Les Chémins de Fer Économiques

The Société Générale des Chemins de Fer Économiques (SE) was the grand title of a company that ran the metre gauge railways round the Somme estuary in Northern France. After the standard gauge Chémin de Fer du Nord (shortly called the 'Nord') ran a branch on pilings across the water from Noyelles-sur-Mer to the small port of St-Valéry-sur Somme back in 1858, the way was prepared for a metre gauge railway. The French metre gauge was created by the Migneret Act of 1860 and its successors, very similar to the Light Railway Act in Britain. This was aimed at providing inexpensive railways to develop rural areas. Thus, in the Somme Estuary area a network of lines was constructed linking Noyelles to St-Valéry (on a mixed gauge route), continuing to Cayeux on the coast, Noyelles to Le Crotoy on the north shore of the estuary, and finally a link to the Abbeville-Dompierre line in the interior. The first (Noyelles-Cayeux) section was opened in 1887. The line ran an important local service for years, and the two routes from Noyelles along the coast survived the Second World War, introducing diesel power (railcars and locomotives) in the 1950s. Eventually the line to Le Crotoy closed in 1969 and the one to Cayeux in 1972. This signalled the start of a preservation movement which resulted in the present-day Chémin de Fer de la Baie de Somme (CFBS).

A day on the CFBS

On the 1st of May, 2007, I rose early to drive from the Dieppe area where we were on a short holiday, up the coast to St-Valéry and catch the morning train to Noyelles and Le Crotoy. This was an all-steam day on the CFBS, with trains running between Noyelles and St-Valéry and Noyelles and Le Crotoy. The Cayeux line beyond St-Valéry is only worked by diesel as indicated by the timetable published on the CFBS website, and isn't worked on steam days. The attraction of the steam days service is the double departure from Noyelles at 4pm, so I was lucky to be there at the right time.

Arriving at St-Valéry, I was just in time to watch the 2-6-0T Aisne reverse her train to the quay terminus. Aisne comes from the metre gauge railway in the similarly named area between the towns of Soissons and Rethel. This loco was built by Corpet & Louvet in 1906 and beautifully restored in 2002-2006. The train first ran across the mud flats to Noyelles-sur-Mer, where the loco was watered and run round the train for the trip to Le Crotoy. This incessant reversing at Noyelles makes for very interesting operation, especially when two trains are in the station just before the 4pm departure. After departing from Noyelles the run down to Le Crotoy is through pleasing countryside.

2-6-0T no.1 Aisne on the quay in St-Valéry, ready to depart to Noyelles.

The impressive track layout at Noyelles which is in the forecourt of the SNCF (ex-Nord) station.

Along the line between Noyelles and Le Crotoy.

The loco shed at Le Crotoy, with Aisne running round her train and the unique no.2 (ex Puerto Rico) raising steam.

The Allan motion on no.2...

…and spring balance valves on the dome!

Squat but very balanced lines.

Aisne ready to go, with the eternal chuffing of the Westinghouse air pump exhausting into the chimney.

Aisne taking water at Noyelles, just short of the turntable.

At Le Crotoy the terminus is just below a huge concrete water tower. Here a small wooden loco shed houses one steam loco which works from this end of the line. In this case the recently restored no.2 was outside the shed raising steam. No.2 has a chequered history, having been built by Cail in 1889 to work on the first Panama Canal project by Ferdinand de Lesseps, who also built the Suez Canal. This project failed after a few years and no. 2, together with her sisters, was sold off to the new Ferrocarriles de Puerto Rico (FCPR). The loco, though of typical French construction, was fitted with a huge cowcatcher and a loud hooter whistle, and ran on the FCPR for a few decades. Puerto Rico was annexed by the USA in 1898 and after being pensioned off in 1929 the locomotive ended up in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. The museum sold this non-American locomotive to a local bank in 1977, and it was re-sold to the CFBS in 1994. Here it was restored to its present state, being put back to work in 2003.

The headshunt continues into this beautiful turntable.

A rake of vans at St-Valéry Canal, the works yard.

One of the carriages lettered 'PLM'.

More 4-wheel and bogie carriages, back at St-Valéry harbour station.

