EuroVelo 8 in la Provence verte will, once it is completed, consist essentially of a converted railway line, the Train des Pignes de Central Var. The line ran from Meyrargues in the west, where it joined the then main line to Avignon and the north, to Draguignan, and then on to Nice in the east. A second Train des Pignes line, from Nice to Digne, still runs today.

Connecting south east France

The history of the railway line that now hosts EuroVelo 8 is relatively short. Conceived in 1886, and built between 1887 and 1890, the line lasted for little more than half a century.

However, the story really begins in 1860. In that year the county of Nice (Nizza), previously part of Piedmont in Italy, was annexed to France. As a result, the new department of Alpes Maritimes was created. But to do so, the authorities moved the eastern border of the department of Var from the river Var near Nice, westward to the river Siagne. 

Meanwhile, the railway line linking Paris to the south – Paris – Lyon – Marseille (PLM),  was extended east towards Nice. This followed the route still used today, hugging the coast from St. Raphael to Nice. In Ocotober 1864, the Nice section was opened, linking the city to Marseille and the north.

With the new line avoiding important towns like Brignoles, Draguignan and Grasse, Var’s elected representatives began to lobby for another line inland. The argument gained traction when the fragile coast line – the only rail connection between Nice and the rest of France – suffered a major setback. As a result of a severe storm, on 24th January 1872 the bridge over the river Brague between Antibes and Cagnes collapsed. Nice was again cut off from the rest of the country.

The Freycinet plan

The first concrete proposal for a railway line in Central Var was formulated in the so-called Freycinet plan, named after Charles De Freycinet, minister for Public Works, in 1879. This plan envisaged a line from Nice to Mirabeau, 16 kilometres north east of Meyrargues. But after a feasibility study was carried out in 1882/3, this was quickly changed to Meyrargues.

The project was finally born with the founding of the Compagnie des Chemin de Fer du Sud de la France (SF). This company started the search for investors on 29th October 1885. In a manner common in France at the time, shareholders were guaranteed a return of at least 5% on their investment by the state. Within months, the finance was in place, and work began on the line from Draguignan to Meyrargues on 8th July 1887.

Construction was relatively fast. A series of 11 companies were employed in parallel to clear the way for the line.  By April 1888, the first section of line between Draguignan and Salernes was able to open for commercial traffic, with 3 trains each day running in each direction. On August 27th of the same year, the line from Salernes to Barjols was opened, and on January 28th 1889 the final section to Meyrargues accepted passengers.

The line between Draguignan and Grasse was much more complicated. This would require 7 tunnels, and six crossings that involved viaducts higher than 10 metres. The biggest of these by far was the crossing of the river Siagne, which forms the border between the departments of Var and Alpes Maritimes today. Built by the celebrated engineer Gustave Eiffel, it was to reach a height of 72 metres at its highest point, at a cost of 536,000 francs. This section was finally opened on 8 November 1890.

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Construction of the viaduct over the river Siagne

Baron de Reinach

The line’s early years were dominated by a financial scandal known as the Affair of the Compagnie du Sud. It began with the suicide of the company board’s vice-president Baron de Reinach in November 1892. He had just been indicted in another scandal that rocked France at the time, the bankruptcy of the Panama Canal Company. This led to a collapse in Chemin de Fer du Sud de la France shares, and a government investigation into the internal management of the company. It revealed a catalogue of dubious practices, from speculation to embezzlement of large sums of money. The affair was finally put to bed at a trial in September 1895, where responsibility for the scandal was conveniently laid at the feet of the dead Baron.

Meanwhile, a very different figure took over the reins of the organisation. Engineer Georges Poulet was appointed in August of that year, and ran the company for the next 27 years. His lack of history in either politics or finance proved to be of great advantage during politically turbulent times.

