The International Steam Pages

Two Minutes to Midnight at Carhaix - France 1967

Robert Hall writes about a very special bash, it was originally uploaded in April 2008 but it has now been upgraded with Richard Mellish's photographs (22nd November 2018). Click on a thumbnail to see the full size image and click on that to return to the tale.

Richard Wallace adds:

"I found the ‘Travellers Tales’ by Robert Hall extremely interesting. I don’t know whether you already know this but a French (and Breton!) language DVD has been produced capturing some last metre-gauge footage (b & w and colour) of this interesting network. It is a bit ‘talking heads’ but the footage (which also includes later standard gauge ‘Caravelles’ and restoration of a Picasso) is of interest. It is titled ‘Au départ de Carhaix’ and a web search on this will reveal many sales outlets."

(To which I can add that most of the outlets appear to be in France! For more information on the Réseau Breton seeéseau_breton - mind the accent if you try to type it! RD)

In some half-century of railway enthusiasm -- focused on both my own country of Britain, and lands abroad -- I have managed to accomplish many bad decisions and acts of sheer stupidity. That which I regret most of all, came about in 1966. I spent most of the first half of that year in Paris, supposedly furthering my education – but with abundant free time. This happened to be one of the rare patches of my life, in which I gave far higher priority to things other than railfandom: so during that sojourn, I did a little investigating of steam and the metre gauge (both then in decline in France, but fighting a stout rearguard action) – but a lot less than I might have done, and infinitely less than I have in the succeeding decades, vainly wished had done.

Supreme bit of folly at that time, was as follows. In Paris I browsed with fascination the timetables of the Réseau Breton metre-gauge system, serving France’s far north-western region of Brittany. I would have had the time and money to go there – on a long-weekend basis or the equivalent – and travel over all of the system’s five “metric” lines which then had a passenger service. I contemplated doing so: but “Adrian Mole the would-be intellectual, aged thirteen and three quarters” (or seventeen and three quarters – “same difference”) won out. Gricing was not at the top of my agenda just then: and I thought (get this!) that I’d be able to go back and do the Réseau Breton another year. Such an attitude in Western Europe in 1966, was of course lunacy – but hindsight is always 20 / 20… The full-on metre-gauge RB was then in its last year: during the first nine months of 1967, its metre-gauge element would, in stages, be eliminated.

In personal terms, it proved possible to save a small fragment from this wreck. Self and a pair of enthusiast friends made at university during first year there, laid plans for a little-over-a-week’s visit to the more northerly parts of France, in August 1967 – in which we would seek out what working steam, and metre-gauge action, we could; including the Réseau Breton, which as at that time was still running, freight-only and not for much longer, over two of the metric routes radiating from its central point of Carhaix. In the bigger picture: as at that time, things had so developed, that the SNCF’s more interesting and class-varied steam happenings were in the country’s less-scenically-exciting northern half. Further south, the great majority of remaining steam action was in the hands of the all-purpose 2-8-2s of class 141R, built in North America to make good, Second World War losses – also abundant in the north, but admixed there with an assortment of other types.

Such notes as taken on this “bash”, long since lost – relying on my memory, which I flatter myself is relatively good for such things; but would beg for indulgence, should it be weak at times. There was very rarely any problem with railway photography in France: abundant “photting” was done by our expedition – this side of the hobby, though, is one which I have always been able to “take or leave”, and with life’s ups-and-downs over several decades, such pictures as I took on the trip, are no more.

So we set out, crossing the Channel Folkestone-to-Boulogne. A 141R was what we got for our first journey on the far side, Boulogne to Amiens. Fine by us, “so it was steam”… Part of the deal in France, was that often it wasn’t. More or less all Europe’s rail systems use, or have used, diesel railmotors of various “shapes and makes”, but some have espoused them with particular zeal: France is a country that did so, way back before World War II. By the 1960s, a visitor needed to accept that the large majority of local passenger workings on non-electric lines there, would be railcar. Own take on this scene was, while “everything that was railcar, being steam instead”, would have been the best possible case – with that not being an option, the railcars were found character-ful and enjoyable for their own sake, and coming in a great assortment of forms and sizes. The Mikado having delivered us to Amiens; first dose of the railcar experience followed, on to Rouen. This is a patch where forty years elapsed, have wrought memory-havoc – recall only a couple of hours’ traversal of the hundred-kilometre distance, through rather drab downland country, with many stops. 

