Who remembers it? There was a time when it was not popular to take the train. DS, the first Autoroutes and Caravelles of Air Inter were much more attractive than the old railway. Concerned about this ebb, whipped up by this worrying dissatisfaction, the SNCF had the idea to propose “fast” to adapt to this nascent taste for speed.
The construction of Europe had given birth to TEE (Trans Europ Express), which in a few hours connected the continent’s capital cities. The launch of the Mistral is part of this general movement of accelerated mobility, favored by the elf’s magic wand, which gradually eliminates steam traction, a major consumer of coal.
Archivist Clive Lamming drew his ruler. On the Paris-Lyon axis, no less than 600,000 tons of coal were burned every year, more than 1,000 tons per kilometer … The work of going from one era to another was daunting. Right on the Paris-Lyon section, “it was necessary to change 173 bridges, 21 footbridges, 21 tunnels, change the PTT and SNCF telephone installations, build 51 electrical substations”sums up Clive Lamming.
“Less autonomous, they wear out quickly”
Mistral, a day train, departs from Gare de Lyon, track A, the least congested with switches. It follows in the wake of the blue train on the “Imperial Line” (Paris-Lyon-Mediterranean), the major economic and tourist axis traced by the Second Empire. From 14 May 1950, Paris-Lyon was consumed at 4:15, with hair-raising peaks of 140 km / h. The long ramp tunnel in Blaisy-Bas (4,114 meters long, 451 meters above sea level), which leads to Dijon, is being crossed at high speed. That “fast” pull the notches on the rheostat. Then it is just a formality to go to Lyon through the vineyards of Burgundy, Mâconnais and Beaujolais.
At Lyon-Perrache, the frame change does not take long. We pick up BB 9200, CC 7100. From the La Mouche depot we dug, depending on the era, a Pacific Ocean, a Mountain, a Mikado, thoroughbred steam, Mistral plate on the chest, which plugs to demonstrate that they do. do not deserve the waste for which they are intended. “Less autonomous, they run out fast, require relays, locomotive changes along the way”, explains Olivier Vellay, cultural heritage architect, member of the association Rails & history. That “stewed box”a dining car, is referred to the end of the convoy, followed by a Pullman lounge car and a luggage cart.
stainless steel cars
In 1951, Mistral stood out with its stainless steel cars, a model from the United States whose silver color broke with the bottle green at SNCF. On the sides, its name in golden letters suggests speed. In 1956, innovation: air conditioning. The windows are clad. No more waving tissue across the window; obsolete, the injunction with poetic accents, E pericoloso sporgersi (It is dangerous to lean overexcept).
The Mistral goes down the great descent towards the Mediterranean and gradually increases its speed, which is facilitated by the advance of the overhead contact lines. On April 24, 1964, “Télé Dimanche”, on ORTF’s first channel, broadcast the tour live, commented on by the incorruptible Léon Zitrone and by Pierre Sabbagh.
In 1969, the year of the man on the moon, the first flights with Boeing 747 and Concorde, Mistral accelerates at 160 km / h. It is completely redesigned, renewed, as they said in those days. It offers a bar car on the model of Drugstore Champs-Élysées with waiters in white uniforms, shop (jewelry, ties, fashion bags) with books and newspapers (happy times), secretarial service with Olivetti typewriters, telephone available and hairdressing salon where you can not save on Elnett paint … The stewardesses, all dressed in red (suits, cap and oddly enough black gloves) are dressed by Balmain. Speed and prestige. Traveling with Mistral means being in the wind.
These unprecedented approvals revolutionize the railroad. Showy colors, casual bar service, adjustable, wide, plush seats, deep headrests, seated dining, white tablecloths and fresh flowers in the restaurant. “The staff is hand-picked, experienced, bilingual”, emphasizes Denis Redoutey, historian and railway worker. We are far from the greyish austerity of the usual, long and ordinary journeys. Soon Nice was only nine hours from the capital.
“The Mistral has priority on this line”
“Like the Blue Train, the Mistral has priority on this congested line. We clear the passage so that its progress is not slowed down », Olivier Vellay continues. At the end of the endless Nerthe tunnel (4,600 meters), after Aix-en-Provence, an explosion of azure light and maritime colors, at sunset, grabs the traveler when Mistral attacks L’Estaque and the lines for anchor, the silhouette of Château d’If and, hidden on the horizon, the good mother of Notre-Dame de la Garde.
In Marseille Saint-Charles, those who descend under the large glass roof have the right to the monumental panoramic staircase that opens out to the city. The others are taken to the Côte d’Azur, at a more moderate pace, but filled with so many promises of a landscape change that no one holds this loss of speed against Mistral.
Travelers have at least time to be lulled by the memory of Gare de Lyon, its grandeur, its great ship, its statues of naked women, in dull poses, strange allegories of industry, steam, mechanics, electricity, its 119 coats of arms on the facade and the 77 mosaic weapons from the cities operated by the PLM network. With its monumental clock and its corner statues personifying industry, trade, agriculture and prosperity, its campanile overlooks Paris. Invitation to travel, its long space of frescoes, over the counters, customizing a colorful journey of the upcoming route or already past.
Do they, these privileged people, think of their refreshing stopover at the Blue Train? The name of the restaurant maintains the aura of glory, and soon regret, of the palace on rails. It was its new chef, Albert Chazal, who had the inspiration in 1963. Ten years later, his establishment was erected as a historical monument, protected from the SNCF’s modernist rage at the time. The PLM acronym is scattered throughout, engraved in the woodwork, on the chests of drawers, above and next to the 41 murals, made on the site by about twenty provincial painters, a number marooned by the line’s tourist destinations.
Access to the blue train, an intact Belle Époque enclave, is via a double-turned staircase and a revolving door. The sight of the place overwhelms the customer, suddenly caught up in the past, welcomed by a piccolo who frees him from his luggage. Before the passenger sits down on the leather benches, he does not know where to turn before this farandole of luxury, splendor, and the uninterrupted ballet of the servants. The chandeliers (a ton each) shed their light on this sumptuous decor of stucco and staff.
In front of the bay windows, the pleated curtains, which look like luxury trains, huge cotton and silk curtains, sewn by seamstresses from Printemps and Galeries Lafayette, filter the hours of waiting. The carved chests of drawers in solid mahogany stand as guard posts. “On the menu of this traditional gastronomic restaurant, with French know-how, plank cars, table preparation, flambéing for desserts, the dishes, the classics, come from the regions crossed by Mistral”emphasizes Cyril Gibon, room manager.
The traveler walks amazed on a herringbone parquet. He hesitates. What to choose? The Réjane room or, behind the big red curtain, the more intimate Golden Room? Where to land at the time of digestion? At the Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian fair? The passenger in the Blue Train, a motionless vessel in turmoil, experiences the moral of the fabulist Jean de la Fontaine. “There is no point in running, you have to start on time. » At 13.10 Mistral, who he sees behind the voluptuous vortices of his cigar, is waiting for him in lane A.
Next Week Episode 3 – The Capitol