This carriage bears a number plate of the SE company and the word 'Somme'.

St-Valéry (Ville) has some mixed gauge track remaining from earlier days. This is one type of mixed gauge point.

A rake of bogie carriages on the Cayeux line.

After running round and some shunting to exchange the train for a different rake of stock, no.1 backed on and I returned to Noyelles, seated in a beautifully restored bogie coach with varnished matchboard sides lettered 'PLM'. This must have come from a line which was operated by the Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée. At Noyelles the loco was watered again, making a fine sight in the metre gauge station which is situated in the SNCF station forecourt. The wide low platforms somehow conjure up a period picture dating back at least 80 years. Finally, we continued across the dyke towards St-Valéry, where I had another look at the coaching stock this train was made up.

A visit to the works yard

There were a few hours to spend before the next train was due, and I wandered through the station yard at St-Valéry (Ville), towards the Somme bridge and the Canal yard beyond. This was filled with an interesting collection of rolling stock, apart from no.1 and a diesel loco (built by the VFIL works in Lumbres, near Calais) standing outside the shed. Inside I saw a tantalising collection of locomotives, but as the site was unattended I didn't want to trespass inside the buildings and made do with what was outside. The accompanying photos speak for themselves.

A rare brake composite carriage with a centre balcony.

The bridge over the Somme river, carrying mixed gauge track.

Axleboxes carrying the legend 'Etat' and 'Ouest', harking back to the days when these pre-nationalisation companies ran scores of metre gauge feeders.

Another rake of goods stock, not yet restored.

The works and loco shed at St-Valéry Canal, with no.1 and one of the diesels.

Close-up of a rod-coupled 0-6-0 diesel.

Metre gauge stock, with the line's single standard gauge shunting loco in the distance.

A beautifully restored van with brakeman's compartment.

Underframe detail.

Note the makeshift crossing under this wagon. A piece of 'U' channel takes the metre gauge stock across a standard gauge rail.

A beautifully restored breakdown crane with a movable counterweight bearing the text 'not to be used without screwing down the jacks'.

A pretty idler wagon with spoked wheels, built 1922 by Baume & Marpent.

The severely rusted body of an autorail, on a bogie coach chassis.

Ex-Portuguese carriage, in a sorry state, but who knows what can be made of it?

A row of old boilers.

The 4pm departures

Meanwhile, as pre-arranged, the other family members had arrived for a short trip on the 16:00 train from Noyelles to St-Valéry, and together with one of my sons I took post at the junction just outside Noyelles, to await the arrival of trains from both the lines. There is an awesome array of mixed gauge points at the junction, which gives access to the mixed gauge goods yard. The CFBS evidently is supplied with coal and ballast by standard gauge rail and hauls it to St-Valéry over the mixed gauge.

A last look at the backhead of no. 1.

The awesome mixed gauge points at the junction just outside Noyelles-sur-Mer.

Bogie ballast hoppers.

No.2 coming in on the train from Le Crotoy...

…closely followed by Aisne on the St-Valéry line.

Aisne re-starting her train after waiting at the home signal.

Close-up of Aisne passing the ground frame and its signal repeaters, before…

…entering the station.

No. 2 running round its train at Noyelles.

And finally, the long-awaited double departure, with Aisne returning to St-Valéry and no. 2 to Le Crotoy.

Soon a deep whistle heralded the arrival of No.2 and its train from Le Crotoy, and close behind was the much higher note of Aisne's whistle coming down from St-Valéry. The later train was held at the 'carré' home signal whilst the first was allowed into the station and crossed over to the St-Valéry platform. Then Aisne got the clear and ran into the other platform. Both locos ran round without taking water and we ran back to the junction to wait for the double departure, which they make quite a show of. Soon no. 2 appeared around the curve, and waited for a few moments until Aisne came round to catch up. Then both drivers put on the steam, hanging on to their whistle cords, and each train went its separate way….

The CFBS far outstripped my expectations, as this proved to be a first-class railway museum and one of the best I have ever seen. The rolling stock, the line, the buildings and even the way the trains are operated take you back to how a true 'sécondaire' must have been in the early 20th Century.