Monday 27 September 2010
Béziers to Paris via La Ligne des Causses and the Bourbonnais mainline

La ligne des Causses is one of two main north south routes across the Massif Central. The other route is la ligne de Cévennes, which I had travelled over the previous June. It is often said la ligne des Cévennes is the most spectacular of the two routes. I am not so sure. They are certainly very different in character. The Cévennes line has the superb Allier gorge section and the stunning and very tough line up the mountains from Alès to La Bastide St-Laurent-les-Bains and is undoubtedly a really fantastic stretch of railway. La ligne de Causses is very different. The Causses - areas of high plateaux - have a very different feel to the mountainous Cévennes which gives the railway a very different character. The line climbs onto a plateau, then drops off to run in a valley before climbing again and so on. Towards the north end the line changes as it runs across consistently higher ground. This section also includes the tremendous Eiffel viaduc de Garabit across the Truyère.

The view from my hotel room first thing in the morning with a unit setting off east.

The view from my hotel room first thing in the morning with a unit setting off east.

Unit 27745 sets off Béziers from as 607320 heads a non-stop train through the station. A steam era water column has, amazingly, survived here but presumably it now out of use.

Unit 27745 sets off Béziers from as 607320 heads a non-stop train through the station. A steam era water column has, amazingly, survived here but presumably it now out of use.

The gradient profile of la ligne des Causses is also somewhat different to la ligne des Cévennes. The Cévennes line, more or less, climbs all the way from Alès to the summit just before La Bastide St-Laurent-les-Bains at a ruling grade of 1 in 40. It then descends, less steeply, through Langogne and Langeac towards Clermont Ferrand. As the profiles below shows la ligne des Causses is much more exciting! The ruling gradient is 33 in 1000, approximately 1 in 30, with some lengthy sections at or near this maximum. However this gradient is not corrected for curvature. The compensated gradients gets as steep at 36 in 1000 - 1 in 28.

Béziers to La Tour-sur-Orb

KM480 to Tournemire-Roquefort

Tournemire-Roquefort to Sévérac-le-Château

Sévérac-le-Château to St Chély

St Chély to Neussargues

Unit 27759 at Béziers waiting to head the 09:10 departure for Clermont Ferrand, well not quite.....

Unit 27759 at Béziers waiting to head the 09:10 departure for Clermont Ferrand, well not quite.....

Click here for a 1950 map of Massif Central railways.

Click here or above for a 1950 map of Massif Central railways.

As can be imagined this route has never been an easy one to operate, especially with the steam locomotives available in the late 19th and first part of the 20th centuries. So the route was an early candidate for electrification with hydroelectric plants in the mountains being constructed to provide the power required. Chemin de Fer du Midi completed electrification of the route in 1932 with an overhead system providing 1500V dc.

For more information (in French) on this route click here.

I had passed through Béziers in June 2010 on my way from Carcassonne to Nîmes as part of my trip that day to Clermont Ferrand via la ligne des Cévennes. I had seen the Béziers to Clermont Ferrand train sat in the station, it was made up of 3 unrefurbished Corail coaches headed by an electric loco. I knew that SNCF were replacing as many loco hauled trains with multiple units at a fair pace but had hoped to find a loco and coaches waiting for me, but sadly not. Instead a modern three coach EMU was sat in the platform. After my trip I found out that a number of dual propulsion multiple units exist, that is ones which have diesel engines but can also run as electric units under the wires. If I had known I might have thought this unit would be one of the dual propulsion ones but as it was I thought that, despite what was showing on the destination boards at the station and on the unit itself, this particular train was not going to Clermont Ferrand. Why? Simply because the overhead does not extent that far. La ligne des Causses, electrified to 1500v dc by the Chemin de Fer du Midi, meets the ligne du Lioran at the junction station of Neussargues and this is where the wires end. So I expected to have to change trains at Neussargues. Thank you SNCF that's very convenient! Changing trains is far better than staying on the same train whilst diesel and electric locomotives on the north and south bound workings swap whilst the trains cross at Neussargues.

Béziers as it was in the 1950s.SNCF gave up naming trains some while back but the supposedly through service from Béziers was, for a long time, know as the 'Aubrac' after the region towards the north end of the line. The fact this train is now a multiple unit and no longer runs through probably means it doesn't deserve a name but it is a shame the name has been dropped. As it is this train is now just the plain old 09:10 from Béziers, train No.15940.

I was on the station in plenty of time for the train after a decent breakfast in Hotel Terminus and the sourcing of supplies for the journey north. Once I had become convinced the unit really was the train I got on and found a seat in first class, in the first vehicle, on the northern side of the train. I had no idea which side would be best to sit on. In the end I came to the conclusion here is no such thing as the best views switch sides as the line winds north.

