UN P'TIT CALVA

by Andy Hart

[From SNCF Society Journal Numbers 120, Decemeber 2005 &
121, March 2006.]

Le Tacot is received colloquial French for any antique train or road vehicle ('old crock'). But in Hart family folklore LE Tacot was the 60-cm gauge railway that ran from Caen to the resorts of Ouistréham, Riva-Bella and points west on the coast of Calvados. My father rode on this when studying at Caen in the early 1930s. So, it subsequently transpired, did my mother-in-law, in similar circumstances but at a slightly later date. Dad's albums of the period contain lots of sepia 'daylight' contact prints of students striking silly poses in now-silly-looking bathing costumes - but sadly not of Le Tacot.

Ouistreham

Contemporary view of Ouistréham. Matelots with pompom hats mingle with the holidaymakers.
(Collection André Artur)

By that date, this line was the sole remnant of the longest 60-cm gauge system in France: 224 kilometres - two thirds of the total length of 60-cm secondaires in the whole of France.

The Loi Freycinet of 1880 had specified three gauges for minor railways: standard; one metre; and 750 mm. Only one system, in the Landes, was built to the latter gauge. Meanwhile, Paul Decauville and his associate Péchot were promoting the 60-cm gauge as a 'portable' system for military, industrial and 'colonial' use. A 3-km Decauville line was installed as a people-mover at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889, which is claimed to have carried 6,342,446 visitors in six months. The département of Calvados was planning a secondaire and Decauville (with the help of his family political connections) swayed it in favour of the 60-cm gauge. The first line was to link the plages to each other and to mainline railheads, and Decauville could point to the sea-front line his company had just opened at Royan; the success of the Festiniog Railway was also cited in the debate.

The Calvados system was opened in stages as follows:


Déclaration
d'utilité publique
Opened Closed
Luc-sur-Mer - Ouistréham 05/09/1891 15/08/1891* 1944
Ouistréham - Bénouville 05/09/1891 1892 1944
Bénouville - Dives 05/09/1891 1892 1932
Grandcamp - Isigny 05/09/1891 1892 1929
Bénouville - Caen St. Pierre 1895 1893* 1944
Grandcamp - St. Laurent-sur-Mer 1897 1900 1929
St. Laurent-sur-Mer - Mine de Littry 1897 1900 1929
Courseulles - Bayeux 1897 1899 1931
Ryes - Arromanches 1897 1899 1930
Bayeux - Port-en-Bessin 1897 1899 1932
Luc - Courseulles 1900 1900 1931
Caen St. Pierre - Caen-Gare (Ouest/Etat/SNCF) 1901 1904 1944
Bayeux - Balleroy 1899 1904 1930
Balleroy - La Besace 1899 1906 1930
Littry - Balleroy 1899 1904 1929
Caen-Gare - Potigny 1897 1902 1933
Potigny - Falaise-Château 1897 1902 1932
Falaise-Château - Falaise-Gare 1897 1904 1932
*This is not a misprint: opening of these lines was 'toléré' in advance of the déclaration d'utilité publique. Caen St. Pierre was at the corner of the dock basin (Bassin à Flot).

The Cahier de Charges specified the gauge, loading gauge width of 1.88 m. and height 2.80 m.; gradients of 30 mm/m (1 in 33); maximum train length 60 metres and speed 20 km/h. (both subsequently exceeded on many occasions!). Rails were to be 15 kg per metre, similar to many metre-gauge lines, though only the Caen-to-coast group of lines were built to this standard: heavier rails (18 or 20 kg) were substituted on all later construction. Track on these lines (often referred to as Caen - Dives - Luc; CDL) was upgraded in the 1930s, probably by re-using rail from lines already closed.

By the time Bénouville - Caen was opened, the Decauville company was having financial problems and decided to cease operating railways to concentrate on manufacture and supply. From August 1895, the Société Anonyme des Chemins de Fer du Calvados (part of the Empain Group) took over and all further lines were built under its banner. Although Decauville referred to the 'Tramway du Calvados', the new company was quite clear it was running a railway, no less. For example, its offering three classes of passenger accommodation was very unusual for a narrow-gauge system.

