How a small French town revived a historic train

A unique railway experience

As you know, here at Midnight Weekly, we love telling you tales from the rich and diverse history of the railways, like the astonishing itinerary of the Red Lizard in Tunisia or the secret train leading to a space base in the middle of the Gobi desert. However, sometimes you don’t need to travel far to discover such marvels. This week, we’ll be staying in France, and more specifically the small city of Richelieu, in the Centre-Val de Loire region, founded by the famous cardinal of the same name during the early seventeenth century. Here, an early-twentieth-century Autorail (a French word for a single powered railcar) called La Richelaise was revived.

To understand the story of the Richelaise, you have to go back a bit. A few years after the end of World War II, during which certain railway workers were rewarded for their acts of resistance and sabotage against the Nazi regime. With France struggling in its post-war recovery, several secondary lines had remained shut since the nationalisation of SNCF in 1938. This was the case for the Richelieu/Ligré-Rivière line, which because of lack of profitability, was replaced by road. Locals were unhappy with this decision and the Commission des Cadres Militants de la Fédération Nationale des Cheminots fought for the reopening of this railway, which belonged to the Compagnie des Chemins de Fer Départementaux. And they won. It was an important victory for local democracy.

Although adored by passengers, this 15.6-kilometre line was little used. For the railway to function properly, a new vehicle adapted to its needs was required: something cheap, light and easy to maintain. Following the creation of two prototypes – the X8011 known as La Touraine and the X8012 known as L’Aveyron – they end up with the X8013. La Richelaise was born. It weighs 12 tonnes and measures 12 metres long, three metres wide and 3.5 metres high.

As for the design, La Richelaise has all the period charm you’d expect. Its crude lines and the driver’s cabin that resembles a tank turret give the service a rather martial feel. But no one would expect it to be a work of art; rather, people should be keen that it travel at little cost for as long as possible. Which was essentially the case, because its diesel motor, a Panhard 4HL 80 CV propelled the train at 65 kilometres/hour, consuming fuel at 18 litres per 100 kilometres. It could carry 32 seated passengers and 25 standing. In short, La Richelaise is a beautiful machine, one that’s so well maintained that it seems almost indestructible.

Even more economically, the Autorail could function with a single staff member selling tickets, checking them and manning the engine. This formula lasts until 1960, the date when the service closes once again, probably because there were too few passengers (or due to a local political decision that we haven’t found any trace of). So La Richelaise was left at Richelieu station, where it sits idle for many years. It is sometimes used by artists, photographers or film directors for various artistic needs. But essentially, it doesn‘t have much purpose. It only really travels in the memories of Richelieu locals.

They in fact had to wait until 2015 or 2016 before La Richelaise story took a new, exciting direction. At the time, a 20-kilometre cycling lane between Richelieu and Chinon was about to launch along the railway route. It was the perfect opportunity to relaunch La Richelaise. After a study led by an expert from the country’s culture ministry then a callout for offers, the Autorail was handed to the Compagnie Internationale des Trains Express à Vapeur, in Saint-Jean-du-Gard. Nine months later, La Richelaise set off anew in the south of France. From the electrical system to the seats and windows, everything was meticulously refurbished. And at a total cost of €113 000, financed equally by the French state through the Direction Régionale des Affaires Culturelles and the Indre-et-Loire department, which La Richelaise belonged to.

But it wasn’t really going to set off. In fact, its (probable) final home was behind glass in the building next door to Richelieu (itself newly renovated). La Richelaise was thus inaugurated on October 23 2022 in front of a large and diverse crowd: former passengers, railway buffs and even the grandson of a former driver. The X8013 was no longer going to make any journeys (or very rarely), but each time someone passed along the cycle route, they’d now be reminded that trains have been pioneers of local, sustainable transport for a long time. Even when they’ve been put to bed.

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