The International Steam Pages
The C.F. Baie de Somme Fete de la Vapeur, Avril 2009
James Waite writes about his April 2009 visit. He returned
in April 2013 for another very successful event, the latter now has some
April 2014 pictures.:
The CFBS lies on the French coast about 60 miles south of the Channel Tunnel terminal at Calais. It’s a quick run on the A16 autoroute and not much more than three hours’ drive from many places in south east England. For narrow gauge enthusiasts in the south east it’s a shorter and easier journey there than it is to most of the Welsh lines.
It may be close to the UK but for sheer Frenchness it’s hard to beat both the railway and the countryside through which it runs. The Baie de Somme is not so much a bay as a wide salt marsh. The two principal towns are St. Valery, a historic place on the southern side noted amongst other things as the place from which William the Conqueror launched his invasion of England, and Le Crotoy on the northern side. Relatively few people speak English here. It’s been a holiday area ever since the main line north from Amiens opened in the mid-1800’s but until recently tourism has always been a fairly low key activity. The economy of the district has relied mainly on agriculture and fishing. There are plenty of both to be had in the bay and the flat lands and marshes behind it.
The first railway to serve the district was a standard gauge line opened by the CF du Nord in 1858 from Noyelles, on the main line north from Amiens, to what is now St. Valery Canal, the preserved railway’s operational base some distance to the east of the town. An extension for freight only continued across the mouth of the Somme Canal on a swing bridge and terminated on the quayside – still some distance short of the old part of the town. Its route included a lengthy wooden viaduct across the bay, something which was the source of much controversy on environmental grounds during the planning stage.
Little changed until the 1880’s when the French state encouraged the construction of narrow (mostly metre) gauge railways in an attempt to open up the rural parts of the country. Noyelles became the junction of three metre gauge lines built by the Société Générale de Fer Economiques (“SE”) which was involved in the building and operation of minor railways throughout France. One line ran inland, one ran to Le Crotoy and the third formed an extension of the standard gauge St. Valery branch to Cayeux on the coast some distance further to the west. On the Cayeux line the rails for the metre gauge as far as St. Valery were laid between the existing standard gauge rails so that there were four rails altogether. This unusual arrangement survives to this day. The Nord company handed over operation of the line to the metre gauge concern. Henceforth all passenger trains ran on the metre gauge and standard gauge goods trains were drawn by metre gauge locos equipped with suitable buffing gear. The system formed part of the larger Somme system, a group of railways, some of them physically unconnected, which was operated by the SE throughout the Somme Département.
The system became known as the Reseau des Bains de Mer. Tourist traffic in the summer combined with local patronage helped to ensure its survival until the late 1960’s. Goods traffic also remained healthy until late in the railway’s working career. Alongside more general freight this included shellfish destined for the cities of northern France, sugar beet which was processed at a raperie at Lanchères on the Cayeux line, chicory which was processed at a factory at St. Valery Canal and pebbles, known locally as galets, from a ridge along the coast near Cayeux.
The Le Crotoy line closed on 31st December 1969. Moves to preserve it began shortly before the closure and the first trains of the preservation era ran during 1971. The Cayeux line closed to passengers on 31st December 1972 and preserved operations began the following year. The railway can therefore claim that some part of the system has always been in use since it was first constructed and thankfully its infrastructure has survived in its entirety. With the closure of the Cayeux line the SNCF took back operation of the freight service to St. Valery and based a succession of small diesel locos at St. Valery Canal for the purpose. It also installed a standard gauge run-round loop at St. Valery Canal and upgraded the track between there and Noyelles, a great boon to the preserved railway in its early years. The last SNCF freight train ran on 6th February 1989.
Wars have had a significant impact on the district and the railway. As a port St. Valery always had strategic importance. After France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War the German army occupied St. Valery from February 1871 until September 1873. In the First World War the district was used as a British supply base and hospital area. Noyelles was the base depot of the British Chinese Labour Corps in France and the location of their largest camp and of the Chinese General Hospital. The Chinese Labour Corps came about as the result of an agreement made between the UK and Chinese Governments on 30 December 1916 for the employment of Chinese labour in France. The labourers were recruited in northern China and the first contingent arrived in France in April 1917. By the end of 1917 54,000 were working behind the Western Front and by the time the war ended in November 1918 their numbers had grown to nearly 96,000. As late as May 1919 80,000 were still there. Nearly 2,000 died during the war, mostly from disease. 841 of them are buried in the Chinese war cemetery on the eastern side of Noyelles. Their headstones were engraved in Chinese characters by a group of their comrades. There’s a large war memorial in typical Chinese style and the place must be one of the most unusual of the many cemeteries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Much damage was done to the railway and its stock during the war. One beneficial effect of this for the preserved railway was that a series of new carriages was built for the system in 1920 to replace those lost during the war. The new carriages served the line for the rest of its working life and eleven of them, in varying states of disrepair, survived into the preservation era. The majority have been meticulously restored over the years and do much to enhance the air of authenticity which characterises the railway today.