By far the majority of the track was in roadside locations, though there were a few deviations to avoid excessive gradients, particularly on the line to Falaise. From Caen to Ouistréham the route ran along the canal bank. At Bénouville the junction for Dives faced Ouistréham, the line crossing the canal and then the Orne on two swing bridges which already existed for road traffic. The second was 66.30 m long and rotated by hand, taking 12 minutes to open. This location was later to be known to the world as Pegasus Bridge. On one notorious occasion the driver of a train from Dives failed to see that the bridge was open and the locomotive fell into the gap, fortunately coming to rest on the river bank without serious damage or injury.

Swing Bridge

Blanc-Misseron 230 tram engine No 106 (nicely lined-out) crosses the swing bridge over the harbour lock at Courseulles. (Collection André Artur)

A special case was Luc-sur-Mer to Courseulles. The standard-gauge CF de Caen à la Mer (CM) had already (1876) reached Luc by a more direct route and then ran along the coast to Courseulles. Needing to link the two parts of its network, the CFC obtained authority to lay a third rail between Luc and Courseulles. This was to be used be trains 'in transit' only - that is, not stopping within this section. Nor must it accept freight at Caen for any intermediate stations; and tolls, amounting to more or less the total of receipts for traffic between these places, were levied by the CM. For these reasons, the CFC hardly used the mixed-gauge section except for transfer of stock.

Stations on the CDL and Grandcamp - Isigny were attractive little single-storey buildings in local style with timber framing (colombages) and overhanging gables (queue d'aronde). Halts had merely open shelters in this style. Many were later replaced by more substantial masonry structures. The lines from Bayeux to the coast had solidly-built stations with an upper storey reached by outside stairs at one end, and a lean-to at the other end. The inland lines, had undistinguished single-storey brick buildings with either hipped or ridge roofs.

Locomotives

Caen St Pierre

Caen St. Pierre, shortly after opening, showing one of the Mallets in front of the cottage-style station. Wires on the right belong to the town tramway; the gentleman with his back to the camera is standing on the tram track. (Collection André Artur)

Locomotives 1-7, used at the opening, were Decauville (actually built by Tubize) Mallet compound 0-4-4-0T, three of which had run at the Paris Exhibition and then served on the Tramway de Royan; and another four were supplied new. These machines deserve their place in history: they were the very first Mallet articulateds. Weighing but 12 tonnes in working order, they were the direct ancestors of the monstrous Mallets that were to run on US railroads.

Tram Engine

In a later view a train threads the streets of Grandcamp. 4-wheel van and coaches are headed by an unidentified tram engine. This is either an 0-6-0 T or 0-6-4T, both of which classes carried names but no numbers. (Collection André Artur)

The one Mallet allocated to Grandcamp - Isigny was insufficient for the then-isolated line, and a conventional 0-6-0T by Blanc-Misseron was delivered in 1895. Again, it was supplied through Decauville, originally fitted with skirts (quickly removed), and named Isigny but un-numbered.

Weidknecht 0-6-2T

The view of Cabourg includes one of the Weidknecht 0-6-2Ts, probably No 8, at the head of a three-coach train. (Collection André Artur)

No. 8 Ville de Caen was an 0-6-2T by Weidknecht (another Decauville sub-contractor), 1893. It was joined in 1908 by another of the same type, acquired second-hand. This became No. 7, taking the number of one of the Mallets which had been disposed of. Both were rebuilt in due course as 0-6-4Ts.

Weidknecht 230T

Lettered CFCN, Weidknecht 230T No 14 stands in the forecourt of Caen SNCF station in July 1939. The second coach is in an unrecorded livery (I guess green and cream). Behind it is the unique 'Exposition' saloon-bar carriage. (Collection André Artur)

The Weidknecht 14-tonne 4-6-0Ts, Nos. 9-14 (no names), built between 1902 and 1908, were the engines best remembered in connection with the CDL lines, as they remained in service until the final demise of the system. These were powerful engines for their size and could easily reach 45 km/h with a load of 20 bogie coaches on the straight sections along the canal-side.

On the Bayeux lines and Caen - Falaise, slightly heavier motive power could be used, and there were 21 Tubize and Blanc-Misseron tram engines. It looks as though the CFC couldn't make up its mind about the wheel arrangement, since it had 0-6-0T (6; 1899/1900), 0-6-4T (2; 1901)), 4-6-0T (10; 1902-9) and 0-6-2T (3; 1913). The weight varied between 19.15 t and 22.17 t, but otherwise their dimensions were virtually identical.

