The White Valley Train




Raphael paced back and forth on the platform of the railroad station of Chamonix in the French Alps.  In his blue uniform and with his white cap, one could almost have taken him for a naval officer.  As a matter of fact, only a few weeks ago he had become the head of this station when the former head had retired.  Raphael managed everything with a fist of steel, but one always combined with a human touch.  For this, he was appreciated by the employees. 


Raphael was unhappy and tried to hide his nervousness.  The train Z-821/822, expected from Martigny (Switzerland), was almost ten minutes late and he would not be able to let it continue in the direction of Vallorcine, its next destination, since that was a single-track connection.


To make matters worse, the weather was miserable; the night had been rainy mixed with some snow; the mountain tops had disappeared in the clouds and the temperature was quite low.  But all of that did not deter the many tourists who had come for their Easter vacation.  Some were muffled up, but others confronted the weather by walking around in short pants.


Raphael got ready to call the control service as soon as the nose of the red-and-white railcar appeared.  At that same moment, the clouds tore open and a brilliant sun came out.  So the afternoon had started well, after all.  A melody was heard from the public intercom service to introduce an announcement, followed by a soft feminine voice:  “Chamonix, we welcome you at Chamonix”.


Raphael rushed up to the train’s conductor to learn about the delay.  The reason was that an excessively large crowd at Buet Station had delayed the closing of the train’s doors there. 


He felt somebody approaching and quickly turned around.  That was certainly the one, just like his photo – a tall blond young man with small glasses, white trousers, and blue polo shirt – very “preppy”!  It was Hans, the grandson of Gerhard, whom he had almost forgotten a moment ago.  He had arrived from Switzerland for a vacation, enthusiastic about the invitation.  Hans cordially shook hands with Raphael and walked with him over to his office to issue the end-of service instructions.


They left the station.  Raphael had quickly changed.  Now he was dressed in sports clothes.  This made him appear less intimidating and also he would not risk being stopped by some travelers.


The terraces of the cafes had filled up and the Mont-Blanc Mountain chain had appeared in all its splendor.  He and Hans got into Raphael’s car and, through congested streets, took the direction of “Praz”, where Raphael’s parents lived.


Hans, who grew up in the flat region of Germany around Hamburg, was excited – even though he had been at Zermatt, Switzerland, with its Matterhorn.  Here, everything appeared more spacious to him!  As these impressions flowed through his mind, the car stopped in front of a large chalet called “The Edelweiss”.


They stepped into the entrance hall.  Clémence and Jacques readily greeted Hans, who was a little shy, and led him to the upper floor.  There, a large room with balcony offered a view on the spectacular “Aiguille du Midi” mountain.  One could barely discern the small cabins of the cable cars that dared to rise up its flank.  On certain days, one had to wait four hours in line, commented Jacques as he left the room, adding: “We invite you to come down to the living room at six o’clock.  We think that our son will walk with you over to the Tourist Office to have you registered”.


When Raphael and Hans returned to the chalet, they discovered “John” in the entrance hall talking to Jacques.  They did not realize how “He” had arrived!  Hitch-hiking?  This tall, husky, athletic young man with half-long brown hair, dressed in Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt emblazoned “Miami”, with a ravaging smile to let all girls faint, had arrived – directly from the USA – sent by his grandfather George. 


A wave of nostalgia rose up in Raphael as he remembered his own grandfather, Antoine, who had passed away too soon.  Raphael would so much have loved to reunite these veterans.  Jacques, his father, noticed this and urged them all toward the stairs, saying:  “let’s get together right away in the living room”.


There would be not a minute to lose, realized the young men.  Otherwise “we will not even get dessert”.  Certainly, that was a ridiculous thought!  


Just as Hans’s room had been all cleaned up, John’s room next door was quickly turned into a mess.  But, after all – and after a shower – he realized that he had to move on, since his new friend was already knocking at the balcony door to let him admire the scenery.  The mountaintops began to turn pink in the declining light of the day, their peaks sparkling like rubies – and then all faded as the sun as the sun dropped below the horizon.


With the punctuality of a station chief, Raphael came to interrupt their contemplation because his “old man” did not like to wait.  The three friends descended the stairs and rushed into the living room, at the same time as Clémence was entering from another door, causing a moment of surprise.


“But you stepped right out of my magazine” she said to John.


“Sorry, ma’am” muttered John, who had not yet mastered the subtleties of the French language.  He had worked as a model for various American brands of clothing and had just been hired by a famous French couturier – and now, by having changed his clothing, had completely changed his “look”.  Jacques, who had not followed, was left surprised.  He asked everyone to sit down in order to serve the champagne.


At this moment, the door opened without a sound.  The face of Raphael lit up, and “Isabella”, the “pretty traveler” entered.  Hans was struck – this was the hostess at the Tourist Office! – while John did not know how to behave confronted by that much charm.


“Photo” announced Clémence, and, before anyone could react, a flash lit up the room while simultaneously the cork of the champagne bottle escaped Jacque’s hands and sailed across the room. 


