As part of our holiday in Nice in 2017 my wife and I investigated the line between Nice and Meyrargues which closed at the beginning of the 1950s. Almost all of the route is can be accessed on foot and surprisingly much is accessible by car.
This blog covers the history of the line up to 1925 and the first length of the route from La Manda near Colomars on the Nice to Digne line to Saint-Jeannet.
History of the Line to 1925
The Treaty of Turin was signed on 24th March 1860. In it Nice was ceded by the King of Sardinia to Napoleon III. This needed to be ratified by the local population and a vote on 15th and 16th April produced an overwhelming majority in favour of the change. Consequently the department of Les Alpes Maritimes was created by decree on 24th October 1860. To accelerate the acceptance of the new department, and secure improvements to the local economy, significant grants were made by the French government to the department.
Nice was made the capital of the department much to the chagrin of Grasses. Grasses was part of the old France and assumed a priority over Nice. When it lost out to Nice as the capital of the new department it made strenuous efforts to develop local infrastructure improving local roads and seeking a place on the line of the new railway running East along the coast to Nice. That battle was lost and when the Emperor visited Nice on August 18, 1860, Grasse demanded and obtained a branch line from the main coastal line, insisting that “Grasse must inaugurate its railway on the same day that Nice inaugurate its railway.” However that branch-line and the costal railway took thirty years to complete!
Map of the railroads of Provence in 1924
The focus of the main coastal railway on standard gauge left the towns and villages of Central Var needing to promote their own line or lines. The fall of the Second Empire delayed the work. It was to be some time before proposals could be resurrected.
Eventually, Les Chemins de Fer du Sud was promoted as two separate lines during a period when France became particularly concerned about its more remote regions. Two lines were of approximately 350 kilometres in total length – Digne to Nice and Nice (Colomars) to Meyrargues. A metre gauge line powered by steam, sometimes called “Le Train des Pignes”. It was given this name because, it is said, travellers had time together off the train and pick up pine cones by the track when the train encountered a significant gradient. A metre-gauge was adopted which was complementary to many other lines being built throughout France and which provided for cheaper construction, steeper grades and tighter curves that the standard gauge – much more suited to the terrain through which it would travel. The project cost was, as a result, half that if standard gauge had been used.
Construction proceeded quickly. The 211 kilometre network was divided into sections entrusted to different contractors. The sections were of around 10 kilometres in length. Land was purchased by 1890 and work commenced immediately on all sections of the line. The line was completed in 1892.
These large sites made good use of local workforce.
By 1925, Les Chemins de Fer du Sud had been formed bringing the two lines together in one Company.
1. Colomars (La Manda) to Saint-Jeannet Station
The Ligne de Central Var left the Nice to Digne line at La Manda close to Colomars on the River Var. The station building at Colomars Station remains as evidence of the line. The line branched off the current Digne line just to the north of the hamlet of La Manda.
The station construction is typical of many of the stations still evident on the route of the line. A few historic postcards are reproduced here to give an idea of the station in the early years of the 20th century.
The second of these postcard views has been ‘adapted’ by Jean Giletta the photographer to include a hand drawn train. While it is a pity that the photographer did not wait for a train to cross the bridge, the picture illustrates the nature of the river crossing. The railway line crossed the river on the top of the truss girders with provision between the trusses for road traffic!
The destruction of several structures on 24th August 1944 led to the closure of the Colomars – Grasse – Tanneron section of the Central Var Line. The service was never restored. The western part of the line, between Tanneron, Draguignan and Meyrargues, was to survive a few more years with a rather limited service, closing on 2nd January 1950.
Although seriously damaged in 1944 the bridge at La Manda was repaired and reopened, but only for road traffic. The current bridge, inaugurated on 27th November 1967, was built just downstream from the previous one, which probably remained open during construction.
A link follows to photos taken in 1966 just prior to the building of the new structure. The photographs were taken by Jean-Henri Manara ￼and are available on Flickr.
According to these photos, it seems that at least two bays on the east bank of the River Var, were not recoverable and were replaced by temporary bays lighter. These notes about La Manda bridge have been kindly provided by ‘Jeanmi67’ and ‘242TE66’ on Les Forums de Passions Métrique et Etroite!! (www.passion–metrique.net/forums).