War, instability, optimism

A glance at the line’s early timetables show an average speed not unlike the cyclist of today. The average journey time on the Meyrargues-Draguignan line in 1892 was 4 hours 25 minutes. Over most of its life, the line’s timetables hardly improved until the second world war, when improved rolling stock eventually reduced the travel time to 2 hours 45 minutes. Considering the state of the line at the time, an average speed of 36 km/h was quite an achievement.

The relative stability of the line in its early years was disrupted by the first world war. Both the loss of young workers in the killing fields, and the requisitioning of materials, bled the region of labour and equipment. Then in 1918 the Spanish flu epidemic further decimated the labour force. The daily service, which had been reduced to to two mixed (goods and passengers) trains per section during the war, couldn’t be increased due to lack of equipment. 

For the first time since its opening, the company increased fares in 1918. That, and the poor service, inevitably saw a drop in passenger numbers. As the company got into greater financial difficulties, in 1925 the Compagnie des Chemin de Fer du Sud de la France (SF) was wound up. A new agreement was signed with the state, and the Compagnie des Chemins de fer de la Provence (CP) was formed.

Despite these difficulties, the 1920’s was a decade of optimistic thinking and grand projects. There was even a plan to electrify and double the tracks. This was part of the project that envisaged a direct line from Avignon to Nice via Meyrargues, Barjols, Carcès and Les Arcs. By avoiding Marseille and much of the coast, this would shorten the distance between Paris and the Côte d’Azur. But these plans required substantial financial support from the state. This would not be forthcoming.

Meanwhile the decade brought a boom in goods traffic. Construction work on dams further north required regular supplies by rail. The work was carried out by German companies as part of the war reparations. At the same time the demand for bauxite was increasing, as aluminium became a vital metal for manufacture.

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The station at Lorgues

The crash of 1929

But the bubble was burst by the crash of 1929. Demand for materials plummeted, and with the high unemployment that followed, passenger numbers also declined rapidly. Trains on some sections of the line were often running empty. Stiff competition from an increasing number of bus services didn’t help either. From 1926 to 1933, traffic collapsed, with a drop of 63% for passengers and 85% for goods.

In the end, the private running of the line couldn’t continue and in July 1933 the company was put in the hands of the receiver and the state took over. This did bring brief benefits. A sharp reduction in goods traffic freed up trains from endless shunting in stations, offering passengers better journey times. In 1935 steam trains were replaced by Renault ABH type railcars. Journey times were further reduced as a result, and passenger interest was reignited. The last few years of peace were a good time for the line.

Occupation

It was the second world war that proved to be the catalyst that accelerated the demise of the line. As fuel shortages began to affect all means of transport, more and more the railways became the only way of getting around for most people. With foodstuffs restricted or difficult to find in the coastal cities, the railway offered a route to the hinterland and vegetables, wine, eggs, oil. 

But these same fuel problems beset the passenger services, which would change from week to week depending on availability. In the winter of 1941/2 two railcars were equipped with gas-powered units, running on wood and charcoal. Another was later equipped with a gas generator. But even these materials became difficult to obtain, and most of the trains were pulled by steam. Though of course coal was also in short supply. 

Despite these issues, timetables were maintained. But when southern France was occupied in November 1942, the occupying Italian army put limits on who could use the service. Then, when Italy capitulated in 1943, the Germans took over. The line was placed under the control of the German Reichsbahnamt, based in Nice and Marseille.

Of particular interest to them were the bauxite mines dotted along the line between Sillans-la-Cascade and Barjols. Bauxite was the raw material for aluminium and airplane production. In late 1943, the occupiers demanded a daily transport of 300 tons of bauxite, rising to 500 tons in the spring of 1944. But the quantity of ore passing through Meyrargues each day en route to the Ruhr was rarely more than 120 tons.

