact be of a mechanical rather than a staffing kind. No customer made a fuss by asking questions – the consensus seeming to be, a proverbial “gift horse” one.
Once – relievedly – under way, a two-and-three-quarter-hour feast of magnificent scenery followed, right from the very first. Everything I had heard about the PTJ’s scenic marvels, and more, proved true – this would have to rank as the most spectacular narrow-gauge journey of my life to date. The earlier part of the journey runs clinging to the tree-clad hillside way above the lively river Têt, kilometre after kilometre – it was difficult not to draw comparisons with the Welsh Highland in the Aberglaslyn Pass, unfavourable to the Welsh venue. Throughout the journey, assorted mountain-and-moorland splendour and rail acrobatics; tunnels of varying lengths in great number, and the line’s two famous dizzying bridges: the Séjourné conventional viaduct, and the Gisclard suspension bridge. Two opposite-direction trains, of full four-vehicle formation, were crossed: the 15.17 and 16.20 ex La Tour de Carol. (The line’s schedules do not seem conspicuously regularly-spread-out or logical.)
The PTJ line’s more westerly half has the distinction of including both the SNCF system’s furthest-south station – Osseja, close to the Spanish border; and its highest, at least on a proper railway line – Bolquère-Eyne, 1592 metres above sea level. Technically, the SNCF has a still higher station, on the freakish isolated 600mm gauge Artouste dam lake line further west in the Pyrenees – initiated as a “contractor’s” line for dam construction, now run as a tourist attraction; but a good case can be made for the PTJ station, as the system’s highest “real” one. After prolonged tortuous twisting and bending to get round an enclave of Spanish territory set some way within France, and a stretch closely alongside the Spanish border, our motor coach finally reached – as twilight began to set in – the three-gauge La Tour de Carol station. A small “gauge” oddity to do with this venue: Bryan Morgan in “The End of the Line”, and Behrend in his “Railway Holiday” book, both mistakenly give the PTJ’s gauge as 1,150mm. All other sources are unanimous that the line is straightforward metre-gauge, and always has been. My surmise would be: Morgan was a self-confessed very un-technical bod (and disarmingly mentions in TEOTL, the “jinx of inaccuracy” which afflicts railway books); I would assume that he somehow wrongly got the figure of 1,150mm into his head. Behrend was not an outstanding technical “whizz” either, although he could swot stuff up at need – one takes it that he unquestioningly took Morgan’s word, as regards the PTJ’s gauge.
No advice really can be offered, as to which is the better side of the PTJ train to sit, for scenery. It is basically a “you can’t win” deal: on parts of the route, the views on the north side are better; on other parts, the south side is preferable; on yet others, there is nothing to choose between sides. The best possibility for views, would likely be one of the open trailers – given its not being full to capacity, and also given decent weather.
The night was spent at La Tour de Carol. (Incidentally, in my brief time around the station, no action at all was observed on the Spanish broad gauge.) The following day’s first journey was over the La Tour de Carol – Toulouse main(ish) line, leaving La Tour on the 07.21 departure – a three-car emu, built by Bombardier, numbered 27641 / 27642. Behrend in his “Railway Holiday” travelled on this line; he speaks highly of it in the book. I rated the run well worth doing, but could not quite feel Behrend’s degree of enthusiasm. His journey on the line was in the opposite, “uphill” direction, which in itself is presumably a more exciting experience; and he had the pleasure of permission to travel over this line in the cab of the electric locomotive.
I had probably also been rather “spoilt” by the antics-through-the-mountains of the PTJ’s route on the previous day. In my perception, from its start at La Tour de Carol, the Toulouse line basically runs lowish in river valleys, initially between magnificent mountain peaks. Climbs, not very excitingly, to the Puymorens summit and tunnel; then descends, at first sharply and involving the Saillens spiral tunnel; which to be honest I would not have realised first-hand was a spiral, absent the gen from Behrend. All fine scenery; but essentially, “running along the valley-bottom, between”. Behrend writes of, around Tarascon-sur-Ariège a little south of Foix, very-large-scale freight facilities to serve the Pechiney aluminium and lime works, with sidings “filled with enormous hopper wagons”. Almost fifty years later, no longer any of this – the copious goods yards are overgrown and deserted, and Monsieur Pechiney’s undertakings close by the railway line are clearly served totally by road, if they are still in use at all. A present-day way of things in many countries of Europe, including France: other than on first-rank main trunk lines, only a little freight still goes by rail. The few subsequent signs noted by me on the tour, of any kind of revenue-earning freight traffic still happening on secondary lines travelled on, were found cause for rejoicing.