Once the line had crossed the river it was carried on embankment across the wider flood plain as can easily be seen in the last of the post cards of the station at La Manda. The railway line is long gone but the bridge remains in use as a major road crossing of the Var. The current bridge was built in 1967, as a replacement of the former bridge which had been damaged in August 1944. Jose Baraudo (Le Siecle du Train des Pignes) says that a commando unit of the retreating German army blew up three major viaducts on the morning of 24th August 1944, (La Siagne, Le Loup and La Pascaressa) However, they did not need to blow the bridge at La Manda up. The Meyrargues line had been cut off from Nice already, three weeks earlier, when the bridge at La Manda was bombed by the Allied forces on 2nd August 1944, prior to the Provence landing. Two spans at the East end were destroyed and a third one is said to have suffered damage only.
Other bridges across the Var river at Nice – St Laurent-du-Var and Pont Charles-Albert were also destroyed or severely damaged by bombing, as were several bridges and viaducts along the Nice – Digne line (La Vésuvie…etc…) but those would be repaired and/or rebuilt, eventually. (Thanks to 242T66 for the english translation of part of Banaudo’s book on which these last two paragraphs are based).
Although this commentary starts from the Eastern end of the line. It seems strange writing about the line and starting in the East as when we travelled along the route in November 2017 we started from the West. Most of our own photographs of the route were taken from the Westerly direction looking East towards Nice.
Once firmer ground had been reached to the West of the river, the line set off to the South-west around the South side of Gattieres toward Saint-Jeannette. The picture below looks back towards the bridge across the Var along Boulevard de la Colle Belle at Carros. The bridge is hidden behind the vegetation on the modern roundabout.
The next picture looks back along the line of the old railway again a little further to the Southwest on Rue des Grillons in Carros. This picture and some of the others that follow are courtesy of Google Street view.
Leaving Carros, the line immediately headed out onto the Viaduct of the Enghièri (130 metres long, made up of 6 arches, 5 of which span 16 metres (43° 46’ 00” N, 7° 11’ 22”E). It is a traditionally built arch viaduct with a first wider span for the road below. The first picture is from Google Street view. The second is taken from a car window.
Much of the Ligne Central Var is still in use for transportation, often the old track formation has been used at its original width, in some places significant widening has taken place. Where original structures were damaged in the conflicts of the 20th Century, these have not been replaced and the ability to follow the line in a vehicle is interrupted. There are areas usually in the forested areas along the route where pedestrian access is possible, or the route can be traversed by a 4×4 vehicle. The Viaduct of the Enghièri has been preserved as a highway as the Google Street view picture shows. The route has been given the name, Chemin de Provence.The plan view is also taken from Google Streetview. The red line is the plotted route of the railway which can be viewed with this link:
Google Earth will be needed to open it. The plotting of the route was undertaken by Claudio Capaccio.
From the Viaduct of the Enghièri the route of the line follows what is now the Chemin de Provence in south-south-westerly direction crossing a small bridge at 43° 45’ 32”N, 7° 11’ 00” before turning to a more westerly trajectory on the North side of the Vallon des Trigands and South of Saint-Jeannet.
The next substantial structure on the route is shown as a blue dotted line on the map of Saint-Jeannet above – The Tunnel of Saint-Jeannet. Just before reaching the tunnel the line turns in a north westerly direction. The route cannot be followed by car as it continues beyond the concrete blocks in the picture here. It is however possible to get along the line to the tunnel mouth.
The tunnel is 860 metres long running in a predominantly westerly direction (from 43° 44’ 22”N, 7° 09’ 21”E to 43° 44’ 31”N, 7° 08’ 32”E) and the line appears again South of the D2210 road, south-west of Saint-Jeannet close to Le Peyron. From the tunnel mouth at the West end of the tunnel (visible below right) there is a short section of the route accessible with care and known as the Chemin de la Champignonniere. A high retaining wall (below left) carries the old line above the Ancienne Route de Vence which falls away to the West and meets the line at grade just behind the camera and then climbing away above the old line on its way towards Saint-Jeannet.
A quick nip up the Ancienne Route de Vence above the old line allows a glimpse of the old Saint-Jeannet station off to the right of the road. This accurately places the station on the map. The next image is a postcard of the station in the early 20th Century.
After the station, the line travelled a short distance (along what is now the Chemin de La Champignonniere) before reaching another tunnel entrance. This tunnel’s official designation is Tunnel de Cagne, however it is apparently known locally as the Tunnel de Champignonniere. The tunnel is used to farm mushrooms.
