These days, it only takes around three hours to get from Paris to Marseille. All you need to do is hop on the TGB at the Gare de Lyon, in the south of the capital, and you’re away. You’ll find yourself at the top of the monumental stairway in the Marseillais station of Saint-Charles in no time at all. But obviously, it hasn’t always been so easy. Far from it. This famous line, whose huge popularity has sparked interest among several French railway firms, isn’t the first to link the City of Light with the southern French metropolis. In the nineteenth century, a huge railway was built through the Massif Central with this goal in mind. It remained an alternative to the TGV for a while, and included a section that was famous both for the technical prowess that went into building it and the beauty of the surrounding scenery: the Cévennes line. We’ll be jumping on board that route today.
Picture the scene. You’ve got a little bit of time to spare before meeting your family down south, so you’ve opted to climb aboard a train linking Clermont-Ferrand, in the Puy-de-Dôme department, with Nîmes, in the Gard. Instead of offering a straight, flat journey, this line moves through landscapes almost entirely deserted by men, roads and cars. Between Langeac and Alès, it passes through deep gorges, pierces rocky mountains, spans waterways and winds through small villages that feel like they’ve been asleep for decades. At Bastide-Puylaurent, it reaches a height of 1,023 metres up, before plunging 825 metres down on a 45-kilometre route through the Cévennes.
Running along the route from Saint-Germain-des-Fossés to Nîmes-Courbessac, the Cévennes line offers a truly magnificent itinerary, albeit one that’s rather challenging. Why did the workers behind this project choose to build a railway in such a hostile environment? Well, the answer is simple: it’s the shortest route. And at the time, even if the technical means were limited, people sure were ambitious. Because while the political situation in nineteenth-century France was particularly volatile, the railway network was in its boom period, with new railway companies and captains of industry both vying to snap up new lines. This is the context in which the Cévennes line was born.
It was built in several stages during the 1860s, involving some 6,000 to 7,000 workers, who had to hack away at particularly stubborn granite and basalt. They climbed down into inaccessible gorges using harnesses to build a railway in a place where nothing had ever been built before. In the Allier gorges alone, they built 200,000 square metres of support walls between five and 25 metres high. As for the engineers, they did everything to overcome the obstacles that nature had put before them. It was a different time: a time when human beings saw the environment as something that should be conquered; an object to be dominated and appropriated. In total, more than 171 separate works took place along the Cévennes line, including the two curved viaducts of Chapeauroux and Chamborigaud, which stretched out over 433 and 409 metres respectively.
As should be clear by now, the construction of this line was an epic feat of engineering, and is today considered one of the great infrastructure achievements of the Second Empire. As several archives make clear, however, its completion slipped relatively under the radar. And things didn’t really improve with time, as despite the splendour of the journey and its use in transporting meat, coal and wood, it struggled to reach profitability.
But in 1955, things headed in a very different direction. On top of the regular services that were still running, another train called Le Cévenol was launched.This was not intended to transport freight, but rather to allow those on board to take in the majesty of the Allier, Puy-de-Dôme, Haute-Loire, Ardèche, Lozère and Gard regions. In subsequent decades, the rolling stock of the Cévenol evolved, becoming more ‘panoramic’ so as to improve the experience for travellers. Over time, it became less of an obvious alternative to the TGV. From 2007, its route was reduced to just Clermont-Ferrand-Nîmes, to the great displeasure of slow-travel aficionados. Thus, in a little under a century, fast-developing railway technology had transformed what was initially an epic human undertaking into a tourist attraction that doubled up as a TER (regional train service). Everyone will have their own view about whether this was for good or bad.