Foix, roughly the line’s mid-point, seems an exquisite town crowned by a spectacular castle. A standard-gauge junction very long ago; no trace of the branch which at one time started out westward from here. Onward through fine scenery, to Pamiers; after which, basically a run through dullish low-lying country, though with inviting-looking hills on both sides. Unhappy associations at times, on these journeyings. Venerque-le-Vernet station, north of Pamiers, invited thoughts of Arthur Koestler’s book “Scum of the Earth” – recounting his being in France at the outbreak of World War II, and spending many months thenceforth in an internment camp here at le Vernet – in very unpleasant conditions (after his having gone through hell on earth shortly before, in the Spanish Civil War) – for being an envisagedly possibly dodgy foreign national. In the book, Koestler recounts his getting out of the camp shortly after the German invasion of France in 1940, and thereafter, by something of a miracle, making his way to Britain. Also Rivesaltes, passed through the previous day – a little way north of Perpignan, site of a viaduct over a smallish river, something of a phot-spot in steam days – was the location of a concentration camp of the World War II Vichy regime in France. Bygone sad stuff which one might wish to gloss over, but there’s the opposite inclination also. Arrival at 10.16 at Toulouse central station – “Toulouse-Matabiau”, the local pronunciation of which I learnt is “Matabi-oo”.
Toulouse, biggest city of south-western France and never visited by me before, would have been an enticing target for “touristing”: but, three days in France, gricing the primary objective and time-wise up against it, and right then great longing for breakfast / hot drink (no chance of the latter at La Tour du Carol); and departure onward, seen an hour later – “the touristy bit got the elbow”. With the “Métro of the Pyrenees” ticked-off, I was keen to start exploring the – hitherto totally unknown to me – middle-of-southern- France hill country of the Massif Central. Thus, onto the 11.20 departure from Toulouse for Rodez.
This was my first non-electric ride of the bash. I confess to being a non-technical type, and not mega-interested for its own sake in anything on rails that doesn’t run “by the vapours”. It seems that in much of Europe, “lesser passenger lines” are now served by highly-modern diesel bogie railmotors, able to run singly or in multiple, with sloping fore-and-aft profiles slightly reminiscent of Britain’s A4 Pacific class. These vehicles seem to ride well, and offer to gricers plentiful access to good-view-giving window seats – it would seem captious to be uncomplimentary to them; but I have to confess that for me, visually they’re ugly. In France, these beasts seem nowadays to have numbers in a “736xx / 737xx” series; for purposes of this article, I see referring to them henceforth as “73xxx”.
The 11.20 Toulouse – Rodez, was made up of “73xxx” units 73738 and 73725, coupled together, running under the administration of Région Midi-Pyrénées. The working made some nine or ten intermediate stops: this route has further open stations, served by shorter-distance workings. “Picture generally got” is that Rodez , 158km from Toulouse, is well up in the Massif Central. I have to admit that the approx. two and a half hours’ journey between the two, was visually pleasant rather than exciting – with the feel of a gradual gentle climb, punctuated by no “Lickeys” or “Beattocks”. The city of Albi en route, with its magnificent cathedral on a cliff above the river Tarn, was very impressive; in the main, though, the trip could not have been described as through a scenic wonderland.
At Rodez, the 11.20’s two railcars parted company; 73738 to form the 14.24 departure back to Toulouse, and 73725 to be the 14.27 for Sévérac-le-Château and Millau, which I took. A three-car DMU set of more old-fashioned aspect than the 73xxx’s was observed on the 13.54 arrival from, and 14.18 departure for, Brive-la-Gaillarde on the Paris – Toulouse main line. The Sévérac / Millau, and Brive, routes, are “Midi-Pyrénées” operations like the Toulouse one.
