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The Rail Thing - railway journeys to remember

The Rail Thing - railway journeys to remember

You don’t have to spend your life going on great railway journeys to be passionate about trains - for many of us it’s in our blood.


There’s something curiously romantic about trains. Perhaps it’s a hunger for past glory days, when steam was king and Brief Encounter was breaking the hearts of cinema audiences. Today rail travel has changed almost beyond recognition, yet the idea of Great Railway Journeys is as seductive as ever, particularly in France, where you can still get to some amazing places and see things denied to motorists.

While some countries seem to agonise endlessly over how best to upgrade their ageing rail systems, France has for many years been quietly reaping the rewards of the forward-thinking policies which shaped the post-war campaign of rail regeneration. While some rural areas have witnessed closures of less economically viable lines, the network somehow escaped the draconian scale of losses which the UK experienced during the Beeching era. The result today is an expanding network of Lignes à Grande Vitesse (LGV), backed up by classic regional TER and freight services.


There’s a lot more to the flagship TGVs we now know and love than meets the eye. The concept was born in the 1960s when SNCF wanted something fresh, fast and compatible with its existing urban lines, which would be impractical to modify. Beyond the suburbs, though, entirely new dedicated lines would be required, since safe operation at the dramatically higher speeds envisaged would require dead-straight running wherever possible. However, passing through terrain which would normally be skirted or tunnelled under meant accepting steeper gradients (up to 4%, compared to 1-2% for conventional lines), but the shorter distances cut construction costs – until, of course, you encounter the kind of challenging terrain found on the southern sections of the new Tours-Bordeaux LGV line.

Seen from above, it becomes obvious that high-speed tracks are laid further apart, to minimise buffeting from trains passing in opposite directions with a closing speed of around 600kph. What you won’t see, though, is the sophisticated signalling used to control traffic movements, since at these speeds trackside signals become almost unreadable. Instead special sender units placed at 1500m intervals throughout the network relay their information direct to the drivers’ in-cab instruments, with fail-safe protection, which is how some routes can operate trains at up to 300kph a mere three minutes apart at peak periods.


As for the trains themselves, you might be surprised to learn that every aspect of the TGV’s original styling was penned by English designer Jack Cooper who spent several years working under celebrated US industrial designer Raymond Loewy before moving to the Alstom company in France. With the exception of the power cars at either end, the 8 or 16-car sets are semi-permanently attached – each pair of cars shares a single wheeled bogie, which saves weight. Achieving high speeds requires the kind of energy efficiency only possible with lightweight units, so power cars employ light alloy construction and even passenger seat frames are cast in magnesium alloy.

To maximise the trains’ operational lifespan any overloading must therefore be avoided, which is why TGV services employ airline-style seat allocations. Their articulated approach also prevents trains jack-knifing should a derailment occur, makes things quieter and permits low floor levels, something exploited in double-deck ‘duplex’ designs used on some routes. Cars are also pressure-sealed to prevent passenger discomfort when entering tunnels at high speeds.

Pushing the boundaries

Glamorous, high-tech TGVs succeeded in reversing the decline of European rail travel, streaking across borders from Paris to Amsterdam, Brussels, Cologne, Frankfurt, Freiburg, Munich, Stuttgart and Saarbrücken, and from Marseille to Baden Baden, Frankfurt and beyond. Switzerland hasn’t been left out, either, with services into Neuchâtel, Berne, Geneva and Zurich, while routes into Turin and Milan bring Italy within reach. Closer to home, the Perthus tunnel, opened in Jan 2011, brought high-speed services to Barcelona and Madrid via Perpignan. In fact, the only constraints on future expansion of the high-speed network are likely to be financial ones.

While the TGVs grab the media spotlight, the Train Express Régional (TER) network provides onward services to outlying areas, plus the vital task of transporting non-intercity passengers and freight. Key routes have dual tracks and most (but not all) are electrified. Somewhat bizarrely, supply voltages were never standardised, so in France you’ll find 1500 and 3000V DC, plus 15 and 25kV AC. Elsewhere, particularly among remote terrain, most routes are single-tracked and employ diesel power.

Use it, or lose it..?

It’s an impressive system, but much of it is currently under financial scrutiny, due to insufficient revenues, a reluctance on the part of regional councils to pay operating subsidies and the challenges of dovetailing timetables into those of mainline services, not to mention high maintenance costs. If major cuts are proposed then the social and economic effects on rural communities will be significant, and we’ve seen many a government U-turn in the face of public outcry, so we’ll see how things develop. In the meantime, SNCF has been testing small camera-carrying drones to inspect tracks, viaducts and other infrastructure, and to combat thefts of cabling and other metals (which cost it 35 million Euros in 2013) without any disruption to rail services. So, a commitment to the system, and the vision which created it are clearly still there.


Missed the last train? Perhaps not...

What happens to redundant lines? In the UK the tracks are usually removed right away, but here in France some simply lie dormant, as if waiting for services to return, which obviously makes things considerably easier for enthusiasts to try their hand at running a railway. Some do so rather well. In the north of the region Le Train du Bas-Berry now operateshistoric steam and diesel railcar services on a route between Argy and Lucay-le-Mâle
which closed in the 1980s.  

