Three decades of change on the railways of Brittany

On a long hot summer’s day in 1989 I made one of my most rash investment decisions ever when I followed the example of many other Brits at the time and bought a second home, near Dinan in Brittany. Over the next three decades it gave me a chance to get to know the region and its fascinating, but much-rationalised, railway network.

Having finally and reluctantly decided to sell the house, this seems like a good excuse to look at some of the changes that I have seen on Brittany’s railways over the past three decades, as witnessed on my numerous delightful days by train out over that time.

The last of Brittany’s once numerous narrow gauge networks had closed in 1967, although two branch lines of the former  Réseau Breton metre gauge system did survive after being converted to standard gauge, those from Guingamp to Carhaix (in 1967) and to Paimpol, with the latter having been converted to dual gauge as early as 1923.

Two losses shortly before my arrival in Brittany were the branch line north from Dinan to the elegant Victorian resort of Dinard and a section of a north-south route in the heart of Brittany, from Loudéac (pictured below) to Pontivy (September 1987), followed more recently by closure of the sections between Loudéac and St. Brieuc (August 2006) and Morlaix-Roscoff (June 2018).  

Summer 1992 and railcar X2108 waits at Loudéac before its return to St. Brieuc

In the case of the 21km Dinan-Dinard route, local trains had been withdrawn in March 1972, but the line survived for use by a summer-dated Paris-Dinard express until 27 September 1986, and finally closed to freight traffic on 1 February 1988. The track remained tantalisingly in situ for a number of years, before being lifted in 1995/6.

Paying a visit to the closed station at Dinard on one of my first family holidays in Brittany (1989), the substantial station building remained intact, with a splendid granite plaque on the front of the building (pictured below) featuring some emotional and typically French language commemorating the centenary of its opening (1887-1987).   


Brittany’s rail network 

For those unfamiliar with Breton geography, the region is basically served by two main lines – now both electrified and served by regular TGVs. Dividing just west of Rennes, the southern route of the former Compagnie du Paris-Orléans (opened in 1867) passes through the towns of Redon, Vannes, Auray and Lorient on its way to Quimper, from where a non-electrified branch heads north to Brest. 

The northern main line of the Compagnie des chemins de fer de l’Ouest (opened in 1865) heads north-west from Rennes to Lamballe and St. Brieuc then continues on to Brest via Guingamp and Morlaix. One other route that has also been electrified and now sees TGV services to and from Paris is a route north from Rennes to St. Malo via Dol de Bretagne.

A summer 1996 view of the station at Plouharnel-Carnac, which is the only passing loop on the Tire Bouchon route from Auray to Quiberon

One surviving branch line off the southern route is the delightful summer-only link between Auray and Quiberon, known by its nickname as the Tire Bouchon (corkscrew), as it traverses the narrow isthmus onto the Quiberon peninsular.

Leading off the northern main line is a link from Lamballe via Dinan to Dol de Bretagne on the Rennes-St. Malo route, the former Réseau Breton branches from Guingamp to Carhaix and Paimpol mentioned above, and a short and now-electrified link from a junction at Plouaret-Trégor to the resort town of Lannion.

Picture below in summer 1989 BB 67431 stands in the original Lannion staton with a service for Plouaret-Trégor

A final branch off this main line was the one from the charming town or Morlaix to the ferry port of Roscoff. This line was breached by flooding in June 2018, since when its limited rail services have been replaced by buses, although there has been an energetic local campaign to get the railway re-opened.

Railcars X 73590/X 73605 at Roscoff on 9 July 2011 after arrival from Morlaix

From the regional capital of Rennes there is also a branch line heading south-east to the town of Chateaubriant, where it now shares a station with a train-tram service along the former rail route south to Nantes in the Pays de Loire, and featured in my July 2016 blog “Heritage traction on a Breton branch line”

Two generations of railcar meet at Vern on 27 July 2016, one of three passing places on the branch line from Rennes to Chateaubriant

While the experience of Brittany’s branch lines has been pretty dismal – only the Lannion link seeing significant investment and the section of route between Lamballe and Dinan being under threat of closure – there has been substantial investment in upgrading the two main lines, as well as the route from Rennes to St. Malo.

Upgrading the network

Over the 30 years I have been visiting Brittany there has been huge investment in electrification, re-signalling and, most recently, completion of the LGV Bretagne-Pays de la Loire high speed line east of Rennes in 2017. This slashed the journey time to Paris to just 1 hour 26 minutes and cut the 613km (383-mile) Brest-Paris journey time to a mere 3 hours 25 minutes.

Contrasting rolling stock at St. Brieuc on 9 July 2011 as TGV Atlantique set 303 pauses with a Brest-Paris service and X 2145 has arrived from Dinan

The upgrading had begun two years before my arrival (in 1987) when the first section of the northern main line – from Rennes to St. Brieuc – was electrified. This was followed in 1989 by the section west from St. Brieuc to Brest and heralded the launch of TGV Atlantique services on the route. 

Three years later, in summer 1992, electrification of the southern main line from Rennes to Quimper was completed and TGV services from Paris inaugurated. These are typically formed of two TGV Atlantique sets from Paris to Rennes, where the train will divide, with one set continuing on to Brest and the other to Quimper.