Technical difficulties beset the project. Steep gradients meant that convoys generally had to be divided up at Barjols. These would be transported to Esparron, to be reformed at this station for onward transport to Meyrargues. Moreover, there was an increasing reluctance amongst staff to collaborate on the project. The issue came to a head when Dr. Segin, the German overseeing rail transport in the region, sent a warning to the director, Alfred Chavelet :

“I therefore ask you once again to ensure without restriction that the transport of bauxite on your network does not give rise to any complaints in the future. Otherwise, I would be obliged to investigate each individual case and hold the culprits responsible”.

Resistance and liberation

From this time on, growing passive resistance amongst staff and active resistance and sabotage in the mines and on the railways would considerably slow the production and flow of bauxite ore. Numerous acts of sabotage along the line were recorded from the beginning of 1943 – an engine delivered to Draguignan in May 1943 rendered unusable by an explosive charge in the firebox, a railcar hit by two downed telephone poles between Entrecasteaux and Salernes in August, a sabotaged engine at the Meyrargues depot in November. 

Into 1944 the actions increased in number and intensity. Following the Normandy landings of the allies in June, resistance activity reached is high point. Engines were destroyed and goods seized. The occupying authorities retaliated with increasing brutality. The situation came to a head  on 15th August, when allied soldiers landed on the Provençal coast and American parachutists were dropped in the Draguignan area. José Banaudo described the events thus: 

That morning, the 101A Grasse – Draguignan railcar met the first American paratroopers at Fayence station and then continued on its way to the Var capital. A few hours later, all services were suspended on the entire network. The same day, Lorgues and Flayosc were liberated, followed on the 16th by Draguignan. From the 17th to the 19th, fighting raged in the area between Entrecasteaux and Meyrargues, where the railway suffered a great deal of damage: the track and the gatehouse between Pontevès and Barjols, two carriages in Barjols station, the points at the Camparoux junction, the Varages passenger building, the gatehouse between Artigues and Rians, the track in Jouques station and the gatehouse at the entrance to Meyrargues. In this station, which gave access to the Durance valley, violent artillery exchanges damaged all the installations: the buffet, the goods halls, the loading crane, the water tower and the machine depot, while parked cars had their windows smashed and the tracks were twisted by the tracks of the tanks.

Disaster, inflation, closure

But in amongst the euphoria of liberation, the Meyrargues-Nice line’s fate was sealed. As the German army retreated from American forces pushing east of Draguignan, on 24th August a small German commando unit set off explosive charges that destroyed three major structures on the line – the bridge over the river Siagne, the Loup viaduct and the Pascaressa viaduct near Tourrettes-sur-Loup.

Attempts to put into place some of the optimistic plans of the inter-war years – principally integration into the SNCF network, electrification and a fast line between Avignon and Nice via Barjols – were never acted upon due to the soaring cost of repair to the four destroyed viaducts (a fourth was damaged at La Manda). An initial estimate of 15 million francs in 1944 grew to 70 million in 1947 and 188 million in 1948, mainly due to inflation. At the same time road passenger transport resumed competitively on both price and journey times. And world demand for bauxite was proving unreliable. In 1948, the Ministry for Transport instructed the regional authorities to contact road hauliers with a view to creating a substitute service.

Locally, the move created an outcry of opposition. The Var Conseil General met in an extraordinary session, and a number of communes threatened to resign if the threat was carried through. A large union meeting took place at the Draguignan station buffet on 27 November 1949. But the central authorities were not to be moved. The closure of the line was set for January 2nd 1950. The next day, three coach lines were set up – Nice-Grasse, Grasse-Draguignan and Draguignan-Meyrargues – to replace the train services. The Meyrargues – Nice line was no more.

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Sources

There is considerable interest in the history of now closed railway lines, including the Central Var. Here are some of the more informative sources.

http://www.traindespignes.com

https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chemins_de_fer_de_Provence

https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compagnie_des_chemins_de_fer_du_Sud_de_la_France

https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ligne_Central-Var#cite_note-12

https://rogerfarnworth.com/

And most importantly the seminal work by José Banaudo, Le Siècle du Train des Pignes, Breil-sur-Roya 1992