It was really not that long ago when a large amount of travel in the United States was done via the railway system. So much of the mystique of the “American West” centers around the trains that criss-crossed the wide open spaces of the expanding country. You can’t watch a single “western” movie without seeing multiple scenes with trains, depots and railway lines. OK, maybe there are a few western movies where you won’t see a train, but you get my point. If you wanted to get from one place to another the train was often the fastest, cheapest way to do so.
For well over 100 years the American train lines defined travel in the country. This is no longer the case. Having grown up in the U.S. during the 1960s and 1970s I did not have many experiences riding trains. More than half of the existing railroad networks in the U.S. were closed down with the advent of the interstate highway system which began in the 1950s. I remember taking the train from my home in Southern California to visit a friend of mine in Oregon sometime in the late 1960s, but really, that’s the only memory I have of using trains for transportation. The history of trains in France is much different.
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Unlike the U.S. (and also the U.K. I think) France still has a huge passenger rail network, including quite a few rural branch lines. Among the many lines still active are a variety of tourist trains, heritage lines and steam trains. One of the most famous and most popular is the last remaining portion of Le Chemin de Fer de Provence. The one-meter gauge track runs from Nice to Digne les Bains, roughly 151 kilometers. It’s currently the only privately owned public service railway in France. Running through a spectacular portion of the French Alpes the train is mostly diesel. However, there is a small portion of the route on which a steam train is run, mostly on weekends during the summer. Known as Le Train des Pignes à Vapeur, it’s been running now for over 40 years. I’ve been wanting to ride this steam train for quite awhile and I finally booked a trip for the last Friday in July. Our friends Steve and Susan Rautenberg and Patrick and Shirley Vuillaume joined us for what turned out to be a hot, but very enjoyable, day.
A Little History
Construction of the first line for the Chemin de Fer de Provence began in 1890 and continued until 1911. The first trains began running in 1892. Lines ran from Nice to Grasse, Puget-Théniers, Digne and Annot. After World War II much of the lines were closed. A flood on the Var River in 1994 caused severe damage to the existing lines and more were closed. Today the only remaining line from the original network is the 151 kilometer route from Nice to Dignes-les-Bains. An “urban” section of the line connects central Nice with Plan du Var, a small village on the Var River north of Nice. There are 44 roundtrips made daily on this portion of the route, mostly by employees and students. The upper section, which connects Plan du Var with Digne-les-Bains passes through the Durance valley and beautiful, unique sections of the French Alpes. It is mostly used by tourists.
The Chemin de Fer de Provence is not part of the official French state train line, the SNCF. It is a privately owned enterprise that employees 135 workers. During 2017 88 trains ran on the line with 16,650 passengers. On February 8, 2014, after a period of heavy rain, a large rock fell from a mountainside and struck one of the trains between Annot and Saint-Benoît, killing two people and seriously injuring eight more.
The steam train from Puget-Théniers to Annot is operated by the G.E.C.P. (Groupe d’Etude pour les Chemins de fe de Provence), a small organization consisting of 300 members and 45 volunteers. The volunteers include 8 locomotive engineers, 4 locomotive drivers, 5 train managers, a rail safety advisor, a maintenance team and many others. Youth participation is highly encouraged and from the age of 14 (with the approval of their parents) a young person can participate in the association. They begin by helping with the restoration work, painting, carpentry, mechanics, etc. Later they can apprentice aboard a locomotive to work their way up to actually working on one of the actual train trips.
As I mentioned above, I have been wanting to make this trip on the steam train for quite awhile. This summer, while talking with friends, we decided to book a trip for the last Friday in July. We all purchased tickets online. The cost was 22€ each, so it’s not cheap. During the summer months the train runs mostly on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays. Booking the tickets was quick and easy and we were all assigned seat numbers in the same coach.
It’s just over an hour’s drive from Vence to Puget-Théniers where the steam train departs. With the train leaving at 10:55AM that meant we needed to leave Vence around 9:20AM to make sure we had time to get to the station and park. If you know Carole, you know that was not easy for her. She normally wakes up at 1:00PM, so getting up around 8:30AM was really tough. But, she wanted to make this trip, so she managed.
When we arrived in Puget-Théniers we found parking quite easily across the street from the train station. We arrived at the train in plenty of time. It wasn’t full, but it was close to it. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic every other seat was left vacant. There were lots of couples and families, lots and lots of kids. I’m guessing that most of us were foreigners but there were definitely a lot of French people as well. I had some time before the train left to have a look around and take some photos.
There are currently two locomotives in service as part of the line. One dates from 1909 and the other from 1923. Both are classified as “Historic Monuments. We rode on the E211 locomotive, originally from Portugal. It served on the Val de Vouga line in Portugal for sixty-three years before being bought by the G.E.C.P. and put into service on the line from Puget-Théniers to Annot.