As is frequently the case, French publications say nothing about locomotive livery. My guess is that the base colour was mid green. The better photographs show panel lining with concave radiused corners, and edging in a darker green or possibly black. Certainly the 4-6-0Ts were thus turned out, and probably some of the tram engines also.

Passenger Vehicles

In 1925 the CFC took delivery of three Crochat four-wheel petrol-electric railcars with Aster 30-h.p. engines. Numbered AU 1-3, they were similar to the model then (and still) running on the Pithiviers - Toury, with the difference that they were motored on both axles and had driving cabs at each end. They seated only 13 (but 15 standing!) but could tow one or two trailing coaches. In the summer of 1925 (only), one of these was used to provide a service from Dives (dep, 08.48) to Arromanches (arr. 11.51) and return (17.10 / 21.38). This was the only occasion when a CFC timetabled service used the mixed-gauge section, though similar journeys were occasionally made as special excursions in succeeding years.

Weidknecht 0-6-2T

One of the bogie Crochat railcars trundles through Lion-sur-Mer some time in the 1930s. The few passengers are enjoying observation-car travel at the rear of the baladeusecoach. The timber station building is visible above the railcar. Note the borne Michelin in the foreground. (Collection André Artur)

In 1936, two bogie Crochat railcars (DC11 and DC12) were acquired from the Savoie lines. These were single-ended and turntables had to be adapted for them. They had 19 seats - deemed to be second class, whilst standees were carried as third class. Quite how this was enforced is not recorded! They could haul one or two trailers. One reached 60 km/h on test. They were re-sold to the Pithiviers - Toury before the Calvados lines closed.

Coaches for the CDL were all bogie stock. The closed vehicles had lengthways bench seating and oil lighting. Initially they were of varnished teak with brass lettering in relief; later painted green with first-class compartments in brick red. There were 1st/2nd (10 and 14 seats plus 6 standing on each end platform); 28-seat thirds; and 14-seat 2nd and 3rd/brake, each with a single end platform and some with a mail compartment. A unique vehicle known as the 'Voiture de l'Exposition de 1889' had four widely spaced windows on each side and a clerestory. It was divided into two compartments, one having individual red velvet armchairs and the other fitted as a bar (we said the CFC thought it was a real railway!). Later the bar was removed and it became a 1st/2nd-class railcar trailer (AB6). In WW2 it was 'reserved for occupying troops'.

There were also open baladeuses ('toastrack' coaches). The third class type KE had 48 transverse seats with no protection whatever - not even the striped curtains seen in pictures of the Exposition (and reproduced in Jouef's HOe model). Later these received glass end panels. The first or second class version had courtesy panels at the ends of the seats, which had more legroom. The semi-enclosed first/seconds had doors to the seating bays (30 seats) and oval, unglazed 'windows'.

Bicycle Van

One of the bicycle vans in a train at Ouistréham - well loaded with its designated cargo and substantial wicker hampers.
(Collection André Artur)

There were two bogie fourgons and two bicycle vans, which were in effect baladeuses without seats. Because of the large number of holidaymakers travelling, goods vans were often added to trains to carry excess baggage.

All the above vehicles were characteristic Decauville types. When it came to stocking the lines completed under its aegis, the CFC selected much more prosaic four-wheel coaches similar to metre-gauge vehicles. All were on a 2-metre wheelbase, 6 metres long overall and had 16 seats + 8 standing, irrespective of class. Fourgons were obtained by removing ten seats. They came as A (first), AB first/second), AD (first/fourgon), B (second), C (third) and CD (third/fourgon) - all enclosed; there were also open-sided versions of all classes with 24 seats. The latter at least had glazed ends, which wrapped round the sides for a short distance.

Goods Vehicles

Wagons of the Chemins de Fer du Calvados were classic two-axle low-sided opens and couverts, nominally of ten tonnes. When used on the lighter track of the CDL, however, they were restricted to 7 tonnes gross, instructions to this effect being marked on the wagon. There were a few bogie flats, and some unsprung, dumb-buffered ballast wagons. There were also two couverts surbaissés - long bogie vans with a dropped floor to make them more stable for carrying cows or horses (essential in Normandy); over the bogies were short open 'boxes' for general merchandise. However, experience proved that, with careful loading, livestock could satisfactorily be transported in the normal goods vans. Decauville did supply a substantial number of the couverts surbaissés to the army for carrying horses in Morocco.