"Fine by us, 'so it was steam'..." :
141R 2-8-2 awaiting taking our train out of 
Boulogne (Maritime) station, as far as Amiens 

141R heads our train out of Boulogne

First night was spent at Rouen. One of my companions was a culture-vulture, as well as an impassioned gricer: I recall a little time being laid hold of while we were in the city, to “do” its outstanding non-rail features. We called in at the cathedral, and at the spot where Joan of Arc came to her sticky end – at the behest of this gentleman, without doubt. The other two of us would, left to our own devices, have for sure skipped the cultural stuff, employing the rationalisation that “all that, will still be around in years to come – the steam won’t”.

A long journey (planned to be flexible as to exact routing, depending on how things played steam-wise) scheduled for the next day, meaning an early start from Rouen’s main station – where some 141R activity was happening, but not most-immediately for us. The railcar scene once more, for the shortish hop to Serquigny – perhaps with a change en route: memory continues largely to frustrate, for this stretch of the expedition. Transfer there to a diesel-hauled working on the Paris – Cherbourg main line, as far as Caen. Recollections remain fragmentary: the odd shard thereof surfaces, of a little steam freight action observed on this section, and of a large dump of withdrawn steam locos at Mézidon. There stays more clearly in memory, the perceived idyllic beauty of the Normandy countryside – seemingly much less visually fouled-up by mankind’s doings, than its equivalent back across the Channel. Also, lots of farming action involving horses, not internal combustion – comparable to the same witnessed on grices of Poland up to a quarter-century later; though from what I gather concerning France, this was a scene which did not last there, for many more years. 

Change at Caen, onto the long branch-line chain then offering a (sparse) passenger service southward – a situation to come to an end not many years thence, though tourist workings are understood still to take place at times, on parts of these lines. Railcar of course, southwards through the beautiful hilly area of “Norman Switzerland”, to Flers – junction with the secondary main line from Paris to Granville. In summer 1966, long-distance passenger over the whole of this line had been in the hands of the SNCF’s post-war compound 2-8-2s of class 141P. We hoped that this would prove still to be the case; if so, we’d travel west from Flers behind steam, and subsequently head further westward into Brittany, “whatever way”: should this turn out to be in the cards, life seemed likely to get complicated as regards train schedules and connections – but we reckoned that that would be a price worth paying, and we’d handle things accordingly. We were spared from having to face the potential conundrum, but not in any desired way: modernisation had rolled onward, and main-line passenger was now found at first hand, to have gone diesel. No reason thenceforth, to travel toward Granville: our route Brittany-ward would be no more direct, but simpler in rail-travel terms, involving the next branch-line railcar working southward from Flers, to Laval.

141R 2-8-2 on freight

This service would not leave for some two hours; but sitting in the sunshine over beers at a table on the platform, outside the station café, made the wait pleasant enough. More pleasant yet, was the arrival on the main line, of a 141P hauling a long train of bogie iron-ore wagons; it paused briefly in the station – occasioning a flurry of getting to picture-taking spots – then took its train onwards. It was most gratifying to find these attractive locos still seeing use hereabouts, even if only on freight duties.

141P at Flers 141P at Flers

The Flers – Laval run recalled as a couple of sunny afternoon hours covering the 100km-odd distance: delightful rural branch line thorough beautiful countryside, numerous stops at pleasant country stations – steam haulage would have been better still, but “what do you want, eggs in your beer?” A call at the hill-bottom station of the lovely hilltop town of Domfront; and arrival at last, at Laval on the Paris – north Brittany main line. Short wait there, for a westbound express, which took us rapidly with electric traction to Rennes, where the wires ended. A diesel loco took over; there followed an early-evening run through more rural pleasantness, bringing us at last to Guingamp. Half a year earlier, the last stage of our day’s journey would have featured a metre-gauge railcar of the Réseau Breton taking us from here on that gauge, to Carhaix, famed for the preceding seventy-odd years as the RB’s “Crewe”. Now, though, the system’s Guingamp – Carhaix line had been standard-gauged; most of its other metre-gauge sections had been abandoned, and what little of them still ran, were about to meet that fate. So it was a standard-gauge railcar, albeit of a quirky and elderly appearance (leased from the SNCF railcar fleet) which brought us, a little after nightfall, into Carhaix – where we repaired to the station hotel, and shortly after, called it quits till the morrow; it had been a long day.