The oldest passenger coach currently in operation was originally built in 1892! The “newest” comes from 1939. We rode in the Ferrovie Luganesi B31 coach, a beautiful wood paneled car over a hundred years old. The car, with a sheet metal body, belongs to a series of eleven units built by the firm Schweizerische Wagons und Aufzügfabrik (SWS) in Schlieren for the Rhätische Bahn / Rhaetian Railway (RhB), a network which served the Swiss canton of Graubünden and the tourist resorts of Davos and St. Moritz. Originally built in 1911 they were acquired by the G.E.C.P. in 1980 and put into service that year on the line.
The train left the station a few minutes late following the Var River due west. It made it’s first stop in Entrevaux, a wonderful small French village on the Var river that I have written about elsewhere on this website. The train only stops for about five or ten minutes, enough to get off and stretch your legs and take some photos, but not enough time to actually visit the village. It followed the river a bit further, but when the river turns north the train continues west, stopping once again for a few minutes in Saint-Benoît. It’s a beautiful, scenic stretch through the lower Alpes. Lots of mountain views, trees and plenty of sunshine. We arrived in Annot right around noon, disembarked from the train and walked into town for lunch.
Our friend Steve had made lunch reservations for us at Café du Commerce and we sat outside under a large shaded covering for a wonderful meal. After lunch several of us spent an hour or so exploring the village and taking photos. I will be publishing a separate article about Annot on the site shortly.
The return trip followed the same route though this time we did not stop in Saint-Benoît. It was unusually hot on this late July day and there is, of course, no air conditioning on the train. But the breeze through the windows made it comfortable enough and the heat didn’t really distract from the adventure. If you’ve never ridden on a coal burning steam train before it is an experience. The train puts out a huge amount of deep black smoke which was full of small cinders and ash that fell on all the cars (and us as well) behind the locomotive. Going through tunnels was overwhelming and everyone in the car would raise the windows and then lower them again when we came out the other side.
During normal times there is a souvenir shop in a specially equipped coach and a snack cart that passes through the train. Since our trip occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic the snack cart was not operating. The souvenir shop was open, however we were not allowed to go inside the car to look around, rather we had to look at things through the outside windows which made it rather difficult. Still, I bought a nice poster.
One of the missions of the G.E.C.P is to preserve and restore as much of the historic equipment of the Chemins de fer de Provence as possible to its original condition. Some of this equipment was simply removed from service at some point and some of it might have even been recovered from wrecks and accidents. Doing so not only preserves this historical equipment, but it makes it possible for the line to increase their capacity and therefore continue to operate.
However, restoring old railway equipment is not easy. The biggest obstacle is the lack of spare parts. Often times they must make a replacement part themselves from scratch or find someone else who can do it. The organization is currently restoring a 1909 locomotive originally used on the Breton line in northern France.
Special Themed Trains
Throughout the season, several themed trains are offered (all dates are 2020):
- Dance train (May 24)
- Music train (June 21)
- 40 Year Anniversary train (July 19)
- European Heritage Day train (September 20)
- Mushroom train (October 11)
- Halloween train (November 1)
- Santa Claus train (December 19)
Several years ago I had the opportunity to ride on another steam train in southern France. The Train à Vapeur des Cévennes is a heritage line that runs between Anduze and St. Jean du Gard in the Cevennes hills of Languedoc between April and November. Carole and I also rode on the Train des Merveilles which I wrote about on this site.
I’m really eager to ride on the Yellow Train of the Pyrenees, a famous mountain train running from Villefrance-de-Conflent to Latour de Carol on the Spanish border. It winds through the French Pyrenees to a summit of almost 1,600 meters and the views are supposed to be fantastic. Carole and I were in Villefranche-de-Conflent in October last year, but unfortunately, the train was not running for some reason at the time.
There are more “heritage” trains running all over the south of France in the Auvergne, the Languedoc, the Midi-Pyrénées, the Rhône-Alpes and the Aquitaine regions. You’ll also find even more in the northern, western and eastern regions as well. If you are in any of these areas and have an interest just look online and you’ll find lots of information.
The main route for the steam train is from Puget-Théniers to Annot. From just about anywhere on the Côte d’Azur you are going to want to take the A8 to Nice and then the M6202 up along the Var River valley to the M6102 and finally the D6202. The train leaves Puget-Théniers at 10:55AM and arrives in Annot at 12:05PM. It stops in Entrevaux from 11:15AM to 11:20AM. The return departs from Annot at 3:30PM and arrives back in Puget-Théniers at 4:15PM. The price is 22€ round trip for adults and 18€ round trip for children between the ages of 4 and 12. Children under 4 can ride for free provided they sit in an adult’s lap. There is a special family fare of 60€ for 2 adults and 2 children. Large groups can also get special discounts.
Several times a year it is possible to continue past Annot to the village of Le Fugeret. You’ll need to consult the schedule as this only happens a few times.