For mineral traffic, the CFC had a fleet of 4-wheel, steel dropside wagons, known as wagons-coffres, both with and without brake huts (class M for métallique), and ten diamond-bogie wagons. Fifty more bogie wagons ordered for the Mines de Barbery in 1914 seem not to have been used, and may never even have been delivered. All rolling stock, passenger and goods, was fitted with continuous vacuum brakes.

Mention of mineral traffic reminds us that this part of Normandy is not just apple orchards and dairying: it had significant coal and ironstone deposits. Coal mines at Littry which had been worked since 1743 (!) were abandoned after a disastrous flood in 1880. The CFC must have lived in hopes of their (frequently proposed) reopening, but attempts came to nothing during its lifetime. Only in 1941 was an exploratory pit opened by the Société Métallurgique de Normandie, and serious production resumed in 1945, and then only for five years (there is now a mining museum on the site).

Much more productive were the iron-ore deposits between Caen and Falaise, to which the CFC laid a number of long sidings, notably at Barbery and from Potigny to Soumont, to remove the ore from the deep mines. It worked trains of ten wagons - 100 tonnes - up the line to Caen, but they had to be divided to get up some of the gradients. Around 1910, the blast furnace complex at Caen (Société des Hauts-Fourneaux de Caen, later Société Métallurgique de Normandie) was being developed, requiring 3000 tonnes of ore a day, and the company projected its own standard-gauge line. The CFC protested that it could handle the traffic - requiring thirty of those trains a day, running on the roadside and negotiating the streets of Caen - and offered to build a dedicated double-track line. It later thought better of its ideas, agreed instead to handle 25% of the traffic and accepted compensation for 'lost' revenue, which the SMN continued to pay even after the CFC line to Falaise had closed! The blast furnaces started up in 1917 and the SMN mineral line opened in full in 1920.

During WW1, despite being to the 'military' 60-cm gauge, the CFC suffered little from requisitioning of its stock, which it required for transporting numbers of refugees and casualties evacuated from the war zone to this more peaceful region, and services continued, albeit at reduced frequency. After the war, traffic picked up rapidly on the seaside lines of the CDL, but motor traffic cut into the viability of the other routes which closed one by one (see table in part 1) - even the branch from Bénouville to Dives. In some cases the owning company substituted its own buses, only to withdraw them too as unprofitable. In most cases, stock from closed lines was cut up on the spot, there being few public systems on the same gauge to which it could be offered second-hand.

The surviving line from Caen to Luc enjoyed an Indian summer. There was even a proposal to convert it to metre gauge and electrify it at 1500 V. In 1937 the département transferred its operation to the Société des Courriers Normands (primarily a bus company, which was still flourishing on the writer's first visit to Caen in 1951) which ran a summer-only service. Change of ownership was indicated by the simple expedient of adding an 'N' to the existing initials on the rolling stock!

Holidat Train

Showing the typical length of a holiday train in the 1930s, a Weidknecht 4-6-0T stands at the head of at least 15 vehicles at Riva Belle. However, the train appears to have only two passengers! (Collection the late André Lepage)

With the coming of statutory holidays with pay (congés payés, instituted by the Front Populaire government in 1936), traffic was phenomenal, with trains of 10-15 coaches - or up to 28 on special excursions! - setting off for the coast and causing hideous snarl-ups at the short passing loops and run-rounds.

At the start of WW2, an all-year-round service was reinstated with, typically, two return journeys on working days and one on dimanches et fêtes. The unplanned end came out of the blue. Some time around 1900 hours on 5 June 1944, the crew of Weidknecht No 10, having arrived at Luc-sur-Mer, put their charge 'to bed', leaving it ready to take out the 07.00 to Caen the following morning… For the CFCN, that day never came. General Eisenhower having other plans, its activities ceased forthwith.

In the weeks that followed D-Day, not only were the installations battered but the allied forces paved over the track, particularly along the coast road so essential to moving in supplies and reinforcements. Archive photographs and old film clips of the Invasion sometimes give tantalising glimpses of slim-gauge track. In correspondence in the Bulletin of the World War Two Railway Study Group (1994), R.C. Riley recalled visiting the 'Transportation Stores Depot' at Luc and seeing CFCN No 10, two bogie vans, a 4-wheel van, two 2nd-class coaches and two 3rd-class coaches (exact date not given)1.

