FROM SOMME TO LOIRE

        DE LA SOMME A LA LOIRE

Light railway and bus service operation in French rural areas


            (Adapted from articles in Modern Transport written in September 1944)






FOREWORD 

The following article was written 70 years ago back in 1944 and reflects the situation as it was at that time.  It gives an interesting historical perspective on the different way in which bus services developed in provincial France. The many light railways are of course now long gone (the last line in Manche went in 1950 and in Côtes du Nord in 1956).  The golden age of the French rural bus was probably only a few years in the early 1930s before pro-rail transport co-ordination legislation was introduced. Further restrictions on road transport followed the nationalisation of the railways in 1938 as SNCF. Post-war, after a period of decline and contraction in the 1960s and 1970s, recent years have seen the growth of departmentally-sponsored and designed interurban and rural bus networks in almost all French departments. Many of these have a quite reasonable single flat fare of but a couple of euros. One of the more recent such ‘réseau’ was introduced in Manche in 2007 (fare 2.20 euros). But it is still not at all unusual for there to be great focus on school journeys and market journeys, with substantially reduced timetables during school holiday periods. And from this side of the Channel we should not forget that school times in France were different, typically a six day week with half days on Wednesday (previously Thursday for many years) and Saturday. The concept of 'le weekend' is still relatively recent in some parts of France!  Also the number of stops on French country bus services is small compared to ours and it is difficult to imagine what a French driver would make of even a stop every quarter of a mile! 

AVANT-PROPOS

L'article qui suit a été écrit il y a
70 ans en 1944 et reflète la situation telle qu'elle était à ce moment-là. Il donne un point de vue historique intéressant sur ​​la manière différente dont les services de bus et cars ont développé dans la France provinciale (vu par les yeux anglais!). Les chemins de fer rurales bien sûr ne sont plus depuis longtemps (la dernière ligne dans la Manche en 1950 et elles sont parties dans les Côtes du Nord en 1956). L'âge d'or de l'autocar rural français était probablement seulement quelques années dans les années 1930 avant que le pro-rail législation pour coordination a été introduite. D'autres restrictions sur le transport routier ont suivi la nationalisation des chemins de fer en 1938. L'après-guerre, après une période de déclin et de la contraction dans les années 1960 et 1970, ces dernières années ont vu la croissance des réseaux de cars interurbaines conçu par les départementes en milieu rural dans presque tous les départements français. Beaucoup d'entre eux ont un tarif tout à fait raisonnable forfaitaire unique de quelques euros. La plus récente de ces «Réseaux» a été introduit dans la Manche en 2007 (€ 2,20 le billet). Mais il n'est toujours pas du tout rare pour qu'il y ait une grande concentration sur les voyages scolaires et des voyages du marché, avec des horaires sensiblement réduits pendant les périodes de vacances scolaires. Et de ce côté de la Manche, nous ne devons pas oublier que les trimestres scolaires en France étaient différentes, généralement une semaine de six jours avec demi-journées le mercredi (anciennement jeudi pour de nombreuses années) et le samedi. Le concept de week-end est encore relativement récente dans certaines parties de la France! De plus, le nombre d'arrêts sur les services d'autocars rurales français est faible par rapport à la nôtre dans l'Angleterre et il est difficile d'imaginer ce qu'un conducteur français ferait de même un arrêt à chaque quart de mile!



The area of north-western France between the Somme and the Loire corresponds approximately with the territory of the Western (Ouest, formerly Etat) Region of SNCF (Société Nationale de Chemins de Fer Français). This is an area of comparatively sparse population which has relatively few large towns and even fewer which are industrial centres. The bus industry in France has never been comparable to that in Great Britain by reason of the different conditions which have ruled in the past and still existed to a considerable degree at the outbreak of war in 1939.

Throughout the country there existed for many years a remarkably extensive network of roadside tramways. These were in the main steam worked and were developed as much for the movement of merchandise and freight as for the carriage of passengers. It followed that services were infrequent and considerable time was spent on the journey. The fact that most systems were single track with widely separated passing loops made them particularly liable to competition from the motor bus when it appeared, although this development was somewhat late in French rural areas compared to Great Britain. The Chemins de Fer Economiques, as they were generally termed, nevertheless played a considerable part in providing rural areas with transport facilities and there was still a considerable mileage in existence at the outbreak of war.