The 44km Rodez – Sévérac line (service continuing 30km southward from Sévérac junction, along the relative “main line” to Millau) is quite an oddity. At the time of my travelling, some half-dozen workings each way per day on this route were by bus, closely following the rail route, and serving all or most intermediate points. Three workings each way per day were by rail: “express” runs, calling only at Laissac and Sévérac. While it was nice to have the chance to do the rail journey – the rational part of one wonders why on earth the Région Midi-Pyrénées does not just make all workings over the route, bus. On the 14.27 from Rodez, I met a very agreeable French railfan, in whose company I travelled most of the way to Béziers. During the 14.27’s run, he got talking with the railcar’s guard. My French was not up to following the conversation; but fellow-gricer told me subsequently, that the guard had said that the rail part of the service was under threat of withdrawal pretty well “any day now”. High on the list of “un-surprising things learned”. There were no signs of freight activity anywhere along the Rodez – Sévérac line; so should the soon-foreseen end of rail passenger come to pass, that would look very much like being totally the end, for the line.
Rodez – Sévérac was found an attractive run, through scenery felt suggestive of a mixture of Dorset / Devon / the gentler parts of mid-Wales – the West-Country connection emphasised by the red earth for which the département of Aveyron (Rodez its “county town” equivalent) is well-known, being for the first time strongly in evidence. Sévérac to Millau (termination of working, a couple of hours’ wait there) and on down the north-south route to Béziers -- scenically magnificent; but to be dealt with in proper order. Béziers – geographically very close to where I had been at Narbonne the day before -- was reached at 19.26; repairing from the station to nearby booked hotel, and for an ageing “basher”, early bed.
My two top goals of the tour were the Pyrenean electric metre-gauge; and the 283km route running south-to-north between Béziers near the coast, and Neussargues. A line with marvellous scenery, and one which has for long held for me a poignant “ghost line” and “lost cause” feel. This was at one time, part of the Paris-Orléans / Midi combine’s most direct (though not necessarily fastest) route from the capital to the Mediterranean coast. It is possible here, to draw an admittedly rather far-fetched parallel with England’s different rail routes from London to the north-west. Béziers – Neussargues might be likened to the Midland’s Settle & Carlisle line, in relation to the Paris -Lyon -Méditerranée company’s more easterly ways to the “Med” in the role of the LNWR’s “West Coast Main”; with the Béziers line coming later on the scene than its counterpart, needing to be routed daringly and arduously across wild country to keep up with the rival concern, and having latterly fallen on hard times, including spells in which its future has been seen as uncertain.
As said, this analogy is something of a “stretch”. Unlike in the English situation, the PLM (LNWR analogue) had two different routes between Paris and the far end of the country: the relatively easy-terrain one via Lyon, and the harder one further west via La Bastide ultimately to Nîmes, paralleling the Béziers route at a distance of between 40 and 100km, and negotiating mountain terrain as difficult as that of the rival undertaking’s Béziers line. Béziers – Neussargues (usually referred to nowadays as the Ligne des Causses) was C.F. du Midi property south of Neussargues; the route between Paris and Neussargues belonged to the Midi’s ally, the Paris – Orléans company. For many decades, the “Paris – Barcelona” express (Paris Gare d’Austerlitz to the Spanish border and break-of-gauge point, at Cerbère) ran – not with amazing speed -- over the Ligne des Causses. The Midi, keen proponents of electric traction, electrified from Béziers to the limit of their trackage at Neussargues in 1931/2. With the Paris-Orléans lacking its partner’s great passion for newfangled sparky stuff, the route north of Neussargues remained steam both before, and after, the merger of the two companies in 1934; and after nationalisation four years later.
This route seems overall, to have had a bit more than its share of ill-luck. In the early 1950s, a large-scale hydro-electric scheme flooded it just north of Bort-les-Orgues, some 50km north-west of Neussargues. This involved the abandonment of a shortish section; and resulted in through services between the north and the Ligne des Causses being diverted vis-à-vis Neussargues, to join the erstwhile rival PLM main line at Arvant. This knocked out our route’s claim to be the shortest way to the Mediterranean, as regards sheer number of kilometres.
