Clermont Ferrand Cevennol Railway
The Clermont Ferrand (or Cevennol) Railway is a long distance, scenic rail route in the South of France that can be enjoyed either as a regular SNCF service, as a tourist train, or as a combination of the two.
The full length of the journey is around 5 hours, between Nimes in Provence and the town of Clermont Ferrand in the central Auvergne region.
The Clermont Ferrand railway is relatively little-known, compared to other scenic railways, especially those in Switzerland or Scandinavia, which seems a pity, particularly as the line has been under threat of closure for a number of years and is certainly worth exploring for fans of scenic train journeys in Europe.
I travelled on the stretch between Nimes and Langeac, using a combination of SNCF and tourist trains.
The SNCF Train
I was instantly impressed by the northbound SNCF train. It’s large, modern, airy and very comfortable, with huge picture windows about two thirds of the carriage high. The seats were wide and comfortable, closer to what you might expect from a first class carriage.
I went on a Saturday morning in late May buying a ticket on the day with no problems from the excellent self service machines at Nimes Station. A walk up return fare cost 44 Euros, though of course you can get a better deal by buying online in advance. There was plenty of room on the train, so I got a double seat to myself on both legs of the journey.
The Tourist Train
A special tourist train runs on selected days throughout the summer months (several departures per week) between the towns of Langogne and Langeac for what is the route’s most scenic stretch.
You can book tickets via phone or email (see their website), but you can also get them on the day, not from the Langogne’s main ticket office (which was shut when I arrived) but from a little cabin at the end of the platform, where after completing a form for no obvious purpose you’ll also be issued with a town map and a leaflet outlining some of the sites. A return ticket costs 22 Euros. There was a bit of a queue in the office, so I would advise arriving at least 20 minutes before your departure time.
The train has its own boarding area too, to distinguish it from the regular SNCF trains using the same platform, with a funny little velvet rope! The train only has 3 or 4 carriages which pack out quickly enough, so it’s worth getting in line in good time.
The train itself is nothing special and certainly less modern than its SNCF counterpart with smaller windows. Make sure you sit on the left hand side to see the bulk of the eye candy. It’s also worth noting that each car has three groups of seats, in the rear one the windows don’t open and the vestibule areas tend to get packed out, so try to sit in one of the front two sections if you plan on taking lots of photographs.
There is a more or less continuous live commentary in French only, but you can download an English version from the website in advance.
With an hour or so to kill at Langogne, I decide to explore the town. The road leading from the station is not especially prepossessing, given over mostly to agricultural vehicle yards and a large cemetery. A comically loud cockerel crowed from the yard of L’Modest Inn, where an antique motorbike took pride of place.
Langogne seemed like a fairly ordinary working rural town, somewhat suspended in the middle of the last century perhaps, and was all but taken over by a sprawling market. Rows of stalls selling high vis jerkins, army fatigues and dated fashions line the streets, alongside more tempting produce: gnarly herb crusted sausages, baskets of woody mushrooms and those extraordinary huge, squash-shaped Provencal tomatoes.
The Langeac – Langogne Journey
Boarding the train I watched the passengers file in, mostly elderly groups of French people, with the odd family and younger couple. A little boy, maybe five or six, was having great fun rolling a bogey along a small stretch of disused track beside the platform and before long we were off.
Leaving Langogne behind we passed a large electrical dam and within 5 minutes or so the vestiges of civilisation peeled away, as the train begins to weave its way through a series of deeply carpeted emerald green gorges, enlivened by the odd splash of golden gorse, and past countless tiny golden sandy beaches amid the riverbanks.
We passed through a seemingly endless procession of tunnels ingeniously carved from the rocks, which give plenty of opportunities to snap the train’s curves as it snakes its way through them. In total the train passes through some 51 tunnels and 16 viaducts, many of them are incredible feats of engineering.
The majority of the journey takes you through true wilderness where no cars can go, so you’re not likely to spy many people either. At one point we passed a small group of kayakers pausing at an islet amid some fast flowing rapids. It was hard to tell if their slow wave was a greeting or a lethargic call for assistance. Near Paradelles I’m delighted to spy an eagle soaring slowly above, whose enormous wings are coloured in striking shades of cappuccino.
Keeping half an ear on the commentary I swore I kept hearing the word ‘chapeau’ and craned my neck expecting to see hat-shaped rock formations. After a little while I realised that the word was actually ‘chapelle’, indicating the regular presence of chapels amid small clusters of hilltop villages along the route comprised of pink-roofed farmhouses.
Towards St Arcons d’Allier the scenery shifts to the right hand side, so I get up and wander my way across the carriage to take a few pictures, but I drop my phone which suddenly startles the old man opposite me, who tuts loudly at me for jarring him from his gaping mouthed slumber. A symphony of beige, he looks like a cross between Woodstock from Peanuts and an especially soporific baby vulture.
Finally we arrive at Langeac. Because of the timing of the train (there are only a few departures per day) and my onward connections, I only have 25 minutes here, so today is truly a day of train travel for its own sake!
The platform was lined with a gaggle of listless bikers. One especially wizened looking chap in pixie boots and a battered fedora sat alone listening to Bob Marley on his speakerphone.
Exiting the station I notice there’s a vaguely Celtic-themed bar just opposite called Bar Kilt and I head down Rue Jules Ferry, which has me briefly pondering the prospect of starting my own Bryan Ferry tribute act and past this striking corner building.
I just about get time to wind me way down past the attractive Hotel de Ville and to the Riverfront, snap a few quick pics of the Quay and the American-style iron bridge, before making my way back up the hill to the station.
The return train is a SNCF service. While not as bright and modern as the outgoing train, it’s comfortable enough with large, plush double seats and curtains in shades of mint and grey.
Food & Drink On Board
No refreshments are provided on the tourist train, and there was no trolley service on the SNCF train. There are a number of pubs and cafes within short walking distance of both Langogne and Langeac stations though, and there is also the homely Buffet Bar in Langogne station itself.
How much is the Clermont Ferrand Railway and is the Tourist Train Worth it?
In general I have to say that I actually preferred the SNCF train to the tourist one, which seems far better designed for the purpose. The tourist train is still good value since if offers a detailed commentary and goes at a slower pace (2 hours and twenty minutes, compared to the SNCF train which covered the same journey in about 1 hour 40 minutes) to give you better chances to appreciate the views and take photos.
It makes a few brief stops in a few of the villages and they also run a range of different tours, including one which visits the volcanic villages on the route, stopping off at Monistrol-d’Allier for a quick swim or hike and one which stops for lunch at the Le Haut-Allier restaurant in Pont-d’Alleyras for 80 euros all in.
In terms of a price comparison, you can book a day return online in advance from Langogne to Langeac with SNCF from around 18 euros. Overall I think it’s well worth supporting for a few extra euros.