Un peu d'histoire
West of Clermont-Ferrand, in Auvergne, the Cha&circi;ne des Puys are the eroded cores of ancient volcanoes. The highest of them, the Puy de Dôme itself (1465 m) has inspired human curiosity, awe and veneration since antiquity. The Gauls dedicated it to the deity Lug, whose name was perpetuated by the Romans in Lugdunum - Lyon. The Romans built an imposing temple to Mercury near the summit. In the early middle ages, popular myth had it that the whole landscape was the remains of defensive earthworks thrown up by the Romans (!). In the 12th Century, a chapel to St Barnabas became a place of pilgrimage but, by 1631, offerings had dropped to just 7 francs for the year. It was widely rumoured that Witches' Sabbaths took place on the mountain. With the coming of he Age of Reason, Pascal used barometric readings on the Puy to prove that air had weight [mass] (1648) and, in 1751, its volcanic origins were finally recognised.
When, in 1790, the Revolutionary National Assembly divided the country into administrative départements, it initially proposed to name this area Mont d'Or. The député for Clermont protested that this would give central government the idea that it was a rich region and it would be taxed accordingly; he won the day and the title Puy de Dôme was substituted.
In 1872, a meteorological observatory was built on the Puy, replaced in the 20th Century by a radio relay mast.
In 1909, the Michelin brothers (of Clermont-Ferrand) offered a prize of 100,000 francs to the first person to fly with a passenger from Paris, circle the cathedral at Clermont, and land on the Puy de Dôme; they estimated it would be fifty years before they had to shell out. Three years later, however, Eugène Renaux completed the feat in a flight lasting 5h 11m. This exploit, as well as Pascal's experiments, is marked by a monument near the summit. 1891 saw the first ascent by bicycle (28 minutes) and 1913 the first by motor car (11 minutes).
Nineteenth-century leisure tourists could hire horses-drawn carriages as far as the Col de Ceyssat (1153 m) and proceed thence on foot or donkey-back. Some form of public transport was called for.
Origins of the railway
From 1886, the Conseil départemental began considering a railway to the Puy de Dôme. Proposals over the next decade included an electric tramway (Clermont-Ferrand opened the first electric tramway in France, in 1890), a line using Abt rack, and funiculars. Finally, in 1905, the Conseil came down in favour of M Claret, Director of the Tramways de Clermont-Ferrand, whose plan was for a metre-gauge steam railway using the Hanscotte system (described below). In contrast to the long-drawn-out bureaucratic and political debate, the line was built with remarkable speed. Work began in 1906 and the line opened throughout in July 1907. It was operated by the Tramway company, which added '…et du Puy de Dôme' to its title.
The route started from the Place Lamartine in Clermont-Ferrand (altitude 386 m). In 2 km, it reached Les Quatre Routes, where the main depot was located. This section was later electrified and shared by the town trams. There followed a climb of some 4½ km, with gradients of 70-120 mm/m, to La Baraque, which had a sub-shed and watering facilities since trains terminated here in winter. A flatter stretch on the Plateau d'Orcines took the line to La Font[aine] de l'Arbre, where there were a passing loop and a siding. The final 4.2 km spiralled round the mountain on nearly constant gradients of 120-130 mm/m. It was on these steep inclines that the Hanscotte system was used. The line culminated 50 m below the observatory at the summit. As well as a run-round loop, there was a barn-like shed big enough to shelter two trains. This probably did not see much use, as the timetable did not require stock to be stabled at the summit overnight.
Le système Hanscotte
Hanscotte was an engineer at Fives-Lille who developed the system of using a centre rail to assist traction on steep gradients. It was similar to the Fell system but claimed some advantages. It was first tested on a tramway at La Bourboule in 1904. The centre rail consisted of a large-section bullhead rail, mounted on its side some 180 mm above the running rails. Pairs of horizontal wheels, fitted to the locomotive, gripped the centre rail. These wheels were driven by chains and bevel gears from the adjacent coupled axles of the loco and were permanently in rotation when the loco was moving. They were held against the centre rail by compressed air, as opposed to the springs used by Fell. This both enabled their 'grip' to be adjusted (up to, it was claimed, the equivalent of 82 t adhesion for a 30 t locomotive) and allowed for some side-play on curves - or inaccuracies in the centre rail (!). The horizontal wheels had flanges on their lower face to prevent derailment. The centre rail was installed only on the steepest sections and had to be interrupted at level crossings, road junctions and pointwork. The ends of the rail were tapered to ease their entry into the guide wheels.