Further west, between Cholet and La Roche-sur-Yon is the Chemin de Fer de la Vendée, which operates standard gauge steam and diesel hauled services between Mortagne sur Sèvre and Les Herbiers.

Charente-Maritime also has an historic tourist line - the Train des Mouettes, which runs for 21km between Saujon and La Tremblade. Steam services are hauled by a Schneider tank locomotive built in 1891 and listed as a Monument Historique.


Currently under way in Charente is an interesting project to run restored 1950s diesel railcars between Confolens and Roumazières. In a future issue we plan to feature the Chemin de Fer de Charente-Limousine, but for now you can follow progress at  

Finally, in northern Deux-Sèvres there are plans to invest €5.5 million to accommodate an historic steam locomotive and period rolling stock formerly on the preserved Richelieu–Chinon line. The Gare de Thouars will house a museum and workshops, and with Center Parcs due to open at Loudun the new tourist trains could attract 35,000 visitors each year. Services are scheduled to begin during summer 2015.

Other preserved lines employ (your) pedal power: meet Vélorail. Simply climb aboard a small truck with a friend or two and pedal your way through magnificent countryside, with fitness training as a bonus. You’ll find them throughout France, and in our region at: Confolens, Manot & Roumazières (16), Cozes (17), Corgnac sur L’Isle (28), Commequiers (85), Chauvigny (86) and Bussière-Galant (87). All are listed in detail at . Of course, some lines are now little more than distant memories.

We’ve barely scratched the surface, but it’s already obvious that with so many reasons to fall in love with railways, it’s little wonder that we continue to do so.


5 scenic rail experiences not to miss

1| Funiculaire du Capucin


France’s oldest funicular was built in 1898 and is listed as a Monument Historique. It will carry you to 1245m above the spa town and ski resort of Le Mont Dore, and you can visit the machine room to see just what drives it.

Rue du Docteur Moncorgé, 63240 Le Mont Dore. 

2| Nice-Dignes-les-Bains


What better way to see the beauty of Provence than by taking this scenic rail journey par excellence. In winter you can take the Train des Neiges up to the ski resort of Foux d’Allos. 

3| Petit Train Jaune


For over a century SNCF’s oldest and highest train has been climbing from Villefranche-de-Conflent to Latour-de-Carol via the ski resort of Font Romeu (1750m). The scenery, beside the Parc Naturel Régional de Pyrénées Orientales, is sensational. 

4| Tramway du Mont-Blanc


It’s the most extreme rack-railway you’ll ever ride, as you’ll realise long before you step out onto a remote mountainside 2380m above Les Houches. 

5| Le Train de La Rune


Also in the Pyrénées, the lovingly-restored timber-bodied trains dating from 1924 climb through dazzling Basque mountain scenery to 905m (at a steady 9km/h). 


What might have been: The aerotrain



Drive down the D2020 Rue Nationale between Artenay and Cercottes and you’ll have more than the Paris-Orléans TGV line for close company. Just beyond it is what looks like an endless flyover, but is in fact a surviving section of elevated track constructed for a high-speed alternative to the TGV. The Aérotrain was developed between 1965 and 1977, when conventional wheeled traction seemed to have reached the limit of its potential. The response was to suspend the train on a cushion of air like a hovercraft, which it effectively became when being manoeuvred between the track and its storage hangar. With no rails and only a central guide to keep things on course, the Aérotrain could reach sensationally high speeds without the energy requirements and costly tracks needed for magnetic levitation (‘maglev’) systems.

The first tests were carried out on modified sections of redundant rail track at Gometz-le-Châtel and Limours (Essonne) but in 1969 development shifted to a 18km-long elevated concrete test track north of Orléans. It was conceived as the first section of what would become a high-speed route linking the city with Paris, using something similar to the 26m-long Aérotrain I80, an 80-seat passenger-carrying prototype driven by an aero engine powering a ducted-fan propeller with normal braking being achieved, aircraft-style, by reverse thrust. Other routes planned included Paris-Orly and Paris-Clergy, but in 1975 the government pulled out of the contracts and instead diverted funding to the TGV, announcing the Paris-Lyon route the
following year.

The French Aerotrain project was abandoned in 1977 (and transferred to Pueblo, Colorado) but not before it had achieved some impressive results:

Feb 1966: Aérotrain 01 reaches 200 km/h on a 6.7km track south of Versailles between Gometz-le-Châtel and Limours.

Dec 1966: Adding rocket power boosts power output to 1,700 hp (1,300 kW) and speed to 303 km/h.

Nov 1967: Newly-equipped with a Pratt & Whitney jet engine, Aérotrain 01 attains 345 km/h

Jan 1969: Aérotrain 02 reaches a record speed of 422 km/h

Mar 1974: Aérotrain I80 HV, now powered by a jet engine from a Caravelle airliner, sets a land speed record (which still stands) for air-cushioned rail vehicles of 430.4 km/h.


In July 1991 Aérotrain S44 was destroyed by fire in its hangar at Gometz. The following year Aérotrain I80 HV was also destroyed by fire in the hangar at Chevilly. In July 2004 the early Gometz trials were commemorated by the dedication of a sculpture by Georges Saulterre representing the Aérotrain. You’ll find it on a roundabout on the D988, on the site of the original test base.



Photos & Words: Roger Moss

© Living Magazine - all rights reserved. First published in February 2015