Train spotters and art lovers rarely have much reason to indulge their passions together. With one group largely interested in locomotive livery and the other preferring to limit its time on station platforms strictly to getting from one exhibition to another, they might be forgiven for expecting not to have much in common. But now both sets of enthusiasts have reason to think again, thanks to a nation that takes as much pride in its world-beating railway as it does in its equally rich artistic heritage.
The French national railway company, the Socit Nationale des Chemins de Fer, or SNCF, will this week achieve an unusual first by holding an exhibition that is designed to attract waterproof-wearing aficionados of railway engineering and cashmere-clad aesthetes in equal measure.
For the next two weeks, the Grand Palais in Paris will host what is being billed as the only major exhibition to celebrate the rail industry through art, using more than 500 exhibits ranging from the photography of Robert Doisneau and travel posters by Salvador Dali to four full-size locomotives, underlining the French belief that a well-designed train engine is as much an artwork as Claude Monet's paintings of the Gare St Lazare.
The extravaganza, entitled L'Art Entre en Gare, or Art Enters the Station, is to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the SNCF's foundation with a retrospective dwelling on the way in which rail travel has been portrayed and used by artists in media from cinema to fashion. Suitably for a show about trains, after its stint in Paris the exhibition will be transferred to a specially-modified train and go on a tour of 18 French cities.
The organisers, who were given three months to draw up a plan to fill the vast Grand Palais building with suitably railcentric work, have gone out of their way to offer something for everyone, with railway workers' uniforms by Christian Lacroix nestling beside architect's drawings of some of the world's best-known stations and computers for young visitors to design their own train.
But according to the man in charge of the project, Julien Leleu, the whole ensemble is brought together by the idea that railways are indelibly linked with significant events in the lives of millions of people and therefore provoke an irresistible nostalgia and curiosity for railway-obsessed geeks, high-minded art lovers and everyone in between, including Britons whom the SNCF hopes to attract to the exhibition via the Eurostar from the new St Pancras station in London.
Leleu says: "Everyone has an important memory of the railway, a life-changing moment. The railway is part of our personal histories, whether it is leaving or meeting a lover on the platform, or leaving our parents behind to go to a holiday camp as a child or simply starting a long journey to a different world or country. It always evokes strong memories.
"It is because of this that artists have also been interested in the railway, the station has a certain poetry and breadth of human experience to offer. Therefore, there is a huge body of work that invokes the train and the railway. This exhibition offers only a snapshot of that but I hope it shows just how rich and fascinating that heritage is."
A key part of this meeting between art and the iron horse is a display of vintage posters advertising SNCF destinations executed since the 1930s by leading artists. Raoul Dufy's advert for Normandy stands alongside Salvador Dali's arresting series of six 1960s posters emblazoned with butterflies and a striking poster for the ski train by graphic artist Guy Georget.
Technology is harnessed for the photographic element of the exhibition with a digital "photo jukebox" that allows visitors to project the image of their choice, from works including Robert Doisneau's picture of holidaymakers awaiting a train to Johann Rousselot's surreal shot of a musician hiding behind his double bass on a platform.
But no French retrospective on railway art would be complete without a large chunk of its space being given over to the "septime art" of cinema. The exhibition features a room of still photographs taken of films shot in French railway stations, such as Orson Welles's visit to the Gare de Lyon for his 1957 film The Trial, and a montage of famous railway-oriented extracts from movies such as Les Parapluies de Cherbourg.
Serge Garcin, a documentary-maker who co-ordinated the film element of the exhibition, says: "Film-makers have perhaps even more reason to be fascinated with railways than other artists. To get on a train or arrive at a station is thrilling the people, the emotions of departure and arrival. We have gone out of our way to look beyond France and find foreign films that look at the railway."
And the British contribution to this retrospective? Maybe Albert Finney's turn as Hercule Poirot in Sidney Lumet's 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express? Or David Lean's Brief Encounter? No, the UK is represented by Mr Bean's Holiday.
Together with the absence of the new St Pancras from the architecture section, British visitors might be forgiven for thinking that the SNCF is trying to highlight the contrast between the UK's unloved network and its own glittering treasures. But, the organisers insist, that is not the case. They point out that after the series of strikes that paralysed the French rail system last month, there is reason for ambivalence about trains on both sides of the Channel.
Instead, the SNCF wants its 70th birthday to be an opportunity to marvel at railways in general, from the bright orange locomotive of its first Train à Grande Vitesse, or TGV, to Shanghai's central station. As a spokeswoman for the company puts it: "I think we want to show everything that is positive about rail travel, especially after the last few weeks."
L'Art Entre en Gare, Grand Palais, Paris (00 33 892 353 535; www.sncf. com/ expoanniversaire), Friday to 6 JanuaryReuse content