Impressions of Europe – France

My 1979 Eurailpass trip had begun with the crossing to Paris, some exploration of the Metro and bus system then visits to the trolleybus operating cities of St Etienne and Lyon on our way to Switzerland.

2014 saw Jeanette and I spend just on a month in France before heading over to London for a week. All did not go well on the trip over with Etihad. The terminal at Abu Dhabi is a good 15 minute taxi from the runway (they were in the middle of building a new one though). We pushed back on time, did the long taxi in a queue of about a dozen planes. I got the first inkling of trouble when we went to the very very end of the taxi area and the planes behind us did a shorter turn and took off. We sat there for 15 minutes before it was announced that there was a possible fuel line problem. So we did the long taxi back and parked on the forecourt, remaining on the plane. Trucks arrived, men did stuff, tarmac buses pulled up but were then sent away. Two hours later the engines were test run and paperwork was done. Eventually we were cleared to go, some three hours late, did the long taxi for the third time and took off. Better safe than sorry I guess.

We had a full day to ourselves before our first tour began and opted for the boat tour up the Canal St Martin which runs off the Seine near the Bastille and is the last part of an old cross country system. The Metro got us there with time to spare and the trip was very worthwhile as it included a lengthy tunnel section, numerous locks and centre of street running, similar to a water filled tramway reservation. Just a tip if you do it don’t sit right at the front of the boat or you will get wet from spray when the locks open! The afternoon was spent on bus and rail photography around the Gare du Nord and Gare de L’est featuring the spooky sight of machine gun toting soldiers doing security patrols. God knowns what it must be like since the events of last December (I’m finding out as you read this!)

Some detail about the transport system. Some cities organise and operate their own public transport within a “regie” or mixed economy company controlled by the Municipality. Examples of these towns are the greater Paris region (Isle de Seine) which extends well out of Paris – as far as Troyes to the east.

This is somewhat similar to the old New Zealand municipal model or Brisbane Transport. The RATP in Paris runs the Paris buses, eight tram lines, the Paris Metro and some of the RER suburban trains, not forgetting the Montmartre funicular.

Elsewhere the urban passenger transport authority of the town city or region puts out to tender the totality of its transport operations – like the Perth/ Adelaide model in Australia. This covers buses and in many cases trams and/ or trolleybuses and even bicycles. Operators are expected to carry some of the revenue risk – and reward – and to implement measures designed to increase patronage. The PTA then pays a contribution to the operator for the service. The nice part of this is that most towns have their own distinctive livery so it is not just a standard Veolia or Keolis livery in most cases.

In rural areas the town to village bus routes and school services are tendered out by Department councils and managed in much the same way.

Thus in a regional town or city you may well observe one operation providing the city bus/ tram services and a different one providing the commuter runs and school buses. I picked up some timetables for the commuter services in a few towns and found the typical style of operation was 3-5 inbound and one outbound AM trip for commuters and school children. A return service around lunchtime to cater for those coming in for shopping or medical appointments then 3-5 outbound trips and one inbound between 3-6pm with kids on the earlier ones and commuters on the later trips. The best similar Australian example I can think of would be the rural services in and out of Nowra.

Most of the tendered citybus services are operated by one of the two giants Veolia/ Transdev and Keolis. As of 2014 Veolia had 77 bus networks, trams at Nice, Rouen, Nancy, Lyon, Le Havre, Toulon and St Etienne. They also ran 25 outer suburban networks on the fringes of Paris and were a part of the Eurolines coach network. Keolis were running 12,000 buses and 11 tram systems. Most buses are again Irisbus/ Iveco but are more likely to be descended from Renault. Saviem/ berliet than from Italy’s Fiats. There were some examples of Solaris and Mercedes Citaros as well. Another manufacturer noted, firstly in Dijon is Heuliezbus, a name which may not be familiar to many. They started in the 1970s cloning Mercedes 0305s of which they built around 1,200. From 1982 they began their GX range of chassis which come in various lengths from minibus to articulateds with diesel, gas and hybrid powered options. Most are powered by Iveco engines.

Our first tour was just over two weeks in duration. We visited the burgundy region and did a wine tasting. There are five levels of quality. The first two belonged in casks, the third in the remainder bin, the fourth on the cheap aisle at Dan Murphys with the last one being the only one I would pay more than $20 a bottle for in Australia. I found the Bordeaux wines much more robust and more to my taste. There was a two night stop at Dijon (transport delights described in the Insight section above) and including a visit to a 15th century hospital at Beaune before we proceeded to Chamonix in the French Alps to “see” Mt Blanc. Socked in (see Switzerland section for a return visit). So had to settle for a small coverage of the Heuliezbus and Citaro town fleet in the cold and rain.

