Boulogne Maritime

Very much a station of function and not beauty, at the time of writing this site still remains intact, in spite of the last train having departed as long ago as October 1995 (ref: Branch Line News No. 764, Branch Line Society, 21st October 1995). Situated on the dockside at Boulogne, the reinforced concrete of the former Maritime station rises up behind a line of metal fencing; indeed, the arrangement developed post-war was literally that of a road network upon stilts, positioned above multiple tracks and platforms. As per its sister station along the coastline to the east, Calais Maritime, and those on the opposite side of the Channel at Dover and Folkestone, the advent of the Channel Tunnel marked the end of the boat train traffic that Boulogne Maritime had for long served.

The railway from Paris to the northern French coast and Belgian border was commissioned in stages. The ceremonial opening of the Northern Railway of France took place on Sunday, 14th June 1846, which put Paris in direct communication with Amiens, Lille, and the frontier at Belgium (ref: Sussex Advertiser, 23 June 1846). The line was constructed by the Government, which would be reimbursed by the railway company in yearly instalments at an interest of 3%, ending either in 1850 or 1851. When the lease of forty years expired, the Government would take possession of the line, as enshrined in the terms of the concession (ref: The Railway Shareholder’s Manual, Henry Tuck, 1848).

On Sunday, 14th March 1847, the ceremonial opening of the Amiens to Abbeville section took place, with public traffic commencing the following day (ref: The Morning Herald, 17th and 19th March 1847). This line was built under the auspices of the Boulogne and Amiens Railway, which had been granted a concession from 24th October 1844 for 99 years, with the Government having the option of taking possession fifteen years after the date of completion (ref: Railway Intelligence, M. Slaughter, October 1849). The contractors were British partners Messrs. E. & W. Mackenzie and Thomas Brassey, and the engineers M. Bazaine and Sir W. Cubitt (ref: Life and Labours of Thomas Brassey, 1805—1870, Sir Arthur Helps, 1888). On Monday, 22nd November 1847, public traffic was extended from Abbeville to Neufchatel (ref: Railway Intelligence, Reading Mercury, 27th November 1847); then, the ceremonial opening of the section from the latter to Boulogne occurred on Monday, 17th April 1848 (ref: London Evening Standard, 18th April 1848). The journey from London to Paris via Boulogne was timed to take approximately thirteen hours: on the English side of the Channel, that was by the South Eastern Railway (SER) from London Bridge to either Folkestone (the Harbour branch line there opened to passenger traffic on 1st January 1849) or Dover via Reigate (Redhill), Tonbridge, and Ashford; then, a two-hour crossing by steam ferry run by a subsidiary of the same company.

The first railway station available to seafaring passengers arriving in Boulogne was described as "a temporary affair". It was situated within the town’s Capécure district, on the western bank of the Liane River, on the opposite side of the harbour to where boats berthed (ref: Herepath’s Railway Journal, 22nd April 1848). Today, this district encompasses nearly all of the Port of Boulogne. In 1854, the station was described as "one of the most elegant and commodious in Europe" (ref: The Morning Chronicle, 1st September 1854); it was "constituted of a number of arches, filled in with glass" (ref: The Norwich Mercury, 22nd August 1866).

On Monday, 7th January 1867, the Northern Railway Company (Compagnie des Chemins de fer du Nord) opened the 42-KM (26-mile) Boulogne to Calais line (ref: The Era, 13th January 1867). In Boulogne, this line began at the throat of the existing terminus: after leaving the station, the line assumed a sharp curve and crossed the Liane River; thence, it plunged into a tunnel under Boulogne’s High Town (Haute-Ville) and crossed the Tintilleries district on a viaduct. After the latter, another tunnel was entered, beyond which was open country. Stations were opened at St Pierre, Caffiers, Marquise, and Wimille, and from the outset there was a daily service of three trains in either direction along the line, stopping at all stations and taking a duration of one hour twenty minutes. Initially, the line was open to local traffic only, for trains between Boulogne and Calais; from the middle of March, it was planned to open the route to through traffic, improving the London to Paris journey time by half an hour compared to the route via Saint-Omer and Lille (ref: The Era, 13th January 1867).


