The History of rail in Lower Normandy

-I- That happens only every 50 years

The Bretoncellois (re)discovered the RAILWAY HERITAGE of their commune at the time of the work on the TER line from Chartres to Le Mans between the stations of Theil-La Rouge (Orne) and Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) passing through Condé-sur-Huisne and Bretoncelles.

Lucky for Bretoncelles as, when it was being built, the original line from Paris to Brest should have run via Alençon.  But the station at Bretoncelles, opened in 1854, was historically the first in lower Normandy.


La gare de bretoncelles

The renovation work on the track had been expected since the last work of this kind dates back 50 years.  What luck for technology fiends, a fine programme for lovers of the night, a nightmare for those who had to put up with the noise of this mobile nocturnal workshop which stretches for 15 km and moves at 900 metres per night, between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m..


Zola and Balzac would have loved this!

During the transit of this "factory train" or "suite rapide" all lit up and deafening, 128 km of rails were lifted, 107,000 wood sleepers replaced by concrete ones and 138,000 tonnes of ballast sucked up, riddled and renewed.

De coupage du rail au chalumeau

Changement du rail

                        - Changing and replacing the track

Rechargement du ballast

                                     - At the same time, replacing the ballast

Retrait du ballast

                                                     - Lifting the ballast

..... All the while the track has been lowered by around 30 cm and then replenished with new ballast .....


Wagons chargés de cailloux neufs

                                           - Another delivery of new stone -

Bourrage du ballast sous le rail

... the track is lifted in steps of 10 cm at a time to reestablish its original parameters and the catenary adjusted until the rails are "liberated", an operation which removes all the thermal loads the rail was subjected to during laying.

The rails are cut, freed from the sleepers for 1,200 m., heated to 25°C , then fixed back onto the sleepers and welded togther.

500 people work on the construction site

.... at the controls of extremely sophisticated machines or on foot on the ballast the length of these machines, guiding, checking, taking measurements before and after, piloting the whole convoy by the light of their headlamps.  The materials are put into position with ease, in a deafening noise.

A real ballet!

De l'intérieur des machines

De l'intérieur des machines

At the blast of the morning whistle the whole convoy withdraws, as if by magic, to Le Mans (the logistical base for trains) and the first passenger train appears in the distance at 80 km/h and stops at Bretoncelles as if nothing had happened.  It is an exceptional technical and industrial achievement.

Congratulations on this concentrated rollout of power, technology and efficiency, which in four weeks enables, in complete safety, the relaying of a kilometre of track, guaranteeing the infrastructure a high level of performance and security for our next train journey.


The line to Paris is new and to last for 50 years at least.


Et c'est reparti pour 50 ans

In figures ...

  • 128 km of rail replaced
  • 14 level crossings (full closure to road traffic for one month at each crossing)
  • 107,000 new concrete sleepers laid
  • 138,000 tonnes of new ballast
  • 500 workers on the site (SNCF network and businesses)

The conservation of industrial HERITAGE has a price:

  • Total costs = 99m euros for SNCF network
  • Cost per km = 1.6m euros

Bretoncelles is also a RAILWAY heritage

The railway and Bretoncelles have a long history.  Bretoncelles Patrimoine et Nature had already organised an event on this subject in September 2021 on the occasion of the European Heritage Days, focused in particular on the footbridge over the railway.  It was installed in 1854, in wood originally then in hot riveted iron in 1896 and then heightened for electrification in 1936.

2024 will be the 170th anniversary of the line and the station of Bretoncelles (1854).  For this occasion BPN has started a new category in the built heritage of Bretoncelles.

After the captivating sequence of work in 2023, this year will be the opportunity to recall the history of the line and to celebrate the event.

-II- A bit if history

Was it going to go via Le Mans or Alençon?

We are at the beginning of the 1840s. The route of the line from Paris to Brest is under review.  It is already decided that it will run via Chartres and meet at Laval.  But between the two there was still a doubt: go via Le Mans or Alençon?  The economic issues for the two towns are considerable and they will do everything to secure the station. Le Mans wins in the end in May 1846.

The railway arrives in la Loupe (209m elevation) in 1852.  It has to reach Nogent-le-Rotrou (109m elevation).  Originally it was twin track. The 100m of height difference are resolved using the valleys of the Donnette, Corbionne and Huisne as far as Le Mans.

To find further information you can refer to the book, Bretoncelles, un village du Perche, éditions BPN - 2015.

Enormous construction works are undertaken to reach Bretoncelles from 1852

From 1852 enormous construction works are undertaken to reach Bretoncelles (157m elevation).  A cutting is made in the hills meeting the valley of the Donnette along a length of around 4 km at a depth of more than 15 metres in a straight line with an incline of 11/1000 (1.1%).

After a wide left hand bend at kilometre 129.5 the line reaches Bretoncelles at the level of Moulin Viel on a bank some 20 metres high.

As far as Bretoncelles the line clings to the hillside and staying very much above the Donnette.  In this very wet and marshy zone oak piles are placed under the track and hydraulic structures built (to capture water runoff).

After curves and counter curves the railway arrives at Bretoncelles at kilometre 134.27 and continues to Condé following the valley of the Corbionne, still keeping to the left side of the valley.

The line leaves the territory of Bretoncelles at kilometre 138.25 at the bridge over the road to Coulonges les Sablons.

The commune of Bretoncelles is cut in half

From that time on the commune of Bretoncelles has been cut into two by this railway for a distance of 9 kilometres.

La passerelle de Bretoncelles

Means of communication to go from one side of the line to the other have been planned. Passages under the line are built (Viel, iron bridge, Étrizes, Thivaux, Barboisseau, Plaisance, May, Gd Moulin and Rte de Coulonges), overhead bridges at Plaisance and Verger, and also 4 level crossings with hydraulic motors and .... the Passerelle (footbridge), originally wood and then iron in 1896, and raised at the time of the line's electrification in 1936.

The level crossings. Two are still in service today: PN45, rue Roger Poisson, which links the road to La Loupe with the road to St Victor de Buthon and PN46 which links the village to the road towards Coulonges.

PN44 allowed the connection from Haie Neuve to Moulin Neuf and so to Godefraise.  PN47 used to be between Bas May and Verger, just at the top of the hill on the Condé road ( for pedestrians only?).

PNs 45 and 46 showed their usefulness as they were closed for a month during the track renewal!

The Bretoncellois see new steel monsters passing through the centre of the village.

Locomotive vapeur 2901Ouest 04


Last edited: 18/06/2024