The train was away on time and with normal multiple unit acceleration was soon running briskly along some indifferent track. So another typical SNCF secondary route! However there were signs it was being cared for with a bit of lineside clearance having taken place as the line left Béziers and ran out into the countryside. The map to the right shows Béziers as it was in the early 1950s. La ligne des Causses is number 2 in the key, number 3 in the key - Chemins de fer l'Hérault is long closed.

The climbing starts immediately on leaving the station as the line is to the south of the main east-west route so has passes over this then keeps climbing as the mountains are coming. The initial run is through fairly open countryside but before the first stop at Bédarieux the scenery changes as the bottom end of the Causses is reached. The first section of mountains reached, about 10km before Bédarieux, near Laurens soon comes with a bit of added railway interest. The tracked of the Midi route to Montpellier comes in from the east. The line used to run parallel to la ligne des Causses into Faugères where the lines combined with double track onward through Bédarieux. Shortly after the site of Faugères station the line enters the 1861m long Tunnel de Faugères which cuts under a section of high ground called le Garrigues. On emerging from the tunnel the line swings sharp left after which the route of the original line through Bédarieux can be seen swinging off to the other side of the valley. This line was opened by the Chemin de fer de Graisseseac à Béziers but replaced by the current Midi built alignment. Running into Bédarieux another lines comes in, this time from the west. The track is still down but I don't know for how far. The line heads off in the direction of Mazamet and Castres which, somehow, both still have a passenger service from Toulouse.

Bédarieux used to be an important junction station on the line with a sizeable loco depot in the days of steam. It was home to the Midi class 4500, SNCF 240TA type, built for la ligne des Causses and other lines in the region. To the north of the station, at Latour-sur-Orb the line to Graisseseac and coal mines in the area headed off. These lines are long closed but clearly visible with the Graisseseac climbing away steeply from la ligne des Causses. It is from here on that the line gets "serious" with the first stretches of 33 in 1000 gradients climbing to and descending from a series of summits in quick succession. The scenery becomes more impressive all the time with the railway quite often well away from anything approaching a main road and sometimes any sort of road.

Railways around Bédarieux in the 1950sThe line is now running on fairly high ground, but only for a while. At km post 520.8 (Béziers is at 431.6km) the line starts to drop down into the next deep valley. As it does the now closed line from St. Affrique comes in from the west. Again the track remains on this route and it ran into Tournemire-Roquefort station parallel to la ligne des Causses. It has been closed to passengers since 1939 but only closed to freight in 1992. Their is little prospect of trains running again as signalling has now been installed between the remaining rails! Tournemire-Roquefort was also a junction for a line heading east. As a result it also once had a loco shed. Today it is a just a very quiet station lacking the overall roof it once boasted. The line which headed east had to head through a long tunnel under Causse du Larzac before turning through 90° and heading of towards Le Vigan over a pretty tortuous route. At Le Vigan there was an end on junction with a PLM line from Quissac. This line shut very early (1939 for passengers and 1955 for freight) but was partially resurrected to access an army base in the area. Having spent a fortune reopening the route, which features a number of tunnels and viaducts, only one train ever used the line. Local objections to an increase in military training killed it dead! The tunnel is now used for research into rocks capable of containing spent nuclear fuel (without, apparently, any nuclear material actually being present.) The line the other side of the tunnel has now become a combined vélorail and tourist railway - vélorail du Larzac and Le Train Touristique du Larzac.
Tournemire-Roquefort and railways in the 1950s

Beyond Tournemire-Roquefort the line continues to descend steeply into the Tarn valley on its approach to the large town of Millau. Running into Millau the line passes below the outstanding viaduc de Millau which takes the A75-E11 autoroute high above the valley floor. And it really is high. The maximum height, from the ground to the top of the tallest pillar, is an amazing 343.0 metres (1,125 ft). The viaduct is also impressively long at 2.46km. The railway, running on the banks of the Tarn, passes directly under the viaduct at its highest. Initially, viewed from the south, the structure is impressive but perhaps not as impressive as might be expected although the pillars can't fail to impress the nearing you get. However the best views and impression of the this structure are had from the north (in the train) as the views open out to reveal the entire structure. Impressive doesn't really quite sum it up!

The railway is also extremely impressive north of Millau. It runs in the river Tarn valley to Aguessac after which there is a very noticeable increase in the gradient to 33 in 1000 (1 in 30). It is from here that the line gets really tough, relative to the hard climbing already undertaken. This climb, with a few brief sections of level track and an easing to 31.8 in 1000 (1 in 31.5), last for 15km (9.4 miles)! The line is now climbing out of the Tarn valley on to the Causse de Sauveterre. The views this climbs affords are stunning. The most spectacular sections of the Tarn may be out of sight but even so, in lovely sunny weather, looking out of the train window over the Tarn and the Causse Noir on its far side was something very special. It is this section of the line, more than any other, which, for me, makes it a more spectacular line than la ligne des Cévennes. No doubt that is a controversial statement!