Boulogne Harbour

The diagram above aims to show multiple Boulogne eras in one. When the line between Boulogne and Calais opened in 1867, trains between the latter and the French capital had to reverse into the terminus station marked above to continue their journeys. Then, in 1888, the spur that forms the right-hand (southern) side of the triangle was brought into use, which allowed Calais to Paris trains to instead call at Tintelleries and bypass the terminus. Boulogne Ville station was opened in 1962 on a post-war re-alignment of the railway, made when the bomb-damaged port was rebuilt and the course of the Liane straightened. The original meander of the river is shown in light grey and encompasses the site of Ville station. Today, only the course marked above through Tintelleries and Ville stations remains in use — the triangle and connections to former Central and Maritime stations are gone. © David Glasspool


In the 12th August 1868 edition of The Dover Telegraph, it was reported that a then new floating dock had been opened at Boulogne to all forms of shipping traffic. The dock had been nine years in the making, built within an area already in possession of the French Government, and cost just under £300,000. The same publication also made remarks on the railway links between the Northern Railway and the harbour:

Rails in connection with the station of the Chemins de fer du Nord run along the margin of the basin, enabling vessels to discharge direct into railway waggons without trans-shipment, and it is intended before the close of the year to provide cranes and all the most improved appliances to facilitate the loading and unloading of vessels.

The station referred to above was the existing site in Boulogne’s Capécure district. A short line branched off the approaches of the terminus, passed to the east of the latter and into the docks. This branch was initially for goods traffic only; an omnibus took passengers from the Channel steam packets that berthed on the eastern side of the harbour to the railway station on the western side, a process which took up to an hour (ref: The Railway News, 23rd October 1875). This situation was greatly improved upon on Friday, 15th October 1875, when Maritime station was opened jointly by the Northern Railway of France and the SER on Boulogne Harbour’s "Quai Bonaparte", the latter of which divided the tidal harbour from the wet dock (ref: The Graphic, 23rd October 1875). Positioned on the harbour’s west side, the opening of Boulogne Maritime station eliminated the tiresome omnibus journey from the eastern side of the harbour to the original terminus, accelerating the London to Paris journey time via Folkestone from ten hours forty minutes to nine hours thirty minutes.

The Maritime station comprised a brick and timber building, 240-feet-long by 120-feet-wide. The building was designed by M. A. Bouloch, architect to the Boulogne Chamber of Commerce. Passengers’ luggage was transferred by steam cranes from the boats to railway vans (ref: The Graphic, 23rd October 1875). SER offices, Custom House, waiting rooms, buffet, and merchandise storage were on the ground floor; on the first floor were the kitchens belonging to the buffet and a number of unfinished apartments (ref: The Globe, 28th January 1876). Maritime station was fed by the aforementioned branch that left the approaches of the terminus.

The then new Boulogne Maritime station did not last long: it was destroyed by fire on 27th January 1876. Although open to traffic, the building was still in an unfinished state and, as a result, was only partly occupied. The loss was estimated to exceed no more than £3,000, which was covered by La Paix Insurance Company (ref: The Globe, 28th January 1876). The structure was replaced in April of the following year by a building of stone, brick, and iron construction — erected on the same spot — comprising a frontage of 240-feet with two lofty wings. Within the building were accommodated offices for the railway, steamers, Custom, and police; waiting rooms, toilets, and luggage storage were in evidence; finally, a buffet restaurant and private dining rooms were provided (ref: The Graphic, 21st April 1877). In the 24th September 1897 edition of Herepath's Railway Journal, it was reported that the SER had agreed to take over the running of the buffet at the station.

Trains between Calais and Paris via Boulogne initially had to reverse into the terminus at the latter for onward travel. In the 28th July 1888 edition of The Railway News, it was reported that the journey time over this route had been reduced by twenty minutes on the opening of a short spur line in Boulogne, eliminating the need for trains to reverse into the terminus there. This layout created a triangular junction between Boulogne’s terminus and the Amiens to Boulogne and Boulogne to Calais routes. Thereafter, trains could run from Calais to Amiens via Boulogne without stopping. Of those fast (Rapide) trains — comprising First and Second Classes — between Paris and the London boats at Calais that did stop in Boulogne, these called at Tintelleries rather than the principal terminus Boulogne Central (ref: Normandy and Picardy: Their Relics, Castles, Churches, and Footprints of William the Conqueror, C. B. Black, 1899). Tintelleries station was a later opening on the Boulogne to Calais line, coming into use on 1st May 1893.