SG railcar

We spent two full days based at Carhaix. One was given to the RB’s standard-gauge part, which was seen to have a likely future; the other to its metre-gauge part, which most assuredly had none: when we were there, the only remaining metre-gauge action involved daily freight trains (steam-worked: the RB had never used diesel locomotives) on the lines east from Carhaix to Loudéac, and west to Châteaulin – and abandonment of those workings, w.e.f. September 21st, was only weeks away. On our first morning, we presented ourselves at the railway’s central offices at Carhaix, and supplicated permission to travel on the freights. On the way from the station hotel to the offices, there was an impressively steamy scene to be taken in: a couple of standard-gauge class 141TC 2-8-2Ts (on lease from the SNCF), to attend to freight doings concerning the Guingamp line; and in steam on the metre gauge, two Mallet type 0-6-6-0Ts, of the system’s characteristic (and by then, only remaining such) class, built by the firm of Piguet in 1911 – 15; and one of the eye-pleasing 4-6-0Ts, dating from a few years earlier. Two of each class are now -- in assorted “ways and modes” – preserved in France.

4-6-0T E331 at Carhaix Carhaix goods yard: 141TC and Mallet 0-6-6-0T Mallet 0-6-6-0T E411at Carhaix

Two of the party had some competence with the French language, which was duly tried out on Carhaix station’s “boss-man”, Monsieur Moulinou. He was polite but unyielding – unfortunately there was no way in which we could be granted permission to travel on freight trains. We were willingly given the schedules of those trains; but riding on them was a no-no. We took ourselves off, and re-thought matters. It was figured that if the official “thumbs-down” obtained, perhaps something could be achieved unofficially on the spot, somewhere down the line – with, at need, a bit of extra-curricular financial inducement. From then on, the local bus services – replacing those on rail and / or having hitherto competed with same – did quite well out of us over the next couple of days. We took the next bus 21 km eastwards to Rostrenen – this giving ample time for us to get to the station there, and await the arrival of the freight heading for Loudéac. It came in at the appointed time: a Mallet hauling a respectable number of wagons. We approached the guard and his mate in the four-wheel brake-van, regarding the possibility of a ride. 

“Bribery and corruption” didn’t get into the picture; but all that could be negotiated, was rather unenthusiastic consent for us to travel in the van as far as Gouarec, 12 km onwards. On the basis of “owt’s better’n nowt”, that is what we did. My only experience of “real” French metre-gauge steam travel, and a delightful, if brief, memory. We disembarked at Gouarec as promised, watched the train head out on its way, and got the next bus back to Carhaix.

Arriving at Rostrenen At Gouarec

More bus travel later in the day: west 6 km from Carhaix to Port-de-Carhaix -- point of divergence of the lines west to Châteaulin, and south-west to Rosporden (the latter had been abandoned by the time we got to those parts) – to await the early-evening arrival of the freight from Châteaulin. Bitter-sweet memories remain of a pleasant and sunny late-summer evening waiting for same, while contemplating a number of withdrawn metre-gauge locos dumped in the station’s sidings, with valedictory messages chalked on them by railway staff: the one thereof which sticks in my mind, is a very succinct one on a smokebox door: “Fin” [ “End”]. In due course, the train arrived – Mallet plus one wagon plus brake-van. We didn’t try for a “lift”, reckoning that authority would be on the prowl at the system’s nerve-centre; just watched “arrival, pause, and departure”, and tamely got the bus back to Carhaix.