The main line between Paris and the ports on the English Channel formed a vital supply line for men, supplies and munitions for the Western Front. The German army advanced to within 18 miles of Amiens in the Spring of 1918 and it was feared that they would sever the railway. A diversionary route was hurriedly built south of Noyelles and the embankment across the bay as far as the outskirts of St. Valery was widened to accommodate double track for the first few kms of the new line. Today the space it provides is a great boon for photography along this stretch.
During the Second World War the Germans extracted galets from the pebble ridge along the coast on an industrial scale to make concrete for the construction of the Atlantic Wall, their defences to deter invasion along the northern and western coasts of France. A new line was built along the main road south from Lanchères station on the Cayeux line to carry away the galets and at least nine locomotives were brought in to work the expanded railway. After the war these nine locomotives were acquired by a M. Vaillant as scrap and moved to a siding alongside the Cayeux line on the southern edge of St. Valery. This scrapyard became a sort of mini-Barry. Four of the locos have been rescued over the years for preservation in various parts of France. Two were scrapped and three, now in appalling condition, are still there more than sixty years later though you need to clamber through trees and undergrowth to find them.
While the railway is fortunate that so many of its carriages have survived from its working days none of its original steam locos still exist. However one of today’s locos, 2-6-0T no. 15 of the Compagnie Générale des Voies Ferrées d’Intérêt Local (HSP works no. 1316/1920) is similar, if not identical, to eleven locos, HSP works no’s 1304-14/1920, which were built for the SE to replace locos lost in WW1. The railway has three small diesels obtained by the SE second-hand during the 1950’s. Several railcars and trailers supplied to the railway towards the end of its working career have also been preserved although none of them are currently in working order. Several of the railway’s wagons and vans have also survived and a few of them have been restored.
One loco which often ran on the line during its working days is still with us. This is “La Scarpe”, a classic Corpet Louvet 0-6-0T (works no. 1087/1907) built for the CF Nord-Pas de Calais. For many years it was one of two locos based at the raperie at Lanchères and during the sugar beet season worked at least as far as Noyelles. Since the raperie closed in 1966 the loco has been preserved at the Tramway Touristique de l'Aisne at Érezée in south eastern Belgium where it is currently being restored to working order.
The preserved railway at present has six steam locos in working order. The main depot is at St. Valery Canal though there are also small engine sheds at Cayeux and Le Crotoy. Steam trains run on most days between April and October. For the most part these operate only between Le Crotoy, Noyelles and St. Valery. The Cayeux line beyond St. Valery sees trains only on special occasions. Most of these are diesel-hauled though there are a few days when steam locos appear there. Full details of these are given in the railway’s annual timetables.
Since the 1980’s the railway has held occasional galas known as the Fete de la Vapeur when an intensive service is operated throughout the system using visiting steam locos as well as its own. For the last decade or so these have occurred every three years, the most recent being on the last weekend of April 2009 when the accompanying photos were taken. The highlights of the 2009 event included the first public run of a newly restored ex-Reseau Breton 4-6-0T which the railway acquired from the Blonay-Chamby museum line in Switzerland. Two metre gauge locos visited for the event, a 2-6-0 rack tank loco (SLM works no. 2317/1913) from the Brig-Furka-Disentis (later Furka-Oberalp) Bahn now preserved at the Blonay-Chamby line and “Suzanne”, a Corpet 0-6-2T (works no. 534/1890) built for the Compagnie Meusienne in eastern France which was rescued from the St. Valery scrapyard in 1981. The Furka-Oberalp loco worked faultlessly throughout the weekend as well as for several days previously. “Suzanne” first steamed in November 2008 after a restoration by a team based at Bar-le-Duc over the previous 27 years. It had been hoped to steam her during the weekend but there was still quite a lot of work needed on her and this wasn’t possible.
Steam specials to Noyelles on the standard gauge have also been a feature of these events. This year trains were scheduled from Paris hauled by a 141R and from Rouen with a 231G. Both trains should have been worked from Amiens to Noyelles by a 141TB tank loco while the tender locos turned there and ran light engine to Noyelles to work the returning specials in the evening. As things turned out both the Pacific and the tank loco failed before the weekend and only the 141R made it to Noyelles. It, too, failed during the return run to Paris. P class no 753 and a 4-wheeled coach from the K&ESR worked trains over the standard gauge between Noyelles and St. Valery in between the metre gauge passenger trains and demonstration freight trains also ran over the metre gauge just before or just after the P class and its coach.
Despite the disappointment over the standard gauge specials it was a most successful weekend which attracted visitors in huge numbers. I guess the ordinary trains on the line for the rest of the year will seem like an anti-climax in comparison but this peaceful corner of France is always delightful, not just for the trains. The Baie de Somme enjoys a wide variety of birdlife. There’s a visitor centre between St. Valery and Cayeux known as the Maison de l’Oiseau with life-sized displays which provide an introduction to some of the species which are to be seen and there are more interpretive facilities in the Marquenterre, a reserve north west of Le Crotoy. A colony of basking seals lives in the bay and the seals can often be seen swimming with the tide close to the quayside at St. Valery during the summer.