Health Warning!! This blog of 2017 is based on some mis-information!! It must be considered to be a ‘Might Have Been’ Scenario!!
In this scenario, the route of the Levens tramway running North from Tourrette-Levens surprisingly did not follow the main road. Instead it diverted to St. Blaise before following the St. Blaise to Levens road into Levens.
The most startling structure to be built on the route was an 80 metre long suspension bridge just outside St. Blaise. Built for the tramway in 1908 it also carried the St. Blaise to Levens road.
This graceful suspension bridge was destroyed during the Second World War.
It was not rebuilt until 1953. The new bridge was similarly striking although a concrete arch construction. By this time the tramway was long-gone.
For the first part of the route from Nice, please see the following link:
The tramway route from the southern outskirts of Tourrette-Levens probably followed approximately the route of Chemin de la Gorghette and Chemin de Saint Sebastien before rejoining the present M19. To get to St. Blaise the tramway would have had to follow the M719, the road to Aspremont. Any other route to St. Blaise would require extreme gradients. Sadly, however, I can find no evidence to support the assumption that Aspremont would have been included in the tramway system.
The route from Saint-Blaise to Levens would have been shown by some of the pictures below.
The final photograph shows the terminus at Levens. The location of this picture is however not clear in my own mind. I believe that the first terminus at Levens was probably on the Avenue General de Gaulle. The line was, however, extended into the centre of the village, it is highly possible that this is a view of that location, which is the point at which the Nice to Levens bus terminates right next to the heart of the perched village. I’d appreciate any comments readers are able to make on this.
For a re-interpretation of this story, this time based on better evidence, please see my later blog from March 2018!
We got the bus to Eze today (14th November 2017) and then walked for a few kilometres along the Moyenne Corniche before dropping down one of the side roads to the Basse Corniche and sitting on the beach at Eze-sur-Mer eating Baguette and cheese for lunch. We then got on the Ligne d’Azur 100 bus back to Nice.
The terminus for the 100 is in the Port of Nice, which is now dominated by two large grey steel buildings which house the concrete plant for the underground works for Ligne 2 of the Nice tramway. Eventually the location of these buildings will be the terminus of the line, right at the head of the Port and a very quick journey from the Port to the Airport.
Ligne 2 will drastically reduce traffic volumes in the city as the East-West/West-East movements dominate traffic flows in the city. There is an amazing amount of detail to be found on-line! Try some of these links:
http://tramway.nice.fr/ligne-ouest-est/projet-ouest-est/tout-sur-le-projet; (retrieved 14th November 2017) – this site includes a series of links to a variety of material including the environmental impact study.
https://www.intelligenttransport.com/transport-news/18414/tram-design-revealed-for-the-east-west-line-of-the-nice-cote-dazur-metropole; (retrieved 13th November 2017) – details are provided of the Alstrom trams to be used on the route.
http://tramway.nice.fr/ligne-ouest-est/projet-ouest-est; (retrieved 13th November 2017) – the official site for the project.
In addition to the grey steel buildings at Nice Port, major sites are active as new stations are formed either above or below ground. Examples include the stations at Garibaldi and Alsace Lorraine.
The new line cuts across Nice from west to east (or east to west, if you like). The underground section will run from Nice Port underneath the Old Town to Garibaldi, following onto Durandy (adjacent to Place Wilson). There will also be a station located at Jean Medecin (where it intersects with the ligne 1), and at Alsace Lorraine (the garden in Musiciens) before the line remerges above ground at Grosso. From here it will continue towards the airport, running parallel to the Promenade des Anglais.
The project began in October 2013. First, various excavations had to be undertaken around the route of the underground line to ensure that sensitive archaeological sites were properly evaluated and protected. At the western end of the project a series of enabling engineering works were required including significant work on the St. Augustine railway bridge, a new access bridge to the airport; the diversion of underground utilities.
In November 2013, contracts were drawn up and following a public procurement procedure, both the tunnel and underground station engineering construction were awarded to TBM of the Thaumasia Group, led by construction giant Bouygues TP- a name you may recognise, they are also one of the biggest mobile phone networks in France. It took over 4 months for the contract to be signed. It was April 2014 before the design-build contactor started work on the design drawings for the underground tunnel and the stations. It was September 2014 when the excavation work for the tunnel started.