141TC on the mixed Port-de-Carhaix Port-de-Carhaix Port-de-Carhaix

The day on the standard gauge was a little less interesting, but more cheerful. All passenger workings on the recently-regauged Carhaix – Guingamp line were railcar – largely operated by to our eyes, weirdly antiquated-looking vehicles of the Renault AEK type, with a “conning-tower amidships”. Freight between Carhaix and Guingamp ran separately, 141TC-hauled, of the order of two or three trains a day. Things were different on the RB’s branch northward from Guingamp, to Paimpol on the coast. This section has had an odd history: opened in 1894 on the metre gauge, made dual-gauge metre / standard in 1924, and made totally standard-gauge in 1953. In ’67, the Guingamp – Paimpol line’s passenger service was all-railcar except for one steam-hauled mixed train in each direction daily. The “mixeds” ran at times which made it possible and convenient to ride on the “outbound” halfway to the coast, and get its “inbound” counterpart back again. Which we did: travelled by railcar Carhaix – Guingamp, then took the morning Paimpol mixed – 141TC hauling one four-wheel coach and sundry freight wagons – northwards. Prudence counselled leaving this train at Pontrieux, one station before its crossing-point with the southbound mixed: “crossing-point swaps” are apt to be a form of Russian roulette… This branch, and Guingamp – Carhaix, still have year-round passenger services at the time of writing; and the Paimpol line has summer steam-hauled tourist workings between Paimpol and Pontrieux, alongside the beautiful river Trieux estuary. Our top priority being steam, we had to forego this scenic part of the line, and content ourselves with 2-8-2T haulage both ways through unexciting inland countryside – though including a call “coming and going” at the, to my mind, wonderfully-named station of Trégonneau-Squiffiec. We didn’t complain; steam-worked mixed trains not something met with every day, even in 1967. Railcar back to Carhaix, and early bedtime in view of an early start on the morrow, with plans to get as far eastward into other parts, as might be achieved.

Not many months previously, heading away thus, we would have travelled by metre-gauge rail from Carhaix to Rosporden 50 km south-westward; but now the rail service was gone, and the journey had to be by bus. With shortage of money a bit of a concern for the team, hitch-hiking was tried east from Rosporden; but as is well known, hitching is, at best, a “crapshoot”. Many hours trying to get where wanted by this form of travel, took us about a hundred kilometres onward, to Vannes, as evening was drawing on. Unanimous decision was, “to hell with this – henceforth, let it cost what it costs”; and we repaired to the town’s station, on the southern-Brittany main line. The attractive walled town of Vannes had been served at one time -- standard gauge aside – by the metre-gauge local railways of its département of Morbihan (in the great days of France’s minor lines, every département of Brittany had had its own particular intricate metre-gauge network, over and above the “mini-main-line” Réseau Breton). That fact was outside my ken at the time; but probably well-known to our culture fan -- one of those exasperating characters who seemingly “have been everywhere, done everything, and know everything” (in Harry Potter terms, he’d have been Hermione, for sure). For instance, this guy had – under parental aegis – travelled in his childhood over every rail line ever existing on the Isle of Wight, which system’s first bit to be abandoned, went in 1952. 

We bought tickets eastward – which got us on to a train (suspected to have been a summer-holiday “relief”) heading for Paris, and coming in behind an oil-burning 141R. A very well-patronised train: seats were out of the question, we had to fit ourselves in, in the corridor. There ensued a night of misery, albeit behind steam; many dreary dark uncomfortable eastbound hours. Attempts to sit down in the corridor, were only intermittently successful – being interrupted by a bad-tempered guard patrolling the coaches and shouting at the “overflow” passengers, “Debout!” [ “Stand up!”] It was somehow divined that when we reached Nantes, the 141R was replaced by a 241P 4-8-2; in better circumstances, this would have been cause for joy; as things were, the response was more, “who cares?”. Horrid hours later came arrival in the grey dawn at Le Mans, and a welcome exit from “the train from hell”. With SNCF’s customary on-the-button efficiency, the 241P cut off from the coaches very promptly, and moved off to the shed, giving us next to no chance to admire it. An electric loco came on, to take the train onward to Paris.