Next day we proceeded via Annecy and Grenoble to the Cote D’aZure for a weekend at Nice. Annecy had a nice variety of buses with Setra, Mercedes, Irisbus and Solaris and is home to the largest lake in France. Grenoble’s tram system commenced in 1887 and has been reborn with five lines and more to come. Transisere, the regional operator was running MAN and Setra buses.

The Nice tramway opened in 2007 and has two lines – again with more to come. The tiny principality of Monaco has its own small fleet of buses running six routes around Monte Carlo but is no good for railfans as the main line runs almost entirely underground or beneath buildings. The hilly city also has many escalator systems. The tour paid an evening visit to Cannes where you can observe many huge yachts owned by the filthy rich. A couple of nice double decker coaches were parked near our Mercedes Tourismo and were done on time exposure.

On leaving Nice we paid a visit to the medieval village of St Paul de Vence in the hills behind the coast which is famous for its fireworks displays re-enacting the sacking of the town by the Saracens. We then moved into the Provence region visiting Aix En Provence and Avignon. You can still see the remnants of the old bridge after which the song was named. This city was the home of the French Pope’s during the split in the Catholic church from 1309 to 1377. Some 12,000 people live in the medieval town centre. The bus station and rail station are on one edge, the city fleet run by Veolia using mainly Solaris buses. The intertown services were run by Edgard, a private operator with networks based here and also at Nimes and Arles.

We then moved into the Camargue region to visit Arles, where Vincent Van Gogh performed his earectomy. There is an amphitheatre which stages both concerts and bullfights, though not on the same night. Then onto Nimes, capital of the Gard Department which has an arena dating from Roman times. The local bus operation is called Tango and as well as the usual bus network there is a “pre tram”. This uses articulated buses similar to those you see in many USA cities. It street runs in the inner area then runs along the centre of a wide Boulevard similar to a reserved track tramway (which is to be built “sometime”. It made an interesting ride but is not quite a bus rapid transit system as it did not appear to receive traffic light priority at intersections. Covering the even- ing peak around the station I found one of the very few remaining Renault PR100.3 models sighted, acting as a standby bus.

A highlight was a visit to the cave system at Lasceaux and another were the medieval . At Cahors, famous for its river bridge, I found a nice model of a pre war Citroen bus which was a snap at ten euros. Rocemadour is a pilgrimage site in a gorge above the Dordogne River and is named after a variety of goat cheese. The coach park was interesting as it was very narrow. All movements had to be guided and full size coaches were left with everything behind the rear axle sitting about thirty feet above the roofs of the houses below. Not a good place to check your oil or change a belt.

The final day saw the coach deposit is outside the station at Poitiers where I had an hour or so to get some bus coverage before the group enjoyed a ride back to Paris via TGV. The tour concluded with a day of Paris sight- seeing.

We then went straight onto a second tour of the much flatter northern France with the first stop being Rouen. The cathedral here was the subject of a couple of dozen paintings by Monet all done from the one spot. Give the man a camera for chrissake. During the lunch break I ventured forth to get some tram shots (a system which opened in 1994) away from the city centre, where the tracks are underground. I found a spot on a bridge just past where the lines emerged on the surface and took some shots. I also noticed one car had pulled up in a near- by cross street and the driver appeared to be pretending to do various things. I reckon he had me under surveillance but wasn’t real good at being covert. After I left the bridge and went into a street side pissoir he disappeared.

Other highlights of this tour were the ancient fishing village of Honfleur, the Bayeaux Tapestry (which isn’t – its actually an embroidery), the war cemeteries of the Normandy beaches, Mont St Michel located in the middle of a basin with huge tidal variations, St Malo, home of the 19th century French pirates and a stay in a Chateau in the Loire valley. At Chatres we observed a local dignitary taking the ice bucket challenge, which was all the rage at the time, from a front end loader. So much more exciting than yet another bloody cathedral.

On the transport front, Mont St Michel has these weird double ender buses which take you across the causeway (or you can go in a horse drawn carriage). At St Malo I had time for both a trawl through the town’s extensive coach park and to observe the evening peak around the station, where the bus services are run by Keolis.

After the tour ended we had some more time on our own in Paris. I did most of the tram routes. The oldest one at St Denis gives you a glimpse of the racial and religious troubles that beset Paris. We were very conscious there of being just about the only “whities” in a sea of Arab and African faces. This was the area where much of the December 15 actions took place. Indeed one of our TDs told us he lived just outside Paris to the north and to get to the centre of the city he had to “pass through six African countries”.

Whilst Jeanette spent a day in the Louvre I did a long distance pilgrimage by TGV to revisit the trolleybus systems of Lyon and St Etienne. Finally it was on to Eurostar and off to London at a great rate of knots.