The summit of this section is reached at Engayreque and another tunnel followed by an equally as step descent towards the junction station for Rodez at Sévérac-le-Château. This was another station which once boasted a loco depot, but there is no sign of that now. There is another sharp climb (30 in 1000/1 in 33) away from Sévérac-le-Château before a long drop off the Causse de Sauveterre and into river Lot valley. But being this line there is no easy running as it is soon climbing again as the Lot heads off towards Mende and its source. Just before Le Monastier the line from Mende and La Bastide St-Laurent-les-Bains, on la Ligne des Cévennes, comes in from the east. Trains from this line run to Marvejols, which acts as the junction station. On this occasion the train from Mende, which should have reached Marvejols first, was late but we didn't have to wait long for it to arrive. It seemed fairly well used and a number of passengers transferred to the Clermont Ferrand bound train.

Another section of hard climbing, but only 27.5 in 1000, about 1 in 33.3, follows Marvejols as the line climbs out of the the valley and away from the Causses proper and towards its highest point in the Aubrac Mountains. More tunnels follow on this section which took the train to its next stop at Aumont-Aubrac and back alongside the A75-E11, which is often not far from the line north of Millau. The line then looses a little height, at 15 in 1000/1 in 66, and reaches St. Chély d'Apcher. This small town sits around 1000m (3280ft) high and if it wasn't for the A75-E11 passing by it would be pretty remote. However, somewhat incongruously, it is the home to a steel works. This plant has been here since 1916. Despite it's location it is still very active and leads to something almost as unexpected - heavy freight train over la ligne des Causses 5 days a week. Long may it continue.

The line climbs, again, away from St. Chély d'Apcher to it's highest point at Arcomie. This now closed station was the highest on the line at 1053m (3455ft). Once over the summit the route starts to drop off at 17.5 in 1000 (1 in 57) towards the river Truyère valley which is crossed on Eiffel's viaduc de Garabit.

The line and the A75-E11 autoroute are never far apart of this section. There is even a service station which gives excellent views of Eiffel's viaduct. The one disadvantage of travelling over such a structure is that you can't get the chance to study it and take in its greatness. That said a trip over viaduc de Garabit does not disappoint. However SNCF have struck again. In 2009 the viaduct was shut for a while after structural problems were discovered. Thankfully it is open again now but with a swingeing 10kmh (6mph) speed limit imposed for its length. This has the advantage of allowing time to admire the superb views out over the reservoir on this section of the Truyère and also to get a look at the structure. It did not appear to be in great condition which large sections of the metal work being bare and rusty, the red paint applied between 1992 and 1998 has not lasted brilliantly. Hopefully this national monument will soon receive the attention it deserves.

As the train rolled across the viaduct I could see a few hotels which gave me more ideas for a trip in 2011, a plan for which had already started to formulate as the train headed north. Garabit looks like a very nice place to spend a few days.

St. Flour is the next stop for the train. Thanks to the way regional services in France are now funded and managed by regional governments the levels of service can vary greatly. The top end of la ligne des Causses, after St. Chély d'Apcher, passes from one region into another. Sadly this has resulted in a pretty awful level of service. This train I was on and its corresponding southbound working are the only passenger trains over this section each day. It is really quite difficult to refer to what is offered as a service. A couple of other trains do run at awkward times one or two days a week but there is more freight over this line than anything else. Hopefully this won't always remain the case. St Flour, with its next to useless train service, is a hilltop town with a lower section around the railway. Sitting on a very steep edge it looks like a place well worth visiting. It was once a junction station. A line used to strike off cross country to Beaumont just north of Brioude on la ligne des Cévennes. The junction, unhelpfully, was south facing but otherwise, if still open, it would have provided a useful cut off and most probably a faster route to Clermont Ferrand. As it is the train continues on, climbing for the first time in around 30km, towards the tunnel at Talizat from where the line drops off sharply at 33 in 1000 (1 in 30) down into the Alagnon valley and the end of la ligne des Causses at the junction station of Neussargues.

For your convenience the through train is no longer a through train. Please change at Neussargues where you get to stand on a cold platform on a windy day waiting for the train from Clermont Ferrand to arrive which will become the train to Clermont Ferrand.

For your convenience the through train is no longer a through train. Please change at Neussargues where you get to stand on a cold platform on a windy day waiting for the train from Clermont Ferrand to arrive which will become the train to Clermont Ferrand.

Neussargues yard still plays host to regular freight workings which serve the steel plant at St. Chély d'Apcher. One such train sits in the yard awaiting departure time to Clermont Ferrand. It tends to runs ahead of the "through" train as far as Neussargues after which it follows.

