24 hours in Northern France – 19th/20th October 2014

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67481 at Boulogne Ville, 19/10/14 (JW)

On a Sunday in October 2014 I made a flying visit to Northern France, to spend a little bit of time travelling around the Paris area behind a small variety of electric loco classes and then enjoy some time with the BB67400 diesel-electrics on the route between Amiens and Boulogne.

In hindsight it was probably a silly thing to do – I spent the Saturday travelling from home to the Downpatrick & County Down Railway in Northern Ireland for their diesel gala, before returning home for a few hours sleep, then out to Birmingham airport at the crack of dawn on Sunday to catch the 06:25 flight to Paris.  The plan was then to spend the Sunday night in a hotel in Boulogne, before waking up on Monday in time to catch the 05:01 to Paris, a quick connection out to the airport for the plane back to Birmingham, home to get changed, then into work for a late shift.

Phew!

Ticket-wise, I would be using the last bit of a FIP coupon that I had lying around, which in truth had more to do with my decision to make the train than the traction on offer.  However, I was to have an enjoyable little adventure.

7613 at Chaville Rive Gauche, 19/10/14.  (JW)

My plane landed at Paris Charles de Gaulle on time, but after a journey on the bus and the transit, a long queue at passport control and then a long walk through the airport complex, I wasn’t on the move on my RER until 09:37.

Another factor that didn’t help – which may be worth knowing if you’re considering using rail staff travel privileges over there – is that there is nothing on a FIP coupon that opens the unmanned ticket barriers on the RER.  As I had a bit of time in hand, I sought out someone from the booking office to help me, but if you’re in a rush, you may not have that option.  Something to bear in mind.

27303 departs Bellevue, 19/10/14.  (JW)

Anyway, I was off, rattling towards the city centre.  The RER, or “Réseau Express Régional”, is Paris’s overground rapid transit system – effectively, something that sits between its Metro and its bona fide suburban trains.  It serves routes radiating from the capital, however, rather than terminating in any of the numerous termini that grace the city, it burrows underground, providing a viable alternative to the Metro for inner-city journeys as well as cross-city travel options.  It is very much a product of the 1970s and 1980s, and very much has the look and feel of that era, and this extends to the trains on this route – Z8100 type EMUs from the early 1980s that show their age even after refurbishment.

Much like London, Paris has a large number of termini – seven, in fact; Nord, Est, Lyon, Bercy, Austerlitz, Montparnasse and St Lazare.  Rather than make a beeline for one of these, I was to make a cross-city journey – changing from one RER line to another at St Michel-Notre Dame amongst all the tourists, then passing almost directly beneath the Eiffel Tower on a run out into the suburbs to the station of Viroflay Rive Gauche.

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8588 and 27313, Paris Montparnasse, 19/10/14.  (JW)

Here, the RER meets the route out of Montparnasse.  The 10-mile section out of the terminus as far as Versailles Chantiers has nine stations and a frequent loco-hauled service of stopping trains, so quite a few “lines in the book” can be achieved in a fairly short time (admittedly, none of them for much mileage!).

Three of the stations on this section of line have the suffix “Rive Gauche”; this translates to “Left Bank”; the towns in question also have stations on another line which have the suffix “Rive Droite”… “Right Bank”, predictably!  However, intriguingly, there is no river between them, and if viewed on a map, “Left” and “Right” are the wrong way round.  The reason is that the “Rive Gauche” stations are on the route into Montparnasse terminus, which is on the left bank of the River Seine in Paris, whereas route with the “Rive Droite” stations runs into St Lazare, on the right bank of the Seine.  Just a bit of trivia for you, in case you were wondering!

7613 snakes into Versailles Chantiers, 19/10/14.  (JW)

My targets were the stopping trains from Montparnasse to Mantes la Jolie, Rambouillet and Plaisir Grignon.  These run at a 15-minute frequency in both directions and are of double-deck stock worked in push-pull mode and powered by electric locos of classes BB7600 and BB27300.

The 14-strong fleet of BB7600s actually replaced EMUs on these workings, entering traffic about four years ago.  However, they are locos of some vintage – being built in the early 1980s as class BB7200 and converted  – one of a number of classes to benefit from the truly classic design of Paul Arzens, being nicknamed “nez cassés” (“broken noses”) due to the cab shape.  These are 1500 v d.c. machines, and therefore can only work the services to Rambouillet and Plaisir-Grignon – the route beyond the latter to Mantes le Jolie is wired at a different voltage.

The BB27300s are far more modern locos – 67 Alstom “Primas” built between 2005 and 2010.  These are used on commuter traffic out of both Montparnasse and St Lazare stations.  They are dual-voltage, being able to work on 1500 v d.c. and 25000 v a.c., and therefore these work all of the Mantes la Jolie services as well as some of the short workings to Plaisir-Grignon and some of those to Rambouillet.

Both classes are expected to disappear from this work in the next few years as new EMUs enter traffic – the BB7600s withdrawn and the BB27300s cascaded to freight work.

8588 departs Versailles Chantiers, 19/10/14.  (JW)

In 50 minutes or so, and without breaking a sweat, I succeeded in travelling behind 5 locos (2 x BB7600 and 3 x BB27300), but made sure that I was at Montparnasse in time to cover two trains of particular interest.  These were both semi-fasts – the 12:09 to Chartres, which could be caught to its first stop of Versailles Chantiers and then, after a 15-minute wait, the 12:38 return (11:34 ex-Chartres).  Both were booked for BB8500 power – elderly (1964-1974 vintage) d.c. electric locos – and both duly produced (8588 outwards for 8620 return).  These have sadly now been superseded on these trains by modern multiple units, and I expect the charge back through the suburbs into Montparnasse with 8620 will transpire to my last ever run with one.

