No. 122: Cité du Train – The French National Railway Museum


Two weekends ago I made the long drive down to Mulhouse, France to visit Cité du Train, the French National Railway Museum.  This museum presents the history and technological achievements of the French railway network, particularly the SNCF–the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer–which, since 1938, is France’s national state-owned railway company.

Don’t laugh.  I had read a lot about the museum and understood it was one of the very best in the world.  I expected it to be good, but I didn’t expect it to be that good.

The museum occupies a huge area on the south side of Mulhouse about an hour north of Bern, Switzerland.  The museum is full of steam, electrics, passenger cars, models, and lots and lots of memorabilia.  It is crystal clean.  The equipment is beautifully restored.  No old cars or engines rotting away outside.  It is first-class in every respect.

This place makes the B&O Museum look like ametuer hour.  It is fantastic—hands-down the best railroad museum I’ve ever been to.

Below.  I’m on the way.  You don’t see highway signs like this in central Illinois!


I have arrived!


After paying up (13 Euro-bucks—about $15 US), this is your first view, below, upon entry into the first of the two massive indoor museum buildings.  This building is filled with gleaming engines and passenger cars, and subway cars, and a good history of the SNCF during The Occupation.

You may notice how dark it is inside.  The interior is very dark, but the exhibits are all dramatically lit.


Below.  This huge 4-8-2 is immaculately restored.  It was built for the eastern rail lines in 1925.  It’s so clean you could eat off of it.


This part of the museum also includes a number of life-size figures depicting life on the railroad.  The figures are essentially dolls and are somewhat whimsical…and 100% French.

The photo below shows figures of an engineer and a man on the ground, posed aside the massive 4-8-2, having a conversation.  There are speakers inside the dolls, and they play recordings of men shouting to each other, with locomotive sounds in the background.  My camera picked up a lot more light than can seen with the human eye.  The real scene is quite dark—almost blacked-out.  In the dark, dramatic light, the figures look and sound absolutely real.   The effect is striking.


Below.  Part of this museum building includes a series of exhibits of life during the German occupation.  This exhibit depicts a 4-6-0 locomotive wrecked by the French resistance.


One of many freight cars in the museum, below.  The other end of the car has a staircase to a covered brake platform.


Below.  There are many passenger and subway cars inside this part of the museum.  Inside most of the dining cars, tables were set up for meals like that seen below.  This is a common display in many of the better rail museums.


A very unusual French-built engine for front-line service in military zones.


Between the two main museum buildings is a large outdoor area, adjacent to the active SNCF main tracks, that has an operating turntable, diesel engine rides, modern electric locomotives, miniature train rides, and a lot more stuff.  Below is a nice exhibit of interesting signal equipment.


This cool electric is posed on the turntable.  Inside the museum is another such engine.


Below.  This is the first exhibit you encounter as you enter the second indoor museum building.  Unlike the first building which is very dark inside, this building is very well lit.  This is where the bulk of the museum’s equipment resides.  There are dozens and dozens of beautiful steam and electric locomotives, passenger cars, and exhibits here.

This part of the museum is set up by era.  Each track corresponds to a different era on the French railways.  This huge 4-6-4, below, is set up on rollers, and it runs every 20 minutes so visitors can see the running gear in action.  Note the sign says it is a “Hudson” type.


Restored steam is everywhere inside the second building.  This heavy Pacific, most of which is painted in a rich maroon color, was set up over a pit so you can walk underneath.  This particular engine was regularly assigned to a division between Paris and Calais.  It was taken out of service in 1967.


Here is yet another Pacific, below, depicting a World War I-era scene.


More steam…it is everywhere inside, in a bewildering number of types and styles from many eras.  This track includes locomotives from 1900 and earlier.


I had never seen one of these unusual, uncovered engines until this day.  I’ll bet it wasn’t a great job for the crew, exposed to the weather and everything coming out of the stack.


Here’s another old engine.  Check out that single, huge driver on each side.


In addition to the crew being exposed to the weather, they also had to work right next to that huge spinning driver.  Very interesting…


Recognize this engine below?  It’s a Mikado-type, built by Baldwin in 1945 for the French Railways.  I understand it was rebuilt by the French at least once during it’s service life.  It is in spectacular condition.


SNCF has operated high-speed electric main lines, similar to the PRR, since the 1920s.  The museum collection includes a number of high-speed electric engines like the one below.   The museum considers these engines as if they are Formula One cars.  It’s a very interesting comparison, and the comparison carries through to another exhibit—which I didn’t photograph—of today’s super-fast TGV trains.


Here is a restored freight electric from the Midi Railways.


This is a dual-service electric engine built after SNCF took over as the national railway company.


This one, below, kinda looks like a refrigerator.


The museum, of course, includes thousands of models of many scales.  This handmade model from the 1930s features completely operational running gear, and operates every two minutes.  Its prototype companion sits on an adjacent track.


This model is an award-winner.  Love the medal!


Tucked away in a corner of the museum is a modeler’s room.  This room includes a large number of static displays and two operating layouts.  For one Euro-buck you can make the trains go.


Below.  This excellent all-metal model stands beside it’s prototype engine inside.


This model display case is near the entrance to the building.  It includes a large number of handsomely finished models in many scales, the smallest of which are probably O scale.


Below.  More exceptional prototype models in many different scales.  It’s too bad they aren’t running.


Below.  This electric engine model is set up on Ikea sawhorses just like my HO layout!  I had to include a photo.


And finally, to close out this post, I couldn’t resist including a photo of a French wine car.  Wonder if it’s red?


Until now I never appreciated the depth and breadth and history of the French railway scene.  And I’ve never been to a railway museum that both celebrates the past -AND- boasts of the future of railroading.  NO museum in America has the nerve to brag about railroading’s future…but this one does, and SNCF—with TGV, high-speed rail and a very modern freight-train network—has got the street creds to do it.

Even if you don’t speak French, you may enjoy checking out the museum’s website at  If you want more details, the Practical Information section of the website includes details on most of the museums’ collection.

I hope you enjoyed the tour!  – John G




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