Steam train tour of the country
Steam trains run throughout France although many only run during the summer months, covering short distances to the delight of vacationers and tourists. For the most part, they are run by non-profit associations and the trains are run and operated by volunteers, many of whom railway workers (railway workers).
If you are an enthusiast, do not hesitate to contact your local steam train association as they are always on the lookout for new recruits, and it does not matter if newbies do not speak a lot of French as long as they speak. ‘form’! To find out exactly what rolling stock each association has, check the websites as there is no space to list everything in this article. Also, don’t hesitate to research other steam lines in your area, as this list may not be exhaustive.
Here are some of the steam trains to discover in France:
In Brittany, The Steam of Trieux steam railway runs between Paimpol and Pontrieux. The route along the estuary lasts 1h20, including a 40-minute stop at the Maison de l’Estuaire in Traou Nez. The staff dress in period costume which really gives the impression of a trip back in time. Trains run from May to September and typically carry around 40,000 passengers per year.
For the best views of the water, try to sit on the right side of the carriage as you exit Paimpol. Take a picnic to eat in Pontrieux, which is a very pleasant town to stroll around. You can either make the return trip by steam train or take the boat.
the Somme Bay Railway CFBS stretches from Crotoy (Hauts-de-France) around the Somme estuary to the village of St-Valery. Bird watchers particularly enjoy the trip (one hour each way) as the route crosses areas not accessible by car.
If the regulations allow it, they will hold their Steam Festival on July 3 and 4, 2021, which will also mark the 50th anniversary of the CFBS association. They are twinned with the Kent and East Sussex Railway in the UK and aim to bring together as many railway enthusiasts as possible over the weekend. CFBS has the largest collection of railway equipment in France and will attract representatives from other associations across the country. There will be exhibitions, models, local crafts, and to enhance the Belle Epoque atmosphere, vintage cars and characters in period costumes.
For train enthusiasts, the Chemin de Fer de la Vallée de l’Eure (cfve.org) between Rouen and Paris is also worth a visit, although the track only stretches for 10 km from Pacy-sur-Eure and Breuilpont. Different vintage locomotives are electric, but if you book a “stage lead” in advance, you can learn how to drive one. Also check out their website, as they have operated dining cars in the past for passengers to eat on board. It was also possible to reserve the dining car for birthdays and festive meals. They are actively looking for volunteers (email [email protected]).
The P’tit Train de la Haute Somme (in La Neuville-lès-Bray, between Amiens and St-Quentin) runs vintage steam and electric trains on a track built in 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. It uses switchbacks or zigzags to climb the hill, which means the train moves forward on what would be the middle leg of the letter Z a short distance, then backs up to climb the next section. There is also an interesting railway museum containing around 35 locomotives and over 100 wagons dating from the late 19th century to the 1980s. (See their website appeva.org for details.)
In France-Comté in the east of the country, The Conifer travels 8 km from the New Hospitals at Fontaine Ronde, in the Doubs region almost on the Swiss border, using vintage Swiss rolling stock.
Check the website as last year they served cheese fondue on some trains and get there early if you want a seat as there aren’t enough seats for everyone. (Outdoor observation decks are for standing only.)
If you find yourself in the Haut-Rhin this summer, and you need a dose of steam locomotion, discover the Thur Doller Alsace train which stretches between Cernay and Sentheim, just west of Mulhouse.
In Sentheim there is a restaurant or sometimes a food truck, where you can have a picnic. On the other hand, why eat? The break in Sentheim is a great opportunity to talk to the driver and crew about how the steam engines work and if you ask nicely you can probably make your way into the cabin for a close inspection of the controls. Search the website for theme days and theatrical events. If you book in advance, you are guaranteed a seat.
the Montenvers Railway started as a steam railway, but has been electric for over half a century.
The iconic little red train that shuttles the 5 km of track is remarkable for train enthusiasts, however, because of its steep 5 km cogwheel track from Chamonix in Haute-Savoie to Montenvers (1,913 meters). Once there, you can visit the Mer de Glace glacier (either a 20-minute walk or take the cable car) which is dug again every year.
Inaugurated in 1909, it receives around 800,000 visitors per year. (The 500 steps mean it’s not very accessible for older train enthusiasts and people with limited mobility, however.)
the Velay-Express stretches 25 km south-west of Lyon between Raucoules in Haute-Loire and Saint-Agrève in Ardèche at 1,025 meters above sea level. It is served by heritage diesel and steam trains and traverses spectacular scenery, much of it at altitudes above 1,000 meters.
the Ardèche train leaves Tournon-St-Jean in the Rhône valley north of Valence, and travels 33kms to Lamastre, in the Cévennes.
Operated by SNC Chemin de Fer du Vivarais, there are steam trains as well as heritage electric locomotives, and various stops along the way. In Boucieu-le-Roi, you can even trade on one of the four cycle routes. One of the best ways to take advantage of the line is to take the Train du Marché (electric heritage) to Lamastre on Tuesdays during the summer months, and shop in the fantastic weekly market. The train gets you there at 10:30 am and leaves at 12:30 pm – so you can enjoy a picnic on the way down. ()
The Train des Pignes operates a few steam train services in summer (on some short sections of the line), but most of the trains on this 151 km line between Nice and Digne-les-Bains are diesel. The route, however, is spectacular and it is the last vestige of what were once the vast Railways of Provence.
The entire journey takes approximately 3 hours 15 minutes. There are tickets available from Nice that start on a diesel train and then change to a steam train at Puget-Théniers. Services include a refreshment cart, a refreshment car and an on-board shop. Check their website for special trains like the Dance Train, Music Day, and Halloween Train.
And if you’ve ever wanted to drive a steam train, their one or two-day steam stage tickets will allow you to do so (140 € for one day, 350 € for two, accommodation and meals included).
the Cévennes Steam Train a steam line connects Anduze to St-Jeandu-Gard in Languedoc. If you choose to travel in the open wagons, you’ll likely end up covered in charcoal and your eyes streaming smoke through the tunnels, and you’ll be happy to sit inside on the way back! But kids absolutely love open-top cars. (Also check their website for various themed events throughout the year.
In Occitania, the Haut-Quercy Tourist Railway, The Martel Steam Train runs over 6.5 km of tracks from Martel to St-Denis-Les-Martel and has a steam schedule during the summer months. Two heritage diesel trains are also in service. (See their website for timetables.) Much of the trip is along the cliffs overlooking the Dordogne valley; the line was once used to transport truffles. There is also a small museum above the ticket office, which is definitely worth the price of the ticket (€ 1!) And they have a museum photo album for people who cannot climb the stairs.
In Charente-Maritime, near Royan, the Train des Mouettes travels 21 km between Saujon and La Tremblade, passing through Fontbedeau, Mornac-sur-Seudre, Chaillevette, Etaules and Arvert.
Every Thursday in the summer, a night train (Train des Loupiotes) takes you to Mornacsur-Seudre where you can eat outside, have a picnic or simply stroll through the night market before taking the train back to Saujon or La Tremblade.
On Saturday morning, the Train des Mouettes goes to La Tremblade and offers passengers an hour and a half to do their shopping in the market before getting back on the train.
On the weekend of September 18 to 19, to celebrate European Heritage Days, ticket prices will be reduced and passengers will be able to visit the depot where all their heritage rolling stock is stored and maintained, and on Sunday there will be a group jazz on the Quai de la Chaillevette.
Given the current circumstances, always check by calling ahead when planning a trip on any of these railroads.