In August 1914, British troops arrived in Boulogne as forces mobilised at the beginning of World War I. By February of the following year, the goods sheds adjacent to Maritime station had been converted into a military hospital, the ladies’ room had become a soldiers’ buffet, and Custom House was stacked with stretchers for carrying the wounded (ref: The Social Gazette (London), 6th February 1915).


22nd August 1967

The reinforced concrete pillars supporting the car deck above the platforms of Boulogne Maritime station are evident in this south eastward view, which includes Class 141R No. 141 R 1276. This engine was one of 1,300 2-8-2 steam locomotives built in the United States and Canada for SNCF to replace those destroyed during World War II. The two tracks in the foreground and that upon which No. 141 R 1276 is situated were still in evidence in 1978, but by 1984 had been built on. © David Glasspool Collection


In September 1926, the luxurious Flèche d’Or (Golden Arrow) Pullman service was inaugurated between Paris Nord and Calais Maritime. The Southern Railway replicated this between London Victoria and Dover Marine in the form of the all-Pullman Continental Express, this of which was renamed Golden Arrow in May 1929 (ref: The Railway Magazine, May 1969). As a result of prevailing economic recessionary pressures of the era, the Paris to London leg of the journey was re-routed via Boulogne and Folkestone, which allowed the Northern Railway Company to utilise just one rake of carriages for the service, rather than two (ref: The Railway Magazine, May 1969). This arrangement required empty working of the carriage stock from Boulogne to Calais in time for the steamer arrival from Dover.

1938 saw the formation of Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français (French National Company of the Railways [SNCF]), a quasi-public organisation within which the major railways of France were absorbed. The state owned 51% of SNCF’s stock, with the rest being held by the private companies that formerly operated the railways (ref: Foreign Commerce Weekly, US Department of Commerce, 24th October 1949). On 3rd September of the following year, war broke out after Germany’s invasion of Poland two days previously, and regular civilian cross-Channel traffic ceased.

With the fall of France on 22nd June 1940, the country’s railway system and ports were at the disposal of Nazi Germany. The northern French coast became the scene of intense fighting, and ports at Calais, Boulogne, and Le Havre became bases for German E-boats and R-boats. In 1944, these ports were subject to heavy Allied bombing raids to disable German forces, and on Friday, 16th June of that year, Boulogne’s harbour was wrecked during one such attack:

Bombing for the most part through cloud, Lancasters and Halifaxes have shattered the enemy's naval strength in Boulogne. Nine R-boats were there just before the attack, and none can now be seen.

The great concentration of bombs which must have burst on and round the shipping originally concentrated in the harbour can be judged from the immense damage done to quayside buildings. Over 1,300 tons of bombs were dropped, and those which fell on land have left craters on almost every quay, wrecking the maritime station, the central station and the Customs offices. [The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Mercury, 19th June 1944]

As evidenced in the above excerpt, Boulogne Maritime and Central stations were destroyed. It was also reported that two direct hits were made on a railway bridge, presumably one of those carrying the tracks across the Liane River on the eastern side of the triangular junction.

On Monday, 4th March 1946, the Port of Boulogne was reopened to British cross-Channel traffic, the S.S. Hythe making a crossing from Folkestone on a new service (ref: The Dover Express and East Kent News, 8th March 1946). On Tuesday, 1st July 1947, the Folkestone to Boulogne service was recommenced, formed by sailing ship Isle of Thanet (ref: The Dover Express and East Kent News, 4th July 1947). The practice of Calais to Paris via Boulogne trains calling at Tintelleries, rather than what was left of Central station, continued.

In June 1947, a French delegation comprising Boulogne’s Chief Architect, his assistant, and Chief Engineer, visited four British ports to gather ideas for reconstructing the war-ravaged Boulogne Harbour. The ports were Aberdeen, Fleetwood (Lancashire), Grimsby, and Hull, the goal being to incorporate British style and ideas when rebuilding that at Boulogne (ref: Aberdeen Press and Journal, 21st June 1947). It was agreed to spend £12,000,000 on completely rebuilding Boulogne Harbour (ref: The Birmingham Post, 19th May 1954).

