Slow train that spawned the fast track

Mary Dejevsky checks out the origins of Europe's most advanced railway network
Andrezieux - There was only one living being waiting on Platform One for the 0929 to St Etienne and it was a large brown rabbit, nibbling tufts of grass that had grown between the cracks in the paving.

At Andrezieux station, on the edge of the small town centre, there is no stationmaster with cap, whistle and signal board. There is barely a station, only a one-time railway building, shuttered and boarded up, and one track. Another track ends abruptly, without buffers; traces of two others can be seen in the grass, but the rails are long gone.

The only signs that this is a working station are the new wooden bench and fence and a graffiti-covered ticket machine.You can travel from here to the declining steel city of St Etienne,and even on to Lyons, but only twice a day, and only in the morning, when the train from Clermont-Ferrand stops.

This spot, in the upper Loire valley in what are now suburbs of St Etienne's conurbation, is all that remains of the earliest days of the French railway system. It was here that France, better known now for pioneering Europe's fastest train, the TGV, inaugurated its first railway, 21km long, on 30 June 1827. The first steam engine ran five years later, when a passenger service also started.

At 0925 on a Monday morning, the only other passenger, a camera-wielding tourist in green and purple, walked on to the platform. Three minutes later, a bell rang out, lights flashed on the level-crossing close by, and the 0929 came into view.

The two carriages were half-full: vocal Germans with ample luggage all over the seats, and a sprinkling of mostly young locals. For the next 16 minutes, the train trundled along between its embankments, with the skyline of St Etienne looming ever larger. From time to time you could see the Clermont-Ferrand -St Etienne motorway running alongside, bordered by industrial estates and shopping malls.

It was no one's fault that Trainspotting was advertised as St Etienne's main cinematic attraction, nor that the drizzle turned to rain, nor that the Museum of Art and Industry, which charts the economic and social history of the city that once "manufactured everything", was shut for renovation. But it all set a certain mood, of a city competing against the odds, and not winning.

St Etienne was a city, like Sheffield, of steel and coal and cutlery, and, like Sheffield, it had to find other things to do when the steel industry contracted. Some of its metal skills now go into making the swords that won French fencers their Olympic medals, but most are not needed.

St Etienne's great coup of recent years was to be chosen as headquarters of France's biggest mail-order company, Manufrance. To mark its new status as white-collar, new-tech, service-orientated city, it cleaned the soot off the buildings that line its ramrod-straight 19th-century streets and slapped a preservation order on "the old town".

The most lively part of the centre, though, seemed to be around the tourist centre and cathedral. Not because either was much visited, but because they abut the large, bustling social security offices.

At the tourist centre I asked for information about the history of the railways. "No, we don't have anything; try a bookshop," said the man. Then, almost as an afterthought, he added: "You know, St Etienne had the first railway in France." It might have been the first, but it turned out to have a big drawback. Getting back to Andrezieux is not easy. A coach runs every couple of hours through the day, but to catch a train, you have to wait until the evening rush-hour.

If you miss the 1940, you must wait for the 2200 coach; after that, you must stay in St Etienne. And the fare for the round trip of 42km? The best part of 32 francs (pounds 4).

That evening, the main rush-hour train, the 1806 from the biggest of St Etienne's five stations (two are now closed) was only sparsely occupied. The other passengers all seemed to be regular commuters on polite greeting terms. "Bon soir, Madame", "Bon soir, Monsieur", they said to each other as they got on, and then not another word before alighting.

Over dinner at the hotel, barely 10 minutes' walk from the railway station, everyone was clustered in the cellar cafe.

It was cool and humid, not the weather for eating outside under the plane trees. Over eminently acceptable house Beaujolais, I confessed the reason for visiting Andrezieux.

"It's a funny thing about that railway," the hotel manager said. "You know, until a few years ago, no one really paid any attention to it. I was working one summer at the tourist office and mentioned the railway to a friend. And you know what he said? He said that a great-great-grandfather of his drove the first train - from Andrezieux to St Etienne - and that he knew where the original station was."

"The original station?" I hazarded, worried that my whole day had been spent on the wrong railway line. "Well," he said, "it transpires that the original station was near the river and that a house was subsequently built on the site. We had a memorial plaque put up."

Next day, a drive to the town's tiny tourist office revealed quite a different Andrezieux - a town extended many times over the past 30 years, and based entirely on road and air transport. Three industrial estates produce all manner of goods from Renault gearboxes to biscuits; the airport has its own courier company and three passenger flights to Paris a day.

Better qualified now than St Etienne to describe itself as the town that "manufactures everything", Andrezieux prefers to sell itself as the "route centre to everywhere".

The overgrown railway station, though, looks destined to go the way of its predecessor, the terminus of the first railway line in France. This, it turned out, had been built a mile or so away from the later station and was demolished in the last century when the line was moved. With new railways and stations opening all the time, no one thought to preserve it.

The plaque that now commemorates the station is above a doorway of the 19th-century house that replaced it.

Funded in 1989 by the local tourist office, it says: "This is where France's first railway line was inaugurated in 1827, linking St Etienne and Andrezieux. It was used to transport coal from St Etienne to Andrezieux, where it was loaded on to flat-bottomed boats and taken by river to Roanne."