Rural Tramways and Light Railways

Some of these tramways had taken steps to modernise their methods of operation, and this was particularly the case in areas such as Brittany, where considerable holiday traffic was experienced; and also in industrial districts like that of Nantes. Modernisation rarely took the form of electrification, since even the improved frequencies contemplated would not have justified the expenditure involved. It must be remembered also that the majority of the systems were connected with the authorities of the department which they served. They might be leased by the department to one of the several groups of tramway undertakings for operation or they might be the responsibility of the department itself. Generally the former was the case but then the department continued to be concerned from the financial aspect. As example the former narrow gauge lines of the Etat in Brittany were leased to the Société Générale de Chemins de Fer Economiques.

The development of the railcar in France in the 1920s and 1930s played a large part in the preservation of the tramway and light railway systems. Whilst many of the lines have been replaced by buses that is a fate which has also befallen sections of the major railways too. A typical example of the improvement brought by railcars is by comparison of the 1928 and 1939 timetables of the Chemins de Fer des Côtes du Nord. Over the period some of the rail services had been abandoned in favour of the bus but there were still several rail facilities remaining, mainly those serving coastal resorts. Railcars were in use here to a limited degree by 1928 but journey times were cut drastically by 1939. Between St Brieuc and Paimpol the steam train had taken 2 hours 50 minutes, the fastest railcar timing was 1 hour 55 minutes. Buses running via Guingamp took 2 hours 10 minutes for the run.

Other operators employing railcars in 1939, inter alia, included the Tramways d’Ille-et-Vilaine which still had a number of services from Rennes (to St Malo, Becherel, Guer, La Guerche and Fougeres); also the Chemins de Fer d’Intérêt Local du Morbihan with lines in the Vannes, Lorient and St Nazaire areas. The Société Centrale de Chemins de Fer et d’Entreprises (associated with the Verney group) of Le Mans, another of the large tramway holding companies, with interests which included the departments of Manche and Mayenne, abandoned most of its passenger services in favour of buses, but worked the service between Pontorson and Mont St Michel with railcars. One interesting feature of the system was the retention over certain lines of passenger working on market days or other special occasions, eg between Flers and Tinchebray. Steam services also continued between Cherbourg and Barfleur / St Vaast-la-Hougue.

The problem of abandonment was not easy owing to the commitments that existed in many cases as regards through facilities provided in conjunction with the main line railways, and that factor was mainly responsible for the operation of at least one steam train daily over lines otherwise served by railcars. Alternatively a number of bus services developed with routes corresponding to those of the light railways. These rarely represented competition between the two forms of transport and, indeed if they did in the past, the co-ordination of transport laws of 1934 and 1937 would have resulted in its cessation. The routes were usually worked with buses of the tramway undertaking and provided the greater part of the facilities there being, perhaps, one train in each direction with additional ones to replace the buses on market days, Sundays, and other occasions of heavy traffic.

Bus services

Of the network of bus services in western France most roads were covered daily, but unlike Great Britain, a daily service frequently implied one or two journeys only in each direction. Owing mainly to the existence of the light railways and tramways the development of bus services in the French provinces was somewhat belated, but when the vulnerability to competition of the tramways, to which reference has already been made, came to be appreciated there was a mad rush on the part of many small proprietors to stake claim on the most promising routes. This developed in the late twenties and continued but with little slackening until the passing of the co-ordination law of 1934. The movement was aided by the selling methods of some coach dealers, whose rosy picture of the future, lured many people into the business only for them to retire poorer and, it was to be hoped, wiser.

The stability of the French bus industry upon which the efficient working of the 1934 decree was to depend was due to the more farsighted policy of some operators and also to the progressive action of certain of the tramway holding companies, notably the Société Générale and the Société Centrale.

Another very potent influence in the later stages of uncontrolled operation was that of the famous vehicle manufacturers Citröen and Renault. The facilities provided in the London area by Green Line Coaches greatly impressed M. Citröen and in 1932 he commenced to operate a number of services between Paris and centres up to 45 kilometres from the capital. These proved very successful and the system expanded rapidly. At that time rivalry between Citröen and Renault interests was intense and Transports Citröen was soon followed by the Autocars Renault of the Compagnie d’Exploitation Automobile; which concern was financed largely by the manufacturer whose vehicles it used. The importance of this development was that it represented the first demonstration in France that traffic could be built up in rural areas by the establishment of regular services at reasonable intervals.

Reluctant travellers

French villagers did not possess the travel habit to any marked degree, partly perhaps because the local towns offered little in the way of such attractions as cinemas; the number of picture houses in proportion to the population in France was low compared with Great Britain, while the tendency for concentration in the large centres of population was more marked. It should of course be remembered that the relative density of population in French rural areas is considerably below that ruling for the English countryside. Taking France as a whole, the population per square mile averaged 197 before the war compared with 703 in England and Wales. The proportion of private cars to population was roughly comparable to Great Britain, although traffic density was less owing to the greater mileage of French roads. Car ownership also tended towards concentration in urban areas. The basic causes to which the disinclination of the French country-dweller to travel were attributable may be summarised in general terms as the high degree of self sufficiency of rural households, the somewhat high fares coupled with the proverbial eagerness to economise, and the absence of attractive goals for a journey. The French smallholder depended entirely for many years on the light railway as a means of taking his wares to market and it was only in comparatively recent years that one could see such veterans as the Peugeot “clover leaf” and the little Mathis trundling along the road to market laden with the best vegetables of the more prosperous smallholders.