The “Causses” has since then undergone more than half a century of ongoing decline, via a number of episodes of its future being in severe doubt, to the point that its abandonment – or at least truncation -- at any time now, would be no surprise. It remains electrified Béziers -- Neussargues, though under present conditions it may be wondered how much point there is to this facility continuing. With the line’s reputed superb scenery, and the generally likely “last chance” situation, I was eager to travel on it. Curiosity was additionally piqued a little, by the fact that Behrend in his “Railway Holiday” itinerary might easily have travelled over this line, but didn’t. After a southward progression from Brittany via Bordeaux, Toulouse, and the Petit Train Jaune to the Mediterranean; when starting out “northerly” once more toward the Channel, he opted not for the Ligne des Causses, but for the at least equally spectacular ex-PLM Ligne des Cevennes.
With my not having been in advance, familiar in detail with what to expect on the “Causses” (a highly timely article in the September “Today’s Railways [Europe]” found after my return to Britain, has furnished valuable info) – my first sight of action directly thereon, at Millau on the evening of the bash’s Day 2, caused a bit of a shock. On this line, electric for the past eighty years, there showed up as its one all-the-way southbound working of the day – the 12.54 Clermont-Ferrand – Béziers (calling Millau 17.37): a 73xxx single diesel railcar. Such a seemingly wretched come-down from the Barcelona Express, initially cast me into a glum mood. A bit of subsequent thought revealed that in fact, doing the business this way makes sense: if it is not to be a matter of locos hauling coaches, then for a run part of which is over non-electric lines, diesel unit throughout saves exasperating train-changing at the start / end of the electric section. (For a while, a couple of years ago, the just-mentioned did indeed happen on this service, involving a change of trains at Neussargues; what is done at present may cause distress to the nostalgically-inclined, but is at least practical.)
Day 3 had me at Béziers station bright and early, for the northbound counterpart of the 12.54 ex Clermont-Ferrand; the 09.10 Béziers – Clermont, likewise the day’s only passenger working of its direction, to cover the whole stretch Béziers – Neussargues. “Bright and early” seemed a good idea, for the envisaged situation of a single-unit railcar... which was what duly showed up, and in which I made sure of a forward-facing window seat, on the left-hand side – the Ligne des Causses, like the Petit Train Jaune, is one of those where it doesn’t much matter which side you sit – good stuff, variously, on either side during the journey.
The 09.10 was the same vehicle as the previous day’s southbound working: railcar X73794, emblazoned with the “Nord-Pas de Calais” regional device. Not the first thing that one would expect to see here at the very opposite extremity of France; presumably some kind of hiring / leasing situation. Off we went, punctual to the minute. The line’s first 40km or so is pleasant, without being highly spectacular; then the scenic fun begins.
Paradoxically, it is to my mind the more southerly half-or-a-bit-over of the Ligne des Causses – whilst definitely getting right into the Massif Central, but in areas less high above sea level than further north – which is the more scenically exciting. The technically “lower” southern part, roughly as far as Marvejols, is better for scenic-breathtaking stuff, running above dizzy gorges and the like. North of Marvejols is very fine too, but more in a context of splendid mountain / forest views at something of a distance, line itself (though still with plentiful tunnels, as throughout the route) running through tamer close-by scenes. This applies, even with the “Causses” ‘s most renowned single engineering work, the Garabit viaduct – across the River Truyère, designed in characteristic style by M. Eiffel of Tower fame -- being in the line’s most northerly reaches. Be any of this as it may – the Béziers – Neussargues run (about five hours) is in my perception, once the coastal plain is left behind, a scenic delight every minute of the way.
Another unexpected thing scenery-wise : the picture is got from many sources, of the Causses region basically around Millau being treeless and heavily-herds-cropped and overall the nearest thing in France to a desert. However, by what was visible to me from the rail journey, the hills all the way seemed highly tree-clad – another factor making the Ligne des Causses / Settle and Carlisle parallel, not such a good one: no traversal by the “Causses”, of lengthy bleak-moorland stretches. A friend whose knowledge I respect, has an idea on this matter concerning the “Causses”, which he first travelled on some decades ago. What McGonagall might have called the Global Warming Fiend, to which so much happening nowadays is attributed, likely has a part to play here. When my friend first knew the Ligne des Causses, the landscape over its southern reaches was a lot bleaker and barer than now: recent climate change has here, as in many parts of the world, been responsible for a new burgeoning and flourishing of trees. A complicated business...