I should also point out that, although this trip obviously preceded the horrendous multiple terror attacks in Paris of 13th November 2015, the security situation was still tense.  Despite this, I experienced absolutely no trouble whatsoever taking photographs and video of trains, and the only times that railway staff engaged me in conversation were to have a friendly chat about the trains.

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8620 on arrival at Paris Montparnasse, 19/10/2014.  (JW)

After that, it was a swift journey on Metro Line 4 up to Gare du Nord, at which point I was going to shut the book on short-distance “ned leaps” and settle in for a 157-mile journey to the seaside (and, indeed, within 30 miles of England).  Diesel haulage opportunities in France lessen with every timetable change, but the unelectrified route between Amiens and the fishing town of Boulogne retains loco haulage on the through trains to and from Paris, with generally four locos of class BB67400 in use at any one time.  These machines were built between 1969 and 1975 and have 16-cylinder Pielstick power units.

I devised a “move” that would easily provide haulage behind all four locos with relative ease.  I boarded train 2013, the 14:04 from Paris, which was powered by a BB22200 electric – another type built to the “nez cassé” cab design – which whisked us north to Amiens in a very capable workmanlike fashion.  Here it was swapped for the first diesel of the day, BB67604, which took us forward to journey’s end; Boulogne Ville.

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BB22228 at Paris Nord, 19/10/14.  (JW)

There was no time to look around, however, as BB67481 was sat on another rake of stock ready to depart back to Paris in less than 10 minutes.  I took some quick photos and dived back on, this time for the 48-mile journey back as far as Abbeville.

67481 departs Abbeville, 19/10/14.  (JW)

I had about 40 minutes to kill at Abbeville before another BB67400 would arrive heading back to Boulogne, so I took the opportunity for a wander around the pretty town before getting back to the station in time for BB67455’s arrival.  This train was taken for three stops back towards the coast – to Rang du Fliers Verton Berck.

67455 departs Rang du Fliers Verton Berck, 19/10/14.  (JW)

There was nothing of note to see or do here; just as well, therefore, that I didn’t have long to wait before my loco from earlier – BB67604 – arrived to take me back to Abbeville.  I’d enjoyed my stop in the town earlier, however in the dark and with much less activity, my second visit was not so exciting.  However, the peace was briefly shattered by a freight train heading through towards Amiens, which turned out to be hauled by ex-EWS Class 66 no.66228 – you can’t get away from them!

My last train of the day arrived with BB67606 at the sharp end, which took me back to Boulogne Ville with no hassle.  After a few photos, I elected to make a quick exit to my hotel (the Ibis Budget, not too far from the station), as my alarm clock would be going off at 04:00.  The hotel was a bizarre experience; Ibis Budgets do not have out-of-hours reception staff – check-in being done by the guest on machines in the lobby, and access to the room being by a key code – so I arrived at the hotel to see no one, saw no one during my stay, and departed on the Monday morning still having not seen a soul!

66228 passes Abbeville, 19/10/14.  (JW)

As booked, BB67455 was sat at the head of my train, the 05:01 to Paris Gare du Nord, and as I said in the introduction, my plan was to do this to the blocks (swapping the diesel for another BB22200 at Amiens), for the RER out to Charles de Gaulle in time to catch my flight back to Birmingham at 09:50.

This was the third morning on the trot that my alarm had gone off before 04:00 (at odds with the shifts I was on at work) so it was no surprise that once in the warm of the front coach behind BB67455, I quickly nodded off.  I stirred at Amiens, and was vaguely aware of the train filling up with commuters and also that the loco change seemed to be dragging its heels, but I was soon back asleep.

I then woke to find us crawling along in some woods at around 5mph… looking at my watch, we were already meant to be in Paris!  This wasn’t good, as the distinctly rural view outside the window was a fairly clear indication that we weren’t close to arriving!  The BB22200 quickly wound the train back up to line speed, though, and we drew to a halt at Gare du Nord at 08:14 – four minutes before the last RER that would reliably get me to the airport was due to depart from the low level platforms!

67606 arrives at Abbeville, 19/10/14 (JW)

After a run through the crush of morning rush hour commuters that Usain Bolt would have been proud of, I found myself back at the barriers to get into the RER and with no way of opening them (although, I stress, with a ticket valid for travel on the trains!).  With time ticking away, I was forced to “double-up” behind another passenger, and made it onto the platform just as the airport train rushed out of the tunnel into the platform!  There was more stress than I would have liked though!

I would certainly recommend a day on the BB67400s on the Amiens to Boulogne Ville route while the opportunity is still there.  Whilst not the noisiest, the locos do have style and character, the trains are of considerable loads (generally load 10 in season) and it is a pleasant line on which to travel.

I would also recommend some time spent on the loco-hauled suburban trains out of Paris Montparnasse.  Loco haulage on such routes (high-frequency services, stations close together) is not so easy to find these days, and whether your intention is to travel behind as many locos as possible, to photograph loco-hauled trains running to an intensive timetable, or purely to experience a railway operation that will be a thing of the past in the not too distant future, you could certainly do worse!

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