“To your health!” Champagne glasses were lifted and in an almost religious silence everybody dived with pleasure into the “wine of kings”.


The conversation began.  Jacques and Hans each pointed out the merits of the “Paris, St. Germain” soccer club and the “Bayern” of Munich.  A close match, ending zero-zero, had recently taken place between the clubs.


The ladies took John aside to discuss the question of clothing, because they hoped to extract some secrets from him concerning the next fashion for winter, but he was not up-to-date on the topic.  However, so as not to disappoint them, he suggested some ideas to them, which, by sheer luck, turned out to be correct later on.


Everyone moved to sit down in the grand dining room.  Clémence had shown exquisite taste in decoration.  Some perfumed candles threw a diffuse glimmer on the flower décor.  The lady of the house presided, with John on her right and Hans on her left.  Across from her were seated Isabelle, Jacques, and Raphael.


John felt like he was “floating on a cloud” of happiness.  This was his first trip to France and his opinion of the French – said to be “arrogant and not welcoming – began to change.  This pleased him all the more, since he had lost his mother whereas, now, it appeared that he had found her again a little in Clémence who emanated a certain radiance.


Jacques had brought ou a good bottle of “Chignin”, a wine from the Savoy region, which would have to be compared during the following days with one from the Moselle region and one from California.


The two young men had eyes only for Isabelle – so fine, so racy, and with a “look” to which Raphael had succumbed, which earned him a reproachful glance from the latter.


The dinner came to an end.  Now it was time to move to the living room for coffee and to become better acquainted with each other.


Hans was a student of the arts.  He had attended the “School of the Louvre” and had continued with an internship at the “Rijksmuseum”, in Amsterdam, but he planned to finish in Berlin.  He was aiming at an academic teaching career.  He also studied music or, better said, he had perfected himself in it, since he was naturally gifted in music.


Right away, he was urged to move to the piano.  He delved with virtuosity into “The Preludes” by Chopin and continued with “The Blue Danube” upon general demand.


John talked about his exploits in sports:  rock climbing, surfing, canyoning, and, as strange as that would appear to be, driving the steam locomotive of a tourist train, “Virginia City”, which went from that city to Gold Hill and back.  But he also had endless sessions of make-up and posing for the publishing companies.  Still, it was a pleasure, because, mainly, it paid well.  This allowed him the fulfillment of some dreams – as trips with friends to Los Angeles or, better, to Las Vegas where he had once made five thousand dollars in one evening at the slot machines.  In short, life was wonderful and he saw the best of it – in contrast to Hans, who was always a little concerned, wondering what the next day would bring.  


The embers were glowing in the fireplace, as if the fire had turned sleepy.  “Rak”, the dog, remained stretched out, motionless, at a safe distance since a malicious spark had once shot out and singed his snout.  Nobody paid any attention to him.  But with the arrival of the tray of coffee, Rak came forth.


“Look here!” said Jacques.  “If you want to strike a new friendship, this is the moment”. 

As a matter of fact, the dog presented himself in front of the two visitors, each of whom held a biscuit in their hand, and seized them delicately.


“Alright” said the old man.  “You know that you have important things to accomplish yet.  Raphael will be your guide, since he has taken several days of vacation for that.  You can ski, climb, take the cable car – but don’t forget the most important task.  Now, before going to sleep, we will send the photos taken before dinner by internet to your respective grandfathers!”


Clémence and Isabella had already “taken leave”.


The bell from the church sounded eleven.  It was late.


From their balcony, the two young men saw the sparkling lights of the village.

In the distance, they could observe the lights of a train – the last train of the evening.


The moon played hide-and seek with the clouds.  The spruce trees stood as motionless guards.


The barking of a dog interrupted the stillness of the valley – then all became silent.


The mountains had disappeared.  The night had dissolved them.



(End of the First Part, September 5, 2005, Pierre  DECEY, Cannes, France)


The White Valley Train – Continuation – 2nd Part


The train had left the Chamonix station and rapidly gained speed.

The conductor had left the controls to Hans, with Raphaël at his side.

The train had crossed over the Arve river and followed a bend when, further on, straight ahead, right on a level crossing, a truck was stuck!

The conductor immediately hit the brakes by throwing himself onto the brake lever, but the train did not react – quite the opposite occurred, the train accelerated.

Hans pushed the emergency brake button, without success.

In desperation, he looked for support from the conductor and Raphaël, but those had disappeared and the truck came ever closer:  100 feet, 30 feet, the crash was inevitable, 6 feet, 

…  Hans screamed and suddenly woke up.


Total silence reigned in the chalet.

The moon had set, the fading night let the mountains appear again, one by one the stars were extinguished, dawn rose and let all fears disappear, … but why?


An hour later, Hans descended the stairs, entered the dining room where he found John and Raphaël, the latter in the middle of explaining the historic background of the construction of the Chamonix - St. Gervais - Le Fayet railroad line. 

