On November 15, 1960, it became “white cheese” (station master, in railroad parlance, with his immaculate headdress on his cap), responsible for giving the start, lowers his flag in front of the muzzle of the Capitol. This express, consisting of first-class cars and a dining car, leaves Paris on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, and returns from Toulouse on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. With four stops (Limoges-Bénédictins, Brive-la-Gaillarde, Cahors and Montauban) it takes seven hours, runs only in the evening, arriving around midnight. This is still just a test drive.
May 28, 1967, the big day. Le Capitole, through the forests of Solognote, between Fleury-les-Aubrais and Vierzon, is the first rapid to run at 200 km/h. “The decision was a leap of faith for the future. The number of customers had only grown slowly until then”writes Maurice Mertens, i Railway life. Jernbanmandmagasinet proudly points out that 432 test runs at 200 km/h and 40 to 250 km/h marked the reliability of this technical and commercial trip. In 1867 you didn’t reach the Pink City until after 8.11pm on a slow journey with an average speed of 35km/h. In 1950, the same distance was covered in 9: 27. In a century, the train has made giant leaps. Toulouse is now six hours from Paris.
No more wagon green and stainless steel grey. Capitol inaugurates its new livery, making way for “High Speed” cars dressed in red, designed by Paul Arzens. Its locomotives, the speedy BB 9200, also roll in bright red livery, with a dolphin gray band on the waistband, displaying their working condition prominently on an enamel plate: “CAPITOL”. It is said that the choice of exterior paint had an impact on the clientele. When the same train consisted of red cars and green cars, it was not uncommon to see passengers carapace from a green to settle into a red…
Pariser lobster and Gavotte crepes
In the fall of 1968, a Capitole du matin, in both directions, completed the line. In the spring of 1970, he spun there with the famous cars “Great comfort”, egg-shaped, air-conditioned, with padded seats, wide, soft. Now it works and runs every day. Despite a tormented route through the foothills of the Massif Central and the slopes of the Limousin, “the fastest train in France” rushes at an average of 140 km/h to Limoges, then 120 km/h to Toulouse-Matabiau (the name refers to the killing of the bull, beautiful, in Occitan). The station could almost be reflected in the water of the Canal du Midi, which flows at its feet. Sculpted bas-reliefs exalting the railway and industry frame the central clock. On the facade, the crests of 26 towns of Occitanie assign it to the center of this province.
Inside the Capitol, every effort is made to add luster to this daily feat. A hostess intervenes at the microphone to warn that the light horse of modernity will cross a terrestrial “sound barrier”: the magical 200 km/h. In the restaurant car, of high gastronomy, a fascinating speedometer maintains the excitement of crossing switches at such a pace. Dizziness and the intoxication of being there in no way alters the pleasures of the table. Served on a white tablecloth, the meals are hearty. Open the menu to see: assorted hors d’oeuvres, Parisian style lobster, forest meadow salt, sarladaise potatoes, mimosa endive salad, cheeses, Richelieu ice bomb with wafers, Gavottes crepes, coffee, liqueurs. Three to four services are scheduled at fixed times, signaled by a bell. We can book.
The success is immediate. We hurry “take the capital”, peaceful motivation in our latitudes. In Limoges, the first weeks, spectators flock, take pictures, marvel at the elegance of this train, filled with so much hope. The prestigious TEE (Trans Europ Express) mark, hitherto reserved for international connections, is awarded to it. The silver plates, which distinguish it from ordinary trains, line up above the bay windows. SNCF is rushing to put new trains into operation to meet demand. The national company’s posters and advertisements cleverly succeeded in cementing in people’s minds that the Capitol traveled at 200 km/h. In reality it only reached this power over 70 km, barely a tenth of the track, then, in 1971, over 40 km more. Magic effect of communication.
In Limoges, the “cyclopean station”
The passage to Limoges deserves to go down for consideration “the most beautiful station in France” (the title is sometimes disputed, incorrectly) and even the world, according to the American weekly Newsweek. The building, surmounted by a massive dome, flanked by an impressive campanile, at the same height as the Gare de Lyon (67 meters), with large discs, dominates the city and the landscape. We owe it to a young architect, Roger Gonthier, who wanted it on stilts spanning the tracks.
Communications officer for SNCF Nouvelle-Aquitaine, local child and lover of his station, Jean-Michel Debernard says it was widely criticized when it was built in the late 1920s. Like the Eiffel Tower before it was hailed, then listed as a historical monument, it was heavily attacked for its external appearance, a mixture of neoclassicism and art deco: “cyclopean station”, “centipede colossus”, “block of lard that butchers display in shop windows at Christmas”, “great clock that would have misplaced one of its candelabra”. It’s an eruption while the spectacular construction site, a feat of engineering, had attracted fascinated crowds. A few wiser voices had celebrated anyway “a masterpiece of beauty and power”. Visionaries.
The frieze facades cover the reinforced concrete skeleton of which the station is made. Above all, do not enter without considering the two majestic statues that symbolize “Capital of fire art” (porcelain and enamel, not to be confused with email, etc.) frames its great marquise, surmounted by a canopy of stained glass windows in the form of a basket handle, supported by eight columns. On the tympanum, Ceres, goddess of agriculture, neighbor with Mercury, god of commerce and travelers. On the side, balconies with balustrades and coats of arms of the cities in line with the Compagnie du chemin de fer from Paris to Orléans surround this Byzantine building. At the base of the dome, the eye is still open, similar to the eye Nautilus by Jules Verne, watches over the cardinal points.
Victim of unequal competition
To walk through the door is to enter a large, high-ceilinged concrete cathedral, lit by stained-glass windows by Francis Chigot, a stained-glass artist, overlooked by the crown dome that diffuses the light from above. In the corners of the huge hall of lost steps, the eye has plenty of time to detail, without embarrassment, naked women, the four caryatids personifying Limousin, Brittany, Touraine and Gascony, provinces formerly served by Paris-Orléans. Coats of arms of the allegorical imagery of IIIe Republic. Counters, counters, furniture are in exotic solid wood, and the large decorative panels, including a large tourist map, signed by the porcelain maker Camille Tharaud.
At the time of the Capitol, the Buffet de Limoges, the flagship of this traditional restaurant method, was open from 5:30 in the morning until midnight. Adorned with carved woodwork, staff furnishings and paintings, its great room attracted not only hungry travelers. A whole local clientele of gourmets liked to come and sit down there with their families and tie their towels around their necks. The memory is deleted.
From the Capitol to the Tarpeian Rock… Competition from Air Inters Caravelles, which reach Toulouse in an hour, threatens the survival of this fast, victim of unequal competition. And when he assembles second-class cars in the summer of 1982, Capitole loses his rank, his prestige and his title as TEE. His days are numbered. It will not survive the TGV, which anyway passes offshore, towards Bordeaux. The Red Arrow was decommissioned in September 1991 after thirty years of service.
Capitol put Paris in 2 h 50 from Limoges. In 2022, the capital moved away. We won’t reach it until 3:15 or 3:30, at best. Today, Limoges-Bénédictins, standing out on the horizon, bitter from a neglected line where there are few trains, is no longer the station but the sky. Limoges Intermodal Exchange Center. Stop dreaming.
Next week, episode 4 – The Blue Dove