The Train of Vivarais

A Voyage by Steam Engine

Through the Picturesque Mountains Northwest of Valence on the Rhone

5-24-05

 

The sun cast only a pale light onto the platform of the Tournon train station.  It was fall and the leaves on the trees had covered themselves with gold so as to be better protected against the coming frost.  There was quite some commotion.  Not less than two trains were supposed to run this Sunday.

 

Gerhard and George had arrived amid a crowd of tourists anxious to utilize such an antiquated mode of transportation.  Children were running around and mothers attempted to keep their offspring under control – while the fathers inspected the railroad equipment. 

 

George turned his eyes in all directions as if looking for some unknown object, but not for the railroad. 

 

“Hey, George, what’s the matter?” asked Gerhard.

 

“I look for the marchioness and I cannot find her.  It was you, after all, who told me that she would be at the station.  She is late and will miss the train”

 

Gerhard did not understand,

 

“But of course”, continued George, “I would so much love to meet that lady and talk to her.  Imagine, returned to the U.S. and telling my friends that I had the chance of my life to entertain myself with such a personality.  That would be as if I had been at Versailles at the time of Louis XIV.”

 

In his head, he repeated the phrase by M. Jourdain “beautiful lady, your beautiful eyes”, and so on.  Or was it “your beautiful eyes, beautiful lady”, and so on?  Those were his memories of the piece by Molière, “The Bourgeois Gentleman”, in which he had acted when he was a student.

 

Gerhard left with a big laugh.  He understood his friend’s confusion.

 

“The marchioness is there!  Don’t you see her?” and saying this he pointed his finger in the direction of the awning in front of the station, attached there for the protection of the travelers against rain and sun.  That’s also called a marquise in French, a simple protection of the platform, and you just misunderstood the French word as marchioness.  George was overcome by uproarious laughter, but then the train arrived already from the depot.

 

“The Mallet” –  #413, the red one – entered  the station slowly.  (These locomotives obtained their name after Anatole MALLET, who invented a system permitting the use of the steam in two successive cylinders, one in front and the other between the two sets of wheels, providing greater economy while improving traction).  Its push rods glistened with oil as they moved in a fantastic dance while a light veil of steam drifted out of the carefully polished cylinders.  Up above, the engineer’s team, proud as lords, contemplated the motley joyous crowd as they watched out for the signal in front of which they had to stop correctly.  A string of cars of all colors – blue, red, yellow – followed in a creaking sequence.  That was a real “Parrot train”. 

 

The convoy came to a smooth halt and was quickly stormed by the tourists.

 

George and Gerhard selected the lounge car where the seats were upholstered in grey-blue velvet.  They closed the door of their compartment in order to gain tranquility.  Then they opened the window and took some pictures.

 

The railroad agents bustled about on the platform:  “All on board, all on board, ready for departure”.  The agent in charge of the train whistled, the station chief raised the green and white paddle, and the controller barely had time to jump on the running-board of a car as the train began to move.

 

A cloud of smoke and steam mixed with some cinder particles filled their compartment and the window was swiftly closed, especially since one quickly arrived at the tunnel.

 

The “Mastrou” (the local dialect name of this train) allowed itself a moment of top speed while following the main line “Lyons-Nîmes” with which its metric track overlapped.  Then, as if exhausted, it stopped to the right of the bifurcation in the middle of a curve and counter-curve where its “own line” began.  Carefully it started moving again, the cars followed gingerly; the engineer, the man in charge of the train, was leaning out on the right side, carefully watching the maneuver.  It had worked well!

 

The “Mallet” whistled with joy and resumed its speed.  Ah!  So little:  20 to 25 km/hr (15 to 17 m/hr).  And there was St. Jean de Muzols already.  Yes, it was there, where the vines of the famous “St. Joseph” grew, those of the “Côtes du Rhône” provenance.  This brought nice memories to Gerhard of the day when he had “leaned a little too much on the bottle”, in other words was a little drunk, after a good meal with friends.  The innkeeper had found it wise to offer him a room to stay.