The Citröen and Renault enterprises were a sign that this attitude could be influenced and the period from 1932 to 1934 saw considerable development of regular daily services in all parts of the country, very often under the auspices of one or the other of the two manufacturers. In the west of France Transports Citröen established branches at Nantes, Angers, Tours, Bourges, Poitiers and Caen. In some cases the business was subsequently taken over by a local company in which the Citröen company had a financial or benevolent interest. The Caen services for example passed to Les Rapides de Normandie, which competed very strongly with Les Courriers Normands, an operator with Renault associations, until the evolution of a live-and-let-live agreement between the parties, and also the passage of the various co-ordination laws from 1934 onwards.

Competition with the railways

Whilst these laws were admittedly intended to safeguard the railways against the intense competition to which they had become subject, they also served to regularise the operation of bus services throughout the country by imparting some security to the operations of established concerns. The 1934 series of decrees was responsible in particular for the co-ordination of fares and the reduction of direct competition over trunk railway routes. By laying down the date of enactment (19 April) as a date - rather in the manner in which the Road Traffic Act 1930 caused the adoption of 9 February 1931 in England - the decrees intensified the rush to inaugurate services, but thereafter things were gradually sorted out. In the process certain routes disappeared such as that by the direct road from Laval to Rennes previously worked by Les Cars Saint-Hénis. One feature of the co-ordination arrangements in France was that an operator which had to abandon a service received a certain degree of preference in regard to applications for new routes.

The French Railways were nationalised in 1938. They had been authorised to set up ancillary motor transport organisations in 1928, and had taken advantage of this permission to some extent when in 1929 the government suddenly became less amenable and placed so many restrictions upon the inauguration of new feeder services that subsequently it was the practice in the main to employ contractors owing to the fact that other operators were uncontrolled. The Etat was responsible for the formation of SATOS (Société Auxiliaires des Transports de l’Ouest et du Sud-Ouest) and the Nord for STARN (Société des Transports Auxiliaires de la Région du Nord). Other lines such as the PLM, Est and Paris-Orléans also took similar steps. The Etat for various reasons developed its own bus services very little but was amongst the foremost in making arrangements with other undertakings to provide ‘services de correspondance’. In particular the Société Centrale des Chemins de Fer et d’Entreprises was responsible for extensive services around Granville (in the department of Manche) and throughout Normandy generally, its interests in the area being due to control of the Chemins de Fer Normands and the Chemins de Fer Départementaux de la Mayenne, which were subsequently replaced to a large extent by bus services. Société Centrale formed their first bus company in 1933, STAO - Société des Transports Automobiles de l'Ouest, with a network of routes based on Le Mans (Réseau du Sarthe et Maine-et- Loire).  STAO expanded during the 1930s and 1940s to form other networks (réseaux) in Orne, Poitou, Touraine, Mayenne and Seine Maritime/Eure; all part of the Verney group.

Railway replacement

The most notable developments in bus operations during the last years before the war were the introduction of road services to replace uneconomic branch lines of the SNCF. As a rule arrangements were made with the operator or operators in the best position to provide the facilities irrespective of any attachment to particular interests. Les Courriers Normands, which had shared with the Société Générale des Transports Départementaux in the replacement of the Chemins de Fer du Calvados, was responsible for covering a number of abandoned sections such as Caen - Villers Bocage - Villedieu. Routes were shared in some cases. Arcangioli Frères worked between Le Havre and Fécamp and the CNA (Compagnie Normande d’Autobus) of Rouen between Fécamp and Dieppe. Another example was the Chateaubriant - Messac - Plöermel line, of which the Société Générale worked the northern section between Plöermel and Messac, since that was convenient to its Ille-et-Vilaine operations; Drouin Frères worked the section from Messac to Chateaubriant. Each ran thrice daily, a frequency similar to the withdrawn train service.