The A75 motorway, opened some eight years ago at the time of writing, runs parallel to the Ligne des Causses, and is rather frequently visible from the line – including the admittedly wonderfully spectacular and dizzyingly high Millau motorway suspension viaduct, over the valley and railway south of Millau. On the run south from Millau on Day 2, my new-made French acquaintance – less of a “DAA” obscurantist than me – was speaking with passionate admiration about the viaduct, the creation of our Sir Norman Foster. One cannot not be impressed by this structure; but it, and the entire motorway presence, made me feel rather sad . Felt the sheer size of all the motorway works, in comparison to the now entirely single-track railway, to symbolise the present “way of the world”: overwhelmingly road-oriented, with this railway now seeing little use, and with its very existence gravely threatened.
The run on the 09.10 for Clermont included an encounter at Marvejols (reached 12.23) with a couple of other workings. We crossed here the 11.45 from St. Chély d’Apcher to Béziers; (a two-unit emu, and one of only two actual electric workings which I observed on the electric Béziers – Neussargues line, in my time in the area); and a 73xxx railcar shortly to form the 12.34 for Mende. Mende is on a branch, still active throughout, linking the ex-Midi line to the ex-PLM line at La Bastide (Mende was the “border-point” between the two companies) – allegedly wonderfully scenic throughout, and I wish that I had had the time to travel it.
On from Marvejols to St. Chély d’ Apcher (according to Bryan Morgan, the coldest town in France, with the shortest summers; or so it was in 1962 – who knows what the climate is doing hereabouts now?). Some electric passenger workings run between St. Chély and Béziers (and there is a quite frequent electric local service over the route’s first 40-odd km northward from Béziers); but the only passenger activity on the St. Chély – Neussargues stretch is the daily-each-way between Béziers and Clermont, done by diesel railcar. The only freight now running on the Ligne des Causses is steel coils to the ArcelorMittal plant at St. Chély, working from the north, and diesel-hauled throughout. Thus, the 57km from St. Chély to Neussargues is electrified, but all traffic traversing that section is diesel: I greatly suspect that I will not like the way in which “the powers that be”, finally sort that particular bit of nonsense out.
And on from St. Chély, over the mighty Garabit, with a call at the exquisite hilltop town of St. Flour, and on to Neussargues (a. 14.02) and end of the catenary. Neussargues rather exemplified the beloved cliché of “country junction asleep for hours at a time, punctuated by short flurries of vigorous activity”. Between roughly two and half-past, must be its high-point of the day. Our 09.10 Béziers – Clermont crosses here, its counterpart 12.54 Clermont – Béziers ; both railcars spending the approximate half-hour stationary, presumably to allow for all-directions connecting with the 14.20 arrival from Aurillac, and its return working to that town at 14.35. Rose-tinted spectacles concerning tales from times past would encourage fantasies of the entire passenger complement – and perhaps, naughtily, the railcar crews – repairing during the wait, to the station bar for a quick coffee / brandy; but from what could be observed, Neussargues does not even seem any longer to have a station bar.
The 12.54 ex Clermont was also a Nord-Pas de Calais unit, X73768. No doubt the learned scholars about such stuff know all about this seeming “regional” oddity, and the reasons for it. The 14.35 for Aurillac, to which I transferred, was railcar X73698, running under the administration of Région Auvergne. Off over the beautiful 57km route to Aurillac, where I spent the night. As well as services to / from Neussargues / Clermont-Ferrand, Aurillac has also half a dozen rail workings per day to and from Brive-la-Gaillarde.
Day 4 began with early arrival at Aurillac station, for the Région Auvergne’s 07.55 to Clermont-Ferrand – diesel railcar X73690. This working duly delivered me, over a two-and-a-quarter-hours run, from Aurillac to Clermont. For those who like scenery: the north side (left from Aurillac, right from Clermont) is the one to be on. This “valley” aspect – as opposed to the opposite mountain-wall side – both west and east of the “mini-Alpine” Lioran pass and tunnel , is “where to see the views from”. The same – north, or west, side, the good one -- continues to obtain further along the Aurillac – Clermont working’s run, from Neussargues beside the river Allagnon and through its gorges, to Arvant, junction with the former PLM route from the south. Fine scenery for quite a way on, through Issoire with its famously tragic and bloody history, to Clermont-Ferrand; from whose odd little, meagrely served “aeronautical-Colonel-Stephens-type” airport I flew home. Altogether, for me a total of three action-packed and greatly enjoyed, full days “on the rails”.