The views over the salt marshes are immense. On its fringes large flocks of sheep can be seen grazing. I watched one such flock being led slowly over the railway in the early evening, obstructing the progress of the P class loco as it was heading back to St. Valery after a trial run to Noyelles. They’re known as pré salés locally and are much prized as a gastronomic delicacy. They’re a regular feature on the menus of many of St. Valery’s restaurants. Le Crotoy sees frequent fishing boats whose catch is often sold on the harbourside. The fish dishes in the restaurants here are as fresh as they can only ever be in a fishing town. And – if you’re eating your lunch in one town and staying in the other you can make your way back by narrow gauge steam train! Definitely recommended.
Much of the info in this article comes from Philip Pacey’s excellent English-language book “Railways of the Baie de Somme” published by Oakwood Press, ISBN 0 85361 554 3 – essential reading for anyone wanting to know more about this fascinating railway. There’s also a French-language edition on sale at the railway.This is a map of the system taken from Wikipedia:
Thursday 23 April:
4-6-0T E332 (Fives Lille works no. 3587/1909) at St. Valery depot. This is a newly restored loco which spent its working life on the Reseau Breton system in Brittany until it closed in 1969. Since then it was preserved in Switzerland until it arrived at St. Valery for restoration in 2004.
2-6-0 rack tank BFD 3 (SLM works no. 2317/1913) visiting from the Blonay-Chamby line where it's now preserved, between St. Valery and Noyelles with the 15.00hrs train to Le Crotoy. The BFD stands for Brig-Furka-Disentis Bahn, the original name of the Furka-Oberalp Bahn. The loco has just had a full overhaul, completed on 10th April 2009 according to the date painted on the cabside. It looked magnificent and appeared to be in excellent mechanical condition.
BFD (FO) 3 at Noyelles.
BFD (FO) 3 and 3714 leaving Noyelles. No. 3 seems to be winning the race despite no. 3714's obvious efforts!
1889 BFD (FO) 3 passing Morlay with the 17.00hrs train from Le Crotoy.
Friday 24 April
0-6-2T "Suzanne" (L. Corpet works no. 534/1890) at St. Valery depot. This loco was originally no. 26 at the Compagnie Meusienne de Chemins de Fer in the north east of France. There's a large pebble ridge along the coast at Cayeux from which pebbles were taken in a large-scale operation by the Germans during World War 2 for making the concrete used in the Atlantic Wall coastal defences. Suzanne was one of several old metre gauge locos moved to the Cayeux district for use on temporary lines in connection with the pebble removal. After the war nine of these locos, including Suzanne, were sold to a scrap dealer at St. Valery and stored in a siding near the top of St. Valery bank. The remains of some of them are still there. There are supposed to be four though I could only find three, hidden amongst trees and undergrowth. Suzanne was rescued from the St. Valery in 1981 and has been undergoing restoration since then by a group based at Bar-le-Duc in the Meuse departement. The work was completed late last year and this was its first return visit to St. Valery. Unfortunately all was not well with it and there was much head-scratching and wielding of tools. In the event it didn't steam but was put on display at St. Valery Ville station for the weekend. The picture shows "Suzanne" at St. Valery depot with E332 raising steam beyond.
E332 and BFD (FO) 3 climbing St. Valery bank with a freight train on the Cayeux line - put on for the CFBS volunteers and everyone else who was around!
BFD (FO) 3 and E332 at Cayeux station.
The replica "Marc Seguin" outside St. Valery depot.
2-6-0T Aisne No. 1 (Corpet Louvet works no. 1097/1906, ex-Regie Departement des Transports de l'Aisne), 2-6-0T no. 15 (Haine St. Pierre works no. 1316/1920, ex-VIFL Oise) and 0-4-0T no. 25 (Corpet Louvet works no. 1097/1906, ex-Enterprise Paul Frot, La Chapelle-St. Luc, Troyes) outside St. Valery depot. None of the steam locos which served the line in its working days have survived but no. 15 is similar to several HSP locos purchased for the system in 1921 to replace locos lost during World War 1.
"Suzanne" at St. Valery depot.
No. 753 outside St. Valery depot.
2343 No. 25 outside St. Valery depot.
Saturday 25 April
Aisne No. 1 at Noyelles
2-6-0T FC de Puerto Rico no. 2 Cail works no. 2296/1889
0-6-0T no. 101 (Pinguely works no. 165/1905, ex CF du Morbihan, Brittany) on display at Noyelles with 141R 840 in the background. No. 101 hasn't worked since the 1990's.
Sunday 26 April
No. 15 at the end of the line at Cayeux.
BFD (FO) 3 just past the summit of St. Valery bank with a Cayeux train.
Corpet-Louvet 0-6-0T 927/1903 at the St. Valery scrapyard
The following is a list of the resident and visiting locos:-
Locos still at the St. Valery scrapyard