The other operations of these last two undertakings mentioned may conveniently be taken as typical since they served areas relatively little affected by seasonal considerations. Drouin Frères with its headquarters at Nantes and branch offices at Chateaubriant, La Baule and St Nazaire worked some twenty services all but two of which were operated daily. The main services from Nantes were to Rennes (eight journeys), Lorient (four journeys and three to Vannes), Chateau Gontier (three journeys), Laval (five journeys), Legé (three journeys) and Le Croisic (hourly). The last named route was strengthened between St Nazaire and Le Croisic and the through journeys were co-ordinated with Transports Citröen to provide a half-hourly headway. Chateaubriant was linked with Nantes via Sucé and via Riaillé as well as by the Laval service, which worked via Nort-sur-Erdre and provided connections thrice daily at Chateaubriant with buses to and from Vitré. There were three journeys between Chateaubriant and Le Croisic, this cross-country route providing valuable connections at Nozay, Savenay and La Baule, and there was an approximately two hourly service between Vannes and Quiberon.

Wartime frequencies

The Société des Transports Départementaux d’Ille-et-Vilaine, which was worked by the SGTD, had daily services from Rennes to Pipriac (three journeys, four on Sunday) and La Gacilly (two journeys), Redon (two journeys), Pontorson via Pleine Fougères (two journeys), Avranches via Antrain and Pontorson (three journeys). Other routes included Guer to Redon (two journeys), the rail replacement service from Plöermel to Messac already mentioned, Vitré - Fougères and Vitré - Liffré (both with two journeys except Friday) and various market services. The war resulted in a considerable curtailment of facilities. The Rennes -  Pipriac - La Gacilly service was reduced to one through journey and one journey between Rennes and Pipriac, the Redon service became once daily. The Guer - Redon, Vitré - Fougères, Vitré - Liffré and market services were suspended. One interesting feature was the extension of the Pontorson service to Avranches and its diversion via Antrain and Bazouges between Sens-de-Bretagne and Pleine Fougères. This compensated in part for the reduction of the direct Avranches service.

The services in other areas were on a comparative basis until the outbreak of war, with the exception of certain very remote districts which depended on the Postes Rurales services. These vehicles were intended primarily to deliver mail to the villages, but accommodating a few passengers, which followed serpentine routes at times suited to their primary purpose. In the Rouen area and round Nantes services were relatively frequent, but where more than one concern worked the road the times were co-ordinated as, for example, between Rouen and Elbeuf. By arrangement between Transports Citröen and CEA each abandoned certain of its routes from Paris in favour of the other during the winter when traffic was less. Bus operation had in fact assumed that secure position which has existed on this side of the Channel for years.

It is difficult sometimes for English operators to realise the extent of the divergence between English and French rural bus operations. Apart from the absence of double-deckers there is the fact that almost all the buses are of the normal control type, and seat between 20 and 26 passengers. In recent years it has become usual to employ a conductor. The number of stops on French services is small compared to ours and it is difficult to imagine what a French driver would make of even a stop every quarter of a mile! 

An interesting feature of the Citröen and CEA services from Paris was the preference given to longer distance passengers (quite apart from the protection afforded to local services in the Paris area). Apart from the protetion given to the city operator in the near suburbs, on the service from Paris to Vernon via St Germain-en-Laye, Meulan and Vetheuil, for example, priority was given to passengers travelling beyond Meulan, the road to that point being shared with another approximately hourly service to Mantes.


ENDWORD 

The foregoing article was written 70 years ago back in 1944 and reflects the situation as it was at that time.  It gives an interesting historical perspective on the different way in which bus services developed in provincial France. The many light railways are of course now long gone (the last line in Manche went in 1950 and in Côtes du Nord in 1956).  The golden age of the French rural bus was probably only a few years in the early 1930s before pro-rail transport co-ordination legislation was introduced. Further restrictions on road transport followed the nationalisation of the railways in 1938 as SNCF. Post-war, after a period of decline and contraction in the 1960s and 1970s, recent years have seen the growth of departmentally-sponsored and designed interurban and rural bus networks in almost all French departments. Many of these have a quite reasonable single flat fare of but a couple of euros. One of the more recent such ‘réseau’ was introduced in Manche in 2007 (fare 2.20 euros). But it is still not at all unusual for there to be great focus on school journeys and market journeys, with substantially reduced timetables during school holiday periods. And from this side of the Channel we should not forget that school times in France were different, typically a six day week with half days on Wednesday (previously Thursday for many years) and Saturday. The concept of 'le weekend' is still relatively recent in some parts of France!  Also the number of stops on French country bus services is small compared to ours and it is difficult to imagine what a French driver would make of even a stop every quarter of a mile! 
                                                        
                                                                                       (NB 
The original authors' name was not given in the publication).


You might also like to read "French Coaching Concerns"



 

 I would be pleased to learn more about these matters if any French readers of this page have further information !

Si les lecteurs français pouvaient m’apporter des informations complémentaires je leur en serais reconnaissant !

                             
drawing


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