Railcar from Le Mans to Tours; and another railcar from Tours to Gièvres – junction with our next goal, the metre-gauge Le Blanc – Argent line. Even then, this long cross-country undertaking had been cut back from both of its one-time ultimate termini – southern one of Le Blanc, and northern ditto at Argent-sur-Sauldre; and though still running today, it has been yet further curtailed at both ends – but it still keeps its original title; after all, it’s a fine one: “The White and Silver Railway” has a great ring to it. Must confess, however, to having found this line a little disappointing. With my having been a narrow-gauge-freak almost from infancy, had felt that “narrow gauge infallibly = enchanting”. Plus, having read Bryan Morgan’s “The End of the Line” and been greatly tantalised by his mention therein of the BA – that intensified likely, by his having screwed-up his travels in these regions, and basically missed out on this system – whence the famous “attraction of the unattained” syndrome… perhaps my expectations of the BA had been too high, perhaps it was the aftermath of a sleepless and comfortless night… and we had known in advance, that the line had been all-diesel for many years past. Somehow, though, the whole outfit had a bit of a scruffy and cheap-and-nasty feel to it; memory gives an image of much of the track being somewhat roughly cinder-ballasted, in contrast with the Réseau Breton’s immaculate trackwork even when this latter system was at death’s door. And the countryside traversed by the BA seemed rather humdrum, in contrast to the perceived great attractiveness of the landscapes of Brittany and Normandy; and a huge army camp is recalled, on the short section between Gièvres and the line’s headquarters at Romorantin.

River Sauldre bridge at Romorantin "track...roughly cinder-ballasted"

Still, the BA was by no means awful – a line the “scoring” of which was, and remains, to be glad of. As things worked out, the parts over which we rode, retain passenger services today. We travelled (by railcars, which performed all BA passenger workings) as far south from Gièvres as available time allowed: to Valençay – with its station imposingly built, in imitative homage to the architecture of the renowned château close at hand – then in the opposite direction to Romorantin, where was observed on a freight train, one of the line’s weird little 0-6-0 diesel locos bearing a cluster of long cylindrical tanks on the cab roof, purpose unknown to this “non-techie”. Onwards to the extremity, then and now, of passenger services at Salbris, junction with the electric main line from Paris to the south-west; along which an EMU local working took us twenty kilometres to Vierzon.

We had a longish wait here, for the next train further east: found a good observation spot for the locoshed. Allocation-wise, this depot was then mostly “about” oil-fired 141R in quantity. Also present there that afternoon, was at least one of the elegant 4-6-0s of class 230G, built 1915 -- 23; a type then no longer in revenue-earning service, but retained for certain departmental duties in this part of the SNCF’s South-West Region – most prominently so, at Montluçon not very far away. Memory – and reports from other sources -- unfortunately fail to “deliver”, as regards exact 230G status at Vierzon in August ’67.

Vierzon Shed

"Oh, Lord, another 
oil-burning spam-can !"

In our day-and-a-bit along France’s approximate mid-point of the river Loire, much of such steam power as we encountered was 141R of the oil-burning kind (Vierzon’s fleet of same, a case in point) -- it seemed, in general, that coal was the fuel for this loco class up north, oil “further down the map”. To the best of my knowledge, all other SNCF steam types ran on coal only. We got a little tired of the 141R class: rather ugly, blocky-looking machines, “mass-produced” and basically un-French -- to the point of such comments as, “oh, Lord, another oil-burning spam-can!” With hindsight, how spoilt can you get? Playing the alternative-history game, and imagining the famously thrifty French deciding to round up those in best shape, of their 141Rs – built in the late 1940s, and a very robust and well-conceived design (plus plenty of the class in less good nick, to cannibalise) – and concentrate them in one location, and keep them running there (oil-fired) till they wore out; while going fully for modern motive power everywhere else on the SNCF – wouldn’t the gricers just flock to this last scene of action, and adore the machines performing there? Steam locos, well-treated, are long-lived beasts; while, pursuing this fantasy, it would be a bit of a stretch to envisage this imaginary last 141R colony still active in 2008, they might have just made it into the 21st century…