Before 1860, the Savoy region belonged to Sardinia (neither Italien nor French).

The prime minister of the Piémont region, Cavour, and the emperor Napoleon III visualized constructing a railroad line following the valley of the Maurienne, neglecting the Val d’Aosta

Then came the attachment of the Savoy to France – and the French defeat at Sedan in 1870 (in the French-German war).  The end of the French Empire resulted and the appearance of the 3rd Republic.  Now, a minister, Mr. De Freycinet, took the initiative to establish a secondary railroad network in France.

The great Paris-Lyon-Mediterranean Company was charged to present a study.  It quickly realized that the very expensive construction required numerous tunnels, difficult terraces, and that one should prefer a much less expensive narrow gauge railroad.  


The engineers suggested the usage of cog-rails for ramps exceeding 25 per mille inclination and to use electric traction.  After long hesitation, the construction started only in 1899.  At the same time, in neighboring Switzerland one visualized a narrow gauge line from Martigny to the Châtelard region and on to the French border at Vallorcine.


“Actually, what I reported here launched Hans.  We should talk in more detail about it at another time” said Raphaël.

“But we were the pioneers”, said John, “because, already in 1888, we established a cog-rail tram between Pittsburgh and St. Clair!”


The PLM Company was not happy to have been forced to build that line, foreseeing weak traffic and difficulty to operate in winter.  Therefore, it obtained the right to suspend all service in winter, to limit the number of trains operating, and, mainly, to double the price of the tickets.

The line was equipped with a side rail to conduct the electricity – as for some subways.  This was considered a less costly solution than the overhead lines – but, later, presented maintenance problems for the main tracks.  It also required snow removal on account of risks for short-circuits – or even electrocution at those 550 volts – later increased to 800 volts.  


“Alright”, said Raphaël, “let’s move outside!  I have something interesting to show you!  We can resume the history of the construction of the line at a later time!”

The three men left quickly and went toward the railroad station.

In passing, they entered “Chez Ginette” to have some coffee.  At their appearance, that lady left the drink she was just enjoying. 

“Good morning, gentlemen!”,s he said as she came forward with a roll.  “Ah, Raphaël, let me meet your friends!”

Ginette was a short brunette with a volcanic temperament, a descendent from Vulcano, in Italy.

John remarked that several of the mirrors were cracked, but did not say a word.

They could not pay for the coffee, which had been offered by the lady owner.

The three men left the coffee shop.  They were only a few steps from the railroad station.


They quickly walked through the large reception hall of the building to buy their tickets.

On track 2 was stationed the historic blue and white train: the motor coach followed by 5 small passenger wagons, provided with external open-air platforms.  One could call it a toy for big children!



“Here you see”, continued Raphaël with the conversation.  “That was the standard configuration”.

But to run a line where the inclinations reach up to 90 per mille (equivalent to 9 % for a road), an engineer had decided to turn each wagon into a motor coach by mounting those directly on the chassis of each wagon, all controlled by the motor coach situated at the head of the train.

This way, a maximum speed of 40 km/hr could be attained thanks to the motors, each at 65 hp.  

Upon descending, things worked differently.  One needed several brakes.  One of those was a security brake with a claw which reached around a central rail.

All used satisfactory material and was quickly ordered.

The, in 1908, the connection was established at Vallorcine with the Suisse line arriving from Martigny.


Raphaël stopped to present Marc, the chief of the train, and the conductor Matthieu.

Finally, the railroad affectionados appeared and the tourists with some well known locals.

It was quite exceptional to see a historic train restored, which was going to leave for St Gervais in just a few minutes – following the regular train consisting of a panoramic train of the Z 800 series. 


“We still have a few minutes”, said Raphaël.

One must know that prior to the construction of this line, it was a real adventure expedition by horse- or mule-drawn carriage to the village of Cluses, to catch the train that had left Genève at 8:00 am to arrive at Chamonix at about 3:00 pm, without counting the surprises of the road, since automobiles did not exist in that era yet.


A commanding whistle by Marc invited all travelers to mount the wagons.

The three friends took their seats in the motor coach, next to the conductor, Raphaël following a little behind. 

Matthieu unlocked the brakes and put the traction lever into action.

The train convoy began slowly to move and began the swaying and clicking on the exit switches.

Another short whistle for the workers on the tracks and one reached a speed of 32 km/hr.

“Well”, thought Hans, “ that is ten times less speedy than the TGV or the ICE, but also that much more enjoyable”, as so much fresh morning air entered by the door which had been left open.  The sun greeted them from a sky without any clouds.


The tracks were good and the old material performed honorably at the rhythm of its tac-tac at the rail joints.

The train leaned in the bend to reach the straight section.

Suddenly, Hans turned pale.  Right on the level crossing, the truck … and he vanished. –   


                                             *             *             *             *             *

                                                                                                                                       (End of the 2nd part)


24 Novembre 2009

Pierre      DECEY