 

The “Mastrou” entered the green scenery and threaded itself through the Doux valley.  Now the serious part of the trip began: the climb up the ramp, at 20%o inclination, in order to be hoisted from the bottom of the gorges to the plateau above.  One could see the great bridge which had been built between 1470 and 1583 and had withstood all the floods in those years, then a viaduct, the tunnel of Mordane, and finally the passage appropriately named the “Étroits”, the “Narrows”.

 

The engine gave all its power, the noise of the steam exhaust reverberated from the rocky walls, accompanied by long whistles.  But the “Mallet” had seen more than this since the beginning of its service in 1932, and its two sets of wheels provided it with astonishing adaptability.

 

Arrival at Boucieu le Roi, the old royal tribunal of 1291, where there would be a stopover of 20 minutes to take on water for the engine and to provide a buffet for the travelers.

 

George and Gerhard used the time to leave the train, admire and photograph the locomotive, and talk to the engineer and stoker.

 

But that tall controller – Gerhard was sure he’d seen him before.  He approached the young man. 

 

“Aren’t you Antoine?”

 

“No, I am Raphael”, the man answered.  “Antoine was my grandfather.  He used to drive the motor coach on the St. Tropez line, in the South of France.  You know him, then?”

 

Gerhard hesitated a moment, searching his memory.

 

“Yes”, he said.  “It was in June of 1947.  I had gotten on the wrong train.  Antoine kindly helped me along.  We then talked about Diesel engines that were installed in those new motor coaches.  What has happened to them?”

 

“What?  You don’t know?” replied Raphael.  “They were sold in Spain, after the closure of the line!”

 

Gerhard knew very well, but had his own thoughts about that question.

 

The locomotive whistle blew.  It was time to depart.  The travelers climbed back into the cars and Raphael, who actually was the controller of the train, sat down next to the two friends to continue the conversation.  Gerhard whispered “Later” into his ear, while pointing out his companion.  Intrigued, Raphael managed a smile of complicity and left.

 

The Arlebosc viaduct appeared.  Then came “La Pierre qui Vire”, “The Rock-That-Turns”, according to legend, turning every hundred years; but nobody had ever seen that.  Further along, the castle of Chazotte, the proprietor of which, a countess by rank, was an ardent supporter of the little train.  The countess had departed this world, but the engineers honored her memory with a long whistle from the “Mallet”.

 

The convoy crossed the 45th degree latitude where the “Midi”, the French “South”, begins.  Consequently, one had reached the midpoint between the North Pole and the equator (5,000 kilometers distant on each side).

 

The “Mastrou” made a triumphal entrance into the Lamastre station, by the sound of a local bugle.  The noisy crowd of travelers dispersed in waves in a child-like mood, specifically since it was market day. 

 

The two friends didn’t miss a beat.  Video recorder and camera in hand, they undertook to capture the market stands.  The merchants found them so likable that they offered them pieces of ham, of cheese, and something to drink.  They also interrogated them, since it appeared to them that, with their accent, they had to be “Esstrangèsse”, as one says in the South to indicate the strangers, even if they are merely Frenchmen from another region, or Parisians from Paris!

 

“Ah!  You are Americans”, said a large butcher, admiring and curious at the same time.  “You have taken the “Mastrou”?”

 

George and Gerhard answered him in perfect French that left him stupefied: “Yes, we came from the United States.  We very much like the railroads, and we are enchanted by this ballad.”

 

The butcher felt on “home ground” and told them the following story:

 

“Did you know that this line was discontinued in 1968, but was revitalized by a tourist association in 1969?  In 1971, a rich American with a large collection of trains purchased one “Mallet”, number 104; but, in the end, he did not take her home – to the USA – and that one stayed at Tournon”.

 

By this time, a small crowd of people had formed around them.  One could hear questions like, “Is that him, you think?”

 

“Yes, I tell you, that’s him!”

 

“Who do you mean by “him”?”

 

“It’s an American actor”, answered a voice.

 

George turned around.  He was almost a perfect double of the star.  He knew it, and it amused him very much to give autographs and to keep the confusion going.

 

Gerhard took the opportunity to walk away – in the company of Raphael, who had followed him, being somewhat intrigued.  They had a long conversation, with the necessary clarifications and shaking of heads.  All this turned exiting until the moment when George had escaped the crowd of his admirers and arrived exhausted.

 

“Where have you been?” he asked.