Departure time from Vierzon came round: diesel-loco-hauled, east through Bourges (with a glimpse from the train, of the magnificent cathedral), to the junction of Saincaize, on the Paris – Clermont-Ferrand main line; and a railcar for the short run along same, to Nevers. In the eyes of many enthusiasts, the greatest star of the last couple of decades of the SNCF’s steam show, was the class 241P compound 4-8-2 express passenger loco, produced post-World War 2 – magnificent machines, of great size, and (to British eyes, at least) quite astoundingly long. These locos were ousted bit by bit -- chiefly by electrification -- from France’s biggest and busiest trunk lines; by summer 1967, they remained active at three venues – in each of which we witnessed them, in varying depth. The Le Mans – Nantes line, as recounted -- experienced in unfavourable conditions; at Chaumont on the Eastern Region (see onward in this narrative); and most renownedly, on the “Bourbonnais” main line, Paris -- Clermont-Ferrand. At the time of our visit, though not for very much longer, the “Mountains” were in charge of expresses between Clermont-Ferrand and the electric-handover point a little way out of Paris. The depot at Nevers, halfway between those two locations, had a fair-sized allocation of 241P – usually one 4-8-2 relieved another at this point; plus numerous 141R (these ones, coal-consumers), which attended to freight on the “main” and on the lesser lines heading off in various directions, and some local passenger. Nevers’s 141R stayed in commission, though in decreasing numbers, for a good few years after 1967: the place was one of SNCF’s last depots with active steam.

241P at Nevers 241P at Moret-les-Sablons 241P 4-8-2

We booked in at a hotel hard by the station, where the plentiful steam comings and goings could be watched from the window of our room. And in the morning, caught the Paris express, 241P-hauled. Some 150 km behind a 4-8-2, through gentle pastoral scenes along the Loire, then across the Gâtinais region – a very agreeable experience. This was the first visit to France, for one of the three of us; he remarked on how it seemed a little bizarre for him, a Briton, to be approaching Paris for the first time, from the south. Some fun was had dreaming up increasingly crazy scenarios on that basic model… at Moret-les-Sablons, where “our” line joined the “main trunk” from Lyon and the south, an electric loco took over for the fairly short run into Paris (Gare de Lyon).

We spent the rest of the day in Paris, checking things out at the various termini. In 1966, the capital’s speciality had seemed to be push-and-pull suburban trains with assorted kinds of 2-8-2 tank, as their motive power. Gare St. Lazare had had class 141TD on the outer-suburban services on two routes to Mantes. Gare du Nord boasted a quite wide selection of the same breed, worked by 141TC (visually similar to, but in detail -- and I believe in history – different from, the 141TC in Brittany); and on the one line from the odd little terminus of Paris (Bastille), push-and-pulls were handled by the enticingly elderly-looking 141TB class. In ’66 I had sampled all these three, to a tiny extent. We in August ’67 were able to tick off two of them. At St. Lazare, we were too late: the “TDs” to Mantes had been supplanted by electric traction. Multiple considerations caused our time available, to be less than would have been ideal: with Paris (Nord)’s steam suburbans still thriving, we took a brief ride; then repaired to Bastille, and had an even briefer one on the 141TB-worked push-and-pull – travelled out two stations, and (for reasons which now elude me) went back into town on the Métro. The line from Bastille was a delightful backwater, running south-eastward to Boissy St. Léger in the outer suburbs. This operation ceased, if I have things correctly, around the end of 1969: the route was electrified and incorporated in Paris’s “Réseau Express Régional” network, with the Bastille terminus ceasing to be used. In 1966 I had travelled, just once, 141TB-powered from Bastille the few kilometres to Vincennes, and back again. I have often wondered: what aliens abducted me in 1966, and – for just a crucial few months – substituted a “most-tepidly-interested-in-gricing” replica? It was merely twice as far again to Boissy St. Léger, as the trifling distance from Bastille to Vincennes – going to the outer terminus and return, would have taken a negligible amount of time… one can only say, “water under the bridge”.