Locomotives and rolling stock
The railway had 5 locos - 030Ts by Fives-Lille (naturally enough). Inexplicably, they were numbered 3 to 6 and 20; moreover, there appears to be no photographic evidence that they actually displayed these numbers. They were chunky looking machines with a very large water space above the firebox crown. The reason for this is apparent in a diagram of one facing down a 120 mm/m gradient: the boiler water level is drawn in, showing the firebox crown still well covered. Nevertheless, all photos I have seen show the engines facing chimney uphill. Four braking systems were fitted: hand; air (acting on the horizontal wheels); counter-pressure; and an emergency clasp brake on the centre rail. Maximum speed on plain line was set at 25 km/h. On gradients with the centre rail, it was 8 km/h.
There were twelve coaches - four open baladeuses and eight closed saloons. Whilst the open vehicles had transverse seating, the saloons had longitudinal benches with their back to the windows - hardly ideal for a scenic railway. They ran on a four-wheel bogie at one end and a single-axle truck at the other; each had a pair of horizontal wheels for braking. A similar chassis equipped the sole flat wagon. There was also a small fourgon, which looked like a cabin trunk on four wheels.
The traffic pattern was very seasonal. The winter timetable (November - April) showed only two daily return trips, and those only between Clermont and La Baraque. The basic summer timetable would appear to have been four workings each way between Clermont and the summit, with the usual variations according to day and date. For instance, between 13 June and 29 August (year not known, but thought to be pre-First World War), an additional 'down' train is shown without a balancing 'up' movement. The same timetable also includes an 07h10 from La Baraque to Clermont, with a return working leaving Clermont at 18:45 sauf dimanches et fêtes. On peak days, no doubt extras would run, though there was hardly a surplus of rolling stock. Fares for 1913 were Clermont - La Baraque 1 franc return; Clermont - summit 5 francs, or 7F50 including a visit to the observatory.
It is not clear whether the railway continued to operate during the first years of the First World War but, in 1917, the running rails were requisitioned, leaving the centre rail in situ. The locomotives were sent to the Vosges to shunt artillery pieces. The matériel was returned afterwards but it was not until 1923 that track was relaid and the works handed back to the owners, together with compensation for lost revenue and for repairs to the locos.
From 1923, however, a parallel bus service ran from Clermont to Font de l'Arbre, which was quicker than the train. As the railway depended almost entirely on tourist traffic, its takings were subject to the weather: too hot, too cold or too windy, and traffic fell away. And there are many occasions when the view of, and from, the Puy is obscured by cloud and mist. On 6 April 1926, the company was authorised to close and lift the railway and convert the spiral ramp into a metalled toll road for motor traffic*. In later years, private cars were banned in the high season, motorists being obliged to park at the bottom and take the bus to the summit. This situation held good until 2009, when it was decided to re-establish the rail connection using electric rack tramcars built by Stadler. This is scheduled to open on 26 May 2012.
Such an environmentally-friendly solution is clearly the right one. Still, the author of these lines is glad to have had the opportunity of driving to the top. The descent was a little tense: in a right-hand drive car, one felt uncomfortably close to an edge unprotected by crash barriers!
* Four of the locomotives were sold to a cement works at Beffe (Cher), where they are said to have worked until 1950, having been stripped of their Hanscotte mechanism.
Domengie, H, Les Petits Trains de Jadis - Sud-Est, Les Editions du Cabri.
Chataignier, B, Le Tramway du Puy de Dôme, Connaissance du Rail No 59, September 1985.
Chapuis, J et Jacquot, A, Le Chemin de fer du Puy de Dôme, FACS Magazine No 256, 1996/4.
Ransom, F J G, The Mont-Cenis Fell Railway, Twelveheads Press
Michelin Guide Vert - Auvergne