The railway system of central Brittany has a short but glorious history. The big railway companies built lines which followed the south coast of Brittany from Nantes to Quimper (1851), and the north coast from Rennes to Brest, which was completed in 1865.
These lines were almost completely inaccessible to the inhabitants of Central Brittany, and the region remained untouched by the Industrial Revolution until local politicians and business people managed to raise funding for a narrow-gauge railway system, to be centred around the town of Carhaix. It is believed that narrow-gauge tracks were used because they are able to follow steeper inclines and tighter bends than standard gauge, and that this significantly reduced construction costs.
A total of five separate lines were built; the first to be completed ran from Carhaix to Morlaix, and opened in 1891, the last was the line to Camaret which was not completed until 1925.
The system comprised 427 km of track, a total of 52 stations and 500 level crossings. At its peak, Carhaix was the largest narrow gauge railway station in France, with 6 km of track in the station itself, 70 sets of points, and 6000 m² of engine sheds and workshops. At one point 350 people worked in the station, and, by the beginning of the 1960s, 2000 of the 7000 inhabitants of the town belonged to families which earned their living from the railway.
Before the construction of the railway the local economy in Central Brittany had been almost self-sufficient, importing and exporting very little to the rest of France. The new railways allowed farmers to sell their produce to the expanding cities of the region and to use the money raised to purchase fertilisers and new machinery.
Businesses such as the china clay quarries at Guiscreff, the cigarette paper factory at Scaër, and the slate quarries at Motreff, St. Hernin, and Maël Carhaix, started to sell their products nationwide and, as a result, expanded their workforce. Together with the railways themselves, this introduced the novel idea of working for money to the region.
The original railway lines grew out of the existing local culture: the lines were not built by migrant labour, but by local people taking time off from their fields, and construction schedules had to take second place behind the demands of the harvest and planting. In the same way, once the lines had been completed, train timetables were scheduled around market days and traditional holidays, and special trains were laid on to take people to Pardons and traditional fetes. A new vocabulary arose to describe the railway phenomenon: ‘an tren’ - the train; ‘an tren herrek’ - express train; ‘an tren potatez’ - potato train; etc.
As more lines were completed, however, the balance of power shifted and the demands of the railway started to take precedence over local traditions: stationmasters and administrators were exclusively French speakers and French became the language of the railways, making it the first institution of the area not to use Breton.
For the first time, there were French- speaking children living in the small Breton villages (the sons and daughters of the stationmasters) and the other children of the village quickly learnt French from their new friends. This probably did more to introduce the French language to the people of Central Brittany, than years of concerted effort on the part of the education authorities.
Narrow gauge railways, however, soon found themselves at a particular disadvantage in the competition with roads in the 1930s – unlike vans and cars, they could not reach the more remote villages, they were relatively slow, they demanded a lot of labour, and, to make matters worse, it was more complicated to transfer merchandise from the narrow-gauge trains to main-line trains at the big stations than to transfer it from vans and lorries.
There were already plans to decommission the Réseau Breton when war broke out in 1939. The occupying German forces shelved these plans, and after the War, reorganising the transport system was not the top priority. However, there was never any prospect of a long-term reprieve and the system was closed down in 1967. One line was saved: the track from Carhaix to Guingamp was converted to standard gauge and this is the line that still runs today.
The Carhaix to Guingamp railway line (with an extension from Guingamp to Paimpol) is all that remains of the once-renowned ‘Réseau Breton’: a narrow- gauge railway system, with its headquarters in Carhaix. The line was converted to standard gauge in 1967 and trains now cover the 53 km from Carhaix to Guingamp in approximately 1 hour. The journey provides a unique view of the Breton countryside, and even though it must be very different from when it was first built, has still managed to retain some of the atmosphere of times gone by.
The train follows the valley of the Hyère from Carhaix to Callac, and descends into Guingamp along the course of the 'Ruisseau du Bois de la Roche'. There are a total of eight stops between Carhaix and Guingamp, but Callac is the only manned station – the train has to be flagged down if you wish to ascend at any of the other stops. The majority of passengers are young people who attend the collèges and lycées of Carhaix and Guingamp, which means that the timetable is designed to meet their needs: trains run during term time in the early morning and after school. However, careful planning does make it possible to take the train for a day out in Guingamp or to use a one-way train journey as part of a day’s walking in the Breton countryside.
The Carhaix/Guingamp line is still technically owned and administered by the Société Générale des Chemins de Fer et Transports Automobiles (C.F.T.A), even though its services and rolling stock are fully integrated with the national rail company (S.N.C.F).
The Carhaix Guingamp train connects with the Brest to Paris TGV, which means that if one catches the first train in the morning from Carhaix which leaves at about 06h30, one arrives in Paris in good time for lunch.