A small enhancement to the electrified network came in 2000, when the short branch-line from Plouaret-Trégor to Lannion was electrified and a new station built at the terminus. In stark contrast to the other Breton branch lines, this allowed for the introduction of seasonal direct Paris-Lannion TGV Atlantique services.

Summer 2005 and BB (1)67349 stands in the new St. Malo station before its electrification had been completed, with a service for Rennes

One final extension of electrification and TGV operation saw the route from Rennes to St. Malo energised in December 2005 and direct TGV Atlantique services to and from Paris launched. Coinciding with this, a new four platform station was built some 250m south of the original terminus in St. Malo, each platform being 480m long and able to handle a double TGV Atlantique set.

In an encouraging sign that the secondary branch lines have not been completely overlooked, the route from Dol-de-Bretagne to Dinan was closed in December 2019 for a long overdue and year-long €24.2m upgrade of its infrastructure. 

Re-signalling and electrification has transformed the scene at Dol-de-Bretagne since this summer 2003 view showing X 2135 on a Dinan service

This will see the line speed raised from 70 km/h to 120 km/h as track is re-laid on 18 kms of the route between Dol and Pleudihen-sur-Rance, remedial work undertaken on a viaduct over the Rance river and, remarkably, accessibility improved at the line’s four poorly-served intermediate stations.

Rail fares in Brittany

For many years the best and cheapest way of touring Brittany’s rail network was the marvellous Pass Bretagne ticket, which offered a day’s unlimited travel on all regional trains on summer Saturdays, as well as a number of TER-operated bus services, for a price of 50 Francs, which became €10.00 after introduction of the Euro in 2002. 

In the year it was introduced, my late father and I made an extremely long circular day trip from Dinan to Rennes via Dol, then on to Quimper, Brest, back to Rennes and finally returning late at night back to Dinan via Dol. 

On later occasions a favourite family day trip with Pass Bretagne tickets was a circular tour starting at Lamballe, from where we would take a train to Rennes, followed by a two-hour journey along the southern main line as far as Rosporden, a pleasant small town and the last stop before Quimper. 

A huge summer music festival called Les Vieilles Charrues brings significant extra traffic to the Carhaix branch line. On 20 July 2013 a four-car formation including railcars X 2146 (front) and X 2144 (rear) awaits its return to Guingamp

After lunch here, we would take the SNCF bus to Carhaix – a direct replacement for the former Réseau Breton metre-gauge route closed in 1967. There is always old rolling stock to be seen at Carhaix and the local Coreff beer to be sampled, before a journey up the fascinating branch from Carhaix to Guingamp, then an early evening return to Lamballe. 

Railcar X 2142 nears Guingamp on 17 July 2010 with a service from Paimpol

Sadly Pass Bretagne is no more, but there is still a chance to travel the Breton at a reasonable price with what are called Prix Ronds tickets, offering a cut-price return trip for a tariff of €5, €10, €18 or €28 according to the distance travelled. 

These tickets, which are also offered at half-price on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays during school holidays (Prix Ronds Promo), are valid at any time on Saturdays and on weekday trains shown in green on individual route timetables.

Railcars X73605 and x73604 await their next duties at Dinan on 28 August 2012

In practice that means virtually every train on the branch lines, but significantly more limited availability on main routes, when many services are already off limits as they are worked by TGVs, so trips do need careful planning. 

One even more attractive offer is on the first Saturday of every month when a special fare called Promo TER BreizhGo gives the chance to make any journey in Brittany for a single fare of just €5.00. 

On reflection 

Imposition of quarantine restrictions on Britons returning from France sadly meant cancellation of my planned final summer holiday in Brittany this year, after a time when rail services had been significantly curtailed, before being progressively restored to near normality by late August.

Since I wrote to the Regional Council three decades ago (in french) suggesting the need to do more to promote rail travel in the region, through such things as cheap day returns and runabout type tickets, there has been some improvement, although withdrawal of Pass Bretagne was a big step backwards.

In summer 1993 there were still loco-hauled summer Saturday services on the sparsely-served and perennially closure-threatened Rennes-Caen route, as seen here at Dol-de-Bretagne with rare use of a pair of BB 66400 series locos

Lack of any sort of regular interval timetables and extremely sparse TER services on the two main axes makes planning a cheap day out that avoids the costly TGVs almost impossible. Anyone wanting to start the day using a Prix Ronds ticket from St. Brieuc to Rennes, for example, has the choice of a service at 07.16 then nothing until 12.06. 

Apart from cheaper ticket offers, I have always been left with the feeling that more could be done to develop regional services. Taking one example, the Cinderella route from St. Brieuc to Dinan has had a service of three daily round trip ever since I first went to Brittany in 1989, with pretty poor onward connections westwards at St. Brieuc. 

A summer 1989 view looking east from Dinan station before its re-signalling. The signal cabin is now preserved within the station’s railway museum

Yet by using the bi-mode units now in service it would be possible to operate a “Trans-Bretagne” TER service from St. Malo to Brest that would open up a host of new journey opportunities and hugely increase the attractiveness of the link to Dinan. 

Similarly, the north-south link from St. Brieuc to Auray remains intact, although largely disused apart from freight traffic at its southern end, but could be used to provide a summer-time north-south link from St. Malo to Auray and Quiberon that would restore rail connections to the sizeable towns of Loudéac and Pontivy.

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