Thus all trace of this intriguing railway vanished overnight? Well no, not quite…

For some flavour of what it must have been like to ride on the CFC, go to the Pithivers Museum. There they have constructed on WW1 wagon chassis representations of the baladeuse coaches and of the semi-open 1st/2nds with oval windows. There is also the original 4-wheel Crochat railcar.

At least until the 1980s, near Pegasus Bridge at Bénouville, beside a plinthed Churchill tank, there was an enigmatic length of 60-cm track, but it was not on the alignment of the line to Dives, so either it had been placed there as an undocumented memento, or the occupying forces had laid in a spur for their defensive purposes. Now the whole site has been subsumed into the Mémorial Pegasus, and the rails are no longer to be seen.

Sadly, from Caen to Ouistréham there seems to be no vestige of the pretty timbered station buildings, several of which had already been replaced by more solid structures in the lifetime of the railway - and of course massive rebuilding has taken place since. But take the D 514 westwards from Ouistréham and you are driving along the track of the CFC, and from Luc onwards, things get more interesting. Three stations from the mixed-gauge section are still standing. Built by the CM, they are recognisable as 'typical' French railway architecture. Luc-sur-Mer itself stands back from the coast road in a tree-lined square. It is now the Gendarmerie - with music school attached! In fact, this was not strictly a mixed-gauge station, as the CFC had its own timber shelter facing it. St. Aubin station stands on the loop road (on the railway alignment) avoiding the sea front. It is now a bus station and the ghost of the CM lives: the Bus Verts du Calvados carries the destination blind 'Caen Gare via Luc-sur-Mer'! The Tourist Office at Bernières-sur-Mer is the former station, a slightly more modest structure - standing but a few metres back from Juno Beach. The site of the CM terminus at Courseulles has apparently vanished beneath a modern residential development.

Beyond Courseulles, D 514 runs further inland than the CFC formation, which is in the rough ground close to the cliff edge. At a fork, just before the 'yellow' road (Michelin) climbs up towards St.VCôme, DV205 branches off to the left: this is back on the track. The stations of St.VCôme and Sommervieu both stand on the left of the road. They are of the 'outside staircase' pattern and in private hands. We did not find either of the stations at Ryes (one of them the junction for Arromanches). The terminus at Arromanches itself stands at the top of the hill on the west of the town, overlooking the remnants of Mulberry harbour; it is much added-to but still identifiable and serves as the bus terminus. Perhaps the most surprising survivor is in Bayeux. Facing the SNCF station (itself an unaltered Ouest three-box building) across the forecourt is another of the two-storey 'cottages', the staircase glazed-in, bearing the insignia of Les Bus Verts and Bybus (the Bayeux town company). Thus a day's reconnaissance - assisted by a family heirloom in the form of a 1926 Michelin map! - produced seven buildings. It is amazing to find them still standing, up to 75 years after the lines closed, and having been through the thick of one of the decisive battles of history. There may even be more to be found on the routes south-west from Bayeux, and to Port-en-Bessin and Isigny.

Monsieur Decauville surely proved his point that the 60-cm gauge was viable for an extensive public secondaire. The CFC certainly fared no worse than most metre-gauge intéret local railways, and a good deal better than some. However, with a loading gauge similar to that of metre-gauge lines and its trackwork, ultimately, as solidly built, it is doubtful whether in the end it worked out any cheaper.

1The British invasion forces made use of the standard-gauge CM and established a base at Luc - hence the well-known photograph of Barclay diesel shunters being unloaded from landing-craft on Juno beach.

References:

Les Petits Trains de Jadis - Ouest (Domengie/Le Cabri).
Chemins de Fer Régionaux et Urbains, Nos. 179/180/181 (1983/4) - Comprehensive articles by Jacques Chapuis.
Decauville, ce Nom qui fit le tour du Monde (Bailly/Amatteis).

My thanks for additional information to Keith Clingan and Walter Dendy, and to André Artur for once again opening his treasure-house of old postcards.

Weidknecht 230T

The former CM standard-gauge station at Luc-sur-Mer. (Andy Hart, 02/09/2005)

Weidknecht 230T

Bayeux CFC, now the Gare Routière - compare the architecture with the old view of Arromanches.
(Andy Hart, 02/09/2005)