141TC at Paris (Nord) 141TC at Paris (Nord)
141TB 2-8-2T near Paris (Bastille) 141TB 2-8-2T 

The Paris rounds having been done, “Mr. Know-it-all” dropped out of the enterprise (everything amicable – we’d agreed that things be open-ended in this respect). I seem to recall that at this stage, he’d had enough of railways for a while, and wanted to spend time in the Louvre or similar, and then make his own way home. No accounting for tastes… the remaining two of us decided on one final steam-hunting day, after which we too would need to head homeward. We reckoned on making the day a good one, in the form of a trip to what was then one of the “ace” steam venues of SNCF’s Eastern Region: Chaumont, on the line from Paris to Mulhouse and Basle, and a fraction over half-way to the Swiss city. At that time, long-distance passenger on that route had diesel traction from Paris (Gare de l’Est) to Chaumont, steam east thereof. Allocated to Chaumont depot were many steam locos, of a variety of classes (not including 141R) , for these passenger turns and for freight workings on the main line and the several secondary lines radiating from the town. We decided to settle for travelling as far as Chaumont, and observing events there. With hindsight, it would have been good to go a little further along the main line and thus enjoy a touch of steam haulage; but maybe train times, or sheer time-availability, vetoed that – at all events, it didn’t happen.

A long haul to Chaumont – some 200 km, taking if I recall rightly, a little over two hours. Another instance of time having eroded most recollections: of the actual journeys, recall only pleasant, albeit diesel-hauled, runs through unspectacular but quietly pleasant countryside. As often on this tour, rural France struck me as, largely – in comparison with rural Britain – an Arcadia of great beauty, relatively unmarred by the more blatant kinds of modern eyesores. It would seem unlikely that this striking contrast would be perceived today… “Your mileage may vary”, as they say on the Net, and there are some who regard steam locomotives as eyesores, and grossly polluting to boot. For those not holding such sentiments about the machines in question, Chaumont in August 1967 was “steam heaven”. It was the country’s third 241P venue, though by then only in a minor way – a small handful of the class remained on the active list, sharing main-line passenger duties eastward, with the depot’s other steam types. To the best of my recollection, our train was taken onwards by a “Mountain”, and that on which we returned to Paris that evening, came in behind one. Chaumont’s other classes were 141P 2-8-2 (to me, always a very attractive type); 140C 2-8-0 of approximate World War I vintage – the Eastern Region was this class’s great stronghold; and a few massive class 150P 2-10-0s (which, remarkably, took a hand in the main-line passenger diagrams). France never had “Decapods” in great quantity, and these were the only ones I ever encountered in the country. Some delightful hours were spent watching the comings and goings of a variety of the shed’s dramatis personae, including an unforgettable session of smoke and noise from a 141P getting an eastbound freight under way.

241P Chaumont 140C Chaumont 140C Chaumont 141P Chaumont Chaumont Chaumont

An all-too-brief episode, but a good note on which to end purely-gricing business. With the Northern Region’s line to the Strait of Dover ports being then a steam bastion in its northerly reaches, there was of course still steam to enjoy on the way home. In summer ’67, Pacifics of classes 231G and 231K shared with the “spam-cans”, longer-distance work over the Amiens – Boulogne – Calais route (Paris – Amiens was electric). Can recount only that my homeward journey was, for sure, behind a 4-6-2 – whether G or K, unfortunately no longer known.

Abbeville Calais Calais

Things logistical dictated my friend’s departing for England, a little before my doing so, sailing this time from Calais. It would be pleasant to relate that my lone journey home afforded a glorious and exhilarating steam finale; but reality can often fall short of what we wish and fantasise. It had been a stressful just-over-a-week in some ways, and battle-fatigue was rather setting in. Things were not helped by a bit of unpleasant interaction with a stroppy guard, during the steam-hauled section. Fond though I am of France; the feeling is harboured that if the country had charm-schools for railway employees, said establishments didn’t seem, often, to do a very good job… In all, journey home gets seen as “something to have done, rather than something to do”; but within that context, certainly satisfying to recall Pacific haulage, seemingly effortlessly up to Caffiers summit and thence down the bank and into Calais. From that summer of 1967, SNCF regular-service steam – in one manifestation or another – declined ever more steeply over the next eight years, till final extinction. Things so turned out that after the recounted trip, I never experienced it again…

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Click here for the International Steam Page

Rob Dickinson