By spring 2015, the maintenance and development strategy for the tram service had been completed by the local government body, the CADAM Nikaia. In April 2016, work commenced on the Place Durandy station. September 2016 saw engineers starting on the new Place Garibaldi station.
Tunnel works continued with the input shaft started in December 2015 and the tunnel boring machine at work by May 2016.
The stations at Jean Medecin and Victor Hugo were started in late 2015. Above ground rail construction is now well underway (November 2017) and a new tramway maintenance depot is nearing completion. It is still likely that by November 2018 the overground element of Ligne 2 will be operational with the underground section operational by early 2019.
The implementation of the tramway project has already drawn in significant investment to the Riviera. When up and running, the line will reduce the journey time from Nice Port to the Airport to just 26 minutes.
It is evident as soon as you leave the terminal building at Nice Airport that something big is going down. Nice is well on the way to getting two new tramways – Ligne 2 and Ligne 3. Like many cities, Nice is building a modern tramway system. Also like many cities across Europe and the UK, Nice once had a significant tramway system not just in the immediate city environment but also spread out along the Cote d’Azur and inland in places into Les Alpes Maritime.
Details of the wide tramway network that existed in the early 20th Century can be found in a series of posts on my blog: https://rogerfarnworth.wordpress.com/category/railways-blog. The majority of these posts were written in December 2013:
Sospel to Menton Tramway; (https://rogerfarnworth.wordpress.com/2013/12/10/sospel-to-menton-tramway; 10th December 2013) – revisited, extended and updated as : (https://rogerfarnworth.wordpress.com/2018/02/23/the-sospel-to-menton-tramway-revisited-chemins-de-fer-de-provence-51)
Chemins de Fer de Provence; (https://rogerfarnworth.wordpress.com/2013/12/10/chemins-de-fer-de-province; 10th December 2013)
Chemins de Fer de Provence 2; (https://rogerfarnworth.wordpress.com/2013/12/11/chemins-de-fer-de-provence-2; 11th December 2013)
Chemins de Fer de Provence 3; (https://rogerfarnworth.wordpress.com/2013/12/12/chemins-de-fer-de-provence; 12th December 2013)
Chemins de Fer de Provence 4: Tramways Near Nice; (https://rogerfarnworth.wordpress.com/2013/12/13/chemins-de-fer-de-provence-4-tramways-near-nice; 13th December 2013)
Chemins de Fer de Provence 5: More Tramways Around Nice; (https://rogerfarnworth.wordpress.com/2013/12/14/chemins-de-fer-de-provence-5-more-tramways-around-nice; 14th December 2013)
Chemins de Fer de Provence 6: More Tramways Still! (https://rogerfarnworth.wordpress.com/2013/12/15/chemins-de-fer-de-provence-6-more-tramways-still; 15th December 2013)
Chemins de Fer de Provence 7: The Line to St. Martin Vesubie; (https://rogerfarnworth.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/chemins-de-fer-de-provence-7-the-line-to-st-martin-vesubie; 16th December 2013)
Chemins de Fer de Provence 8: Tramway in the Tinée Valley; (https://rogerfarnworth.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/chemins-de-fer-de-provence-8-tramway-in-the-tinee-valley, 19th December 2013)
Chemins de Fer de Provence 9: Tramway to Roquestron; (https://rogerfarnworth.wordpress.com/2013/12/20/chemins-de-fer-de-provence-9-tramway-to-roquesteron, 20th December 2013)
Sadly that network went into very rapid decline with the improvement in road transport. It reached its zenith at the end of the 1920s, but by 1934 many lines had closed. By the late 1930s only lines within Nice itself remained open. The remaining lines in Nice finally gave way to competition and the last trams ran on the network in January 1953.
The love affair of the Cote d’Azur and Les Alpes Martimes with Trams was over, permanently. Other forms of transport were faster and more flexible. The trams had hard their day. ….. Or had they? ….
Before the turn of the Millennium things were beginning to change. The city centre of Nice was gridlocked with traffic. Nice had major traffic problems. To overcome these problems, various studies were undertaken, the earliest in 1987 only 44 years after the last trams had run in the city. It wasn’t until 1997 that dedicated bus lanes were implemented and a further study was launched, looking at the implementation of a tram line. The study recommended trams as being less subject to the vagaries of traffic but not as expensive as a subway.
The first tramway, Ligne 1, was confirmed in 2003 and work started in the same year. The line came into service on 24 November 2007 after several weeks of technical trials, even though construction was not fully completed.