 

“Oh, I was busy trying to find a restaurant and our friendly controller recommended a famous one to me”  

 

The lunch turned out very pleasant, on a shaded terrace.  The weather was wonderfully mild and favorable for dreaming, more so since some fresh rosé wine began to have its effect.  A siesta offered itself in the nearby reclining chairs.  The tourists calmed down and became less noisy, which permitted them to hear the concert of the cicadas. 

 

After this intermezzo, it was time to reach the station again, more so, since the ballet of the locomotives was to begin.  Number 413 directed itself toward the pile of coal to put in supplies, then was turned around on the depot carrousel and left again, to move to the head of its string of cars.  A few instances later, Number 403 – of green color – did the same.  Being already 4:00 pm, it was time to climb on board.  Gerhard and George selected the car with open platforms providing the appearance of an old express train.  The locomotive whistled and the convoy carefully started to move in a cloud of smoke and steam, which dispersed itself in the branches of the trees.

 

Raphael joined them and said that in 1876 Mr. Freycinet, then Minister of Public Works, had decided to provide France with a network of secondary lines, designated to serve the small towns that had been left out by the powerful Compagnies de Chemin de Fer, the French railway company.  The task was to open up the Haute-Loire, the so called Upper Loire region, and the Ardèche by providing them with an opening to the Rhone valley.  Therefore, three lines were built, the central connecting point of which, it was decided, became the village of “Cheylard” at 430 meter altitude.  But that was not the point of the highest elevation.  That one was found near St. Agrève – at 1,060 meters – on the other trunk of the planned line arriving from Dunières.  It was not uncommon in winter that the trains became involved and blocked by snow several meters high.  All traffic became thus suspended, in spite of all heroic efforts of the railroad workers.

 

The train had some famous travelers, such as:  Paul Valéry, Georges Courteline, and even Maurice Ravel.  Time passed, enlivened by some small incidents:  an encounter with a cow or an automobile, or some run-away railroad cars when improperly blocked.

 

The war of 1939-1945 had left the network exhausted because of lacking maintenance.  The Public Administration did not show any interest, the traffic of travelers and merchandise collapsed.  The deficit accumulated and the new motor bus companies using the roads became a formidable competition.  Consequently, on October 31, 1968, the entire network of rail lines was closed down.. 

 

But that did not take into account the courage and persistence of a small band of railroad enthusiasts, who decided to save whatever could be saved.  In this way the association “CFTM” was born, the seat of which is in Lyon and which operates the trunk-line “Tournon-Lamastre”.

 

One had already passed St. Jean de Muzols, the train slowed down, then came to a halt at the signal, which protects the main line with which it was now going to engage.  Green light!  The “Mallet” gently began to move.  The whole convoy screeched as it twisted through the switches.  Then came the last sprint of speed before entry into the Tournon station – “All passengers descend from the train” snuffled the loudspeaker.

 

Raphael got up first.  He invited the two new friends to do the same and follow him.  They pushed their way through the crowd that filled the platform and crossed the tracks in the direction of a large building.

 

The young man opened a door.  The three men walked in.  The light of the late day entered through some small openings.  Their eyes adjusted slowly.

 

Then, George turned around to George and, with a large theatrical movement of his hand, announced:  “I hereby present to you the motor coach of the Little Train of Provence story!”

 

Hey, yes!  That really was it, the blue and grey motor coach, not at all faded; repurchased from the Company of Spain, it was now entirely restored.  George recognized it.  After the great turmoil of 1944, he had traveled on it to Saint Tropez when he once had a short leave.

 

“Thank you”, George stammered as he shook the hand of Gerhard and Raphael, his eyes becoming misty from emotion.  He then put both hands on the chassis of the motor coach as if to tell it “I am so glad to have found you again”.

 

“Let’s go”, said the controller.  We should celebrate this event.  They left the building and turned toward the café of the station just at the moment when the sun was setting behind the hills of the Ardèche. 

 

 

Postscript

 

By now, Gerhard and George are too old to travel.  They correspond with each other by internet and web-cameras – and with Raphael, who is married by now – to a pretty traveler.  On winter evenings or during vacations, they tell their grandchildren the wonderful story of the “Voyage by Steam Engine”.

 

March 1, 2005

Pierre Decey