Neussargues yard still plays host to regular freight workings which serve the steel plant at St. Chély d'Apcher. One such train sits in the yard awaiting departure time to Clermont Ferrand. It tends to runs ahead of the "through" train as far as Neussargues after which it follows.

Neussargues sits on la ligne du Lioran which runs from Arvant, on la ligne des Cévennes, through to Aurillac. The route forms the southern leg of what is known as le triangle du Cantal. In the department of Cantal the three main routes formed an approximate triangle with the northern point being at Bort-les-Orgues. Both lines to Bort-les-Orgues were closed in the 1990s but the remains currently cling on in one form or another. The route to Aurillac, which passes under the Plomb du Cantal in the Lioran tunnel is not one I have travelled over but the gradient profile make it look very worthwhile.

Ligne du Lioran gradient profile - Neussargues to Aurillac

As the train had rolled down the hill into the station announcements had been made that the train was terminating here and that we needed to get off to continue our journey, so as expected. My train was the first of three to arrive. It was not very warm waiting on the station for the next arrival which was the corresponding southbound train. Well it once would have been. Whilst no doubt advertised as being from Clermont Ferrand to Béziers the three car DMU which arrived deposited its passengers before been invaded by travellers from la ligne des Causses heading north. As this occurred the EMU filled up with people heading south. The final train to arrive was a single car unit from Aurillac which turned back here.

The northbound train was the first away. The line from Neussargues to Arvant has had the track renewed fairly recently with a lot of the worn out track piled up in short panels at the side of the line, presumably to be collected one day. The line on to Arvant runs through the attractive Alagnon valley with just one remaining station at Massiac. Beyond here the line passes through the Gorges de 'Alagnon in a series of tunnels and viaducts before passing under the A75-E11 after which the train slowed for the sharp curve approaching the junction with la ligne des Cévennes at Arvant. From here on it was familiar territory for me having travelled this route in June on my way north from Nîmes. The line on to Clermont Ferrand is double track and fairly fast. Quite a few stops are made as a few sizeable towns are passed running north alongside the river Allier.

Ligne du Lioran gradient profile - Neussargues to Arvant

The train arrived at Clermont Ferrand on time giving me just over 20 minutes to get on the 16:26 Clermont Ferrand to Paris Gare de Lyon service. Well that's what I thought! The Paris bound train was advertised on the station departure screen as leaving at 16:29. OK I thought, not a major change. So off I went in search of my booked seat. When I could not find the coach number I had booked in I thought maybe something was up - then I noticed what was up, a discovery accompanied by a sizeable amount of Anglo-Saxon under my breath! My ticket was for almost a month previous. When booking my tickets online I had managed to book a train in August not September. The ticket was the same one I had used all the way from Béziers. The guards who had checked the ticket had given it/me some odd looks and now I understood why. So, with about 15 minutes to go I headed into the station to try to buy a valid ticket for the train. The queue was pretty long but, fortunately, the ticket machines were available so I got myself a first class ticket at one of them and tried again!

I had travelled on the Corail Téoz service over the Bourbonnais mainline to Paris in June and had expected to get a nice leather seat to myself. I was a bit disappointed to end up on a leather seat in a compartment of six. The compartment wasn't full leaving Clermont Ferrand but was by the time we left Vichy. After Nevers, the last stop before Paris, the train seemed to have become very full indeed. The run to Paris was uneventful and was largely taken up with me kicking myself at my own stupidity. However it could have been much worse and is about the worst booking error I've made on any of my travels. The weather was generally overcast but we did pass through the odd shower before arriving at Paris as it was starting to go dark, a little before 20:00. Paris Lyon was its normal busy self with the one way system introduced to control the flow of passengers still in use. Unlike in June staff were now positioned to prevent people from going the "wrong way".

I didn't have a connection to make as I was staying in Paris overnight. I was booked into the Hotel Viator on Rue Parrot, just a few minutes walk away from the station. For once the photos online actually represented the rooms accurately! The price was good too given the location making this one of the few hotels I have used I would actively return to. Most leave me indifferent or disappointed but not this one.

I didn't stay in my room long as I wanted to eat. I had bought some nice food for the journey at a bakers in Béziers but this was long gone and I was getting hungry. I ended up in a typical Parisien establishment opposite Gare de Lyon, it being one of many in the vicinity. The food was good and not outrageously priced. The service was quick so, as I was travelling alone, I wasn't there a huge amount of time. I was done a little after 9pm so decided to go for a walk to get my bearings for the next morning. The streets were pretty quiet but felt safe as I walked up towards Bastille then down Avenue Daumesnil parallel to Viaduc Daumesnil which once carried la ligne de Vincennes and now carries Promenade Plantée, my initial destination for my Tuesday morning in Paris.

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