The rebuilding of Boulogne Harbour involved the straightening of the course of the Liane River and the construction of a new Maritime railway station roughly on the site of its predecessor. The then new station formed part of a reinforced concrete structure comprising a car deck above four platform faces and six railway tracks. At the northern extremity of the layout, the six tracks converged on a turnplate that allowed arriving engines to run around their carriage rakes. The station was a significant advancement for the time: the elevated car deck, which was reached by vehicles from ground level via an inclined road, was linked to a movable ramp. The latter meant that cars could simply be driven on and off ferries — the birth of the roll-on-roll-off (RO-RO) concept — regardless of the tide, rather than having to be individually craned to and from vessels (ref: The Sphere, 28th June 1952). The rebuilt Bolougne Maritime was ready in time for the maiden voyage of British Railways’ (BR) then new car ferry, S.S. Lord Warden, on Monday, 16th June 1952 (ref: The Birmingham Post, 17th June 1952). S.S. Lord Warden was BR’s largest car ferry at that time, being able to accommodate 120 cars and 1,000 passengers, and was built for RO-RO operation on the Dover to Boulogne route. Whilst Boulogne Maritime was equipped for RO-RO operation at the time of the vessel’s introduction, Dover’s ramps were still in the course of construction, finally being opened in the first week of July 1953 as part of a then new £750,000 terminal complex (ref: The Sphere, July 1953).

On 3rd June 1956, a direct diesel service was introduced between Boulogne and Basle (ref: The Railway Magazine, January 1956). BR’s North Eastern Region also introduced motorcar-sleeper trains from Newcastle and Stockton to Dover, for Boulogne, in the same year, which were scheduled to run every Wednesday and Saturday from 13th June to 12th September, with return workings every Thursday and Sunday. The London Midland Region ran similar trains from Manchester Central to Dover, departing at 10:45 p.m. on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday nights, with return workings on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays (ref: The Railway Magazine, March 1956).

From the summer 1957 season, a car-sleeper service was introduced between Boulogne and Lyon, which accommodated ninety cars in double-decker wagons and their passengers in sleeping cars (ref: Coventry Evening Telegraph, 17th January 1957). In reality, Boulogne Maritime station and the motorail terminal were separate entities: the latter was a few hundred yards from the ferry port (ref: Kent Messenger, 22nd January 1988). By 1967, a brand by the name of Big Fleet Car Ferries had been established, operated jointly by BR and SNCF. This offered motorail links from as far north as Stirling in Scotland to the South of France and Italy. Via Boulogne, motorail services were offered to Biarritz, Narbonne, St Raphael, Avignon, Milan, and Rimini (ref: Coventry Evening Telegraph, 27th February 1968).


22nd August 1967

Reverse curves are evident in this view, which shows No. 141 R 1276 “under the raft” with the 3:30 P.M. departure to Paris Nord. The carriages seen here are part of the same rake just visible on the extreme left of the previous view. When traversing the harbour, trains were led at walking pace by an official waving a red flag. The station offices and waiting rooms were sandwiched within the middle of the concrete deck. © David Glasspool Collection


On 28th June 1962, SNCF opened Boulogne Ville station (ref: The Golden Arrow: A History and Contemporary Illustrated Account, Alan Hansenson, 1970). Situated on the eastern side of the Liane River, this was a through affair that was a replacement for the Central station terminus destroyed in 1944. The station was built on a new railway alignment that had been made possible by re-routing the Liane River during post-war rebuilding of the harbour. From that date, Paris services called at Ville station rather than Tintelleries.

On and from 23rd May 1971, when SNCF’s summer timetable was introduced, steam haulage on the former Northern Railway system of France ceased (ref: The Railway Magazine, July 1971). However, bygone railway luxury came to Boulogne Maritime little over a decade later, when the recreated Venice Simplon Orient Express (VSOE) commenced operation between there and Venice on 25th May 1982 (ref: Venice Simplon Orient-Express: the return of the world's most celebrated train, S. Sherwood, 1983). As of 1978, the station still comprised six tracks, but by 1984, the western-most trio of these had been taken out of use and their site partially built on.

From the summer 1993 season, Boulogne lost its motorail service to Calais, where a new terminal for this traffic was opened. In the same year, the Calais to Hazebrouck and Calais to Boulogne lines were electrified in connection with the then new high speed line, LGV Nord, and the Channel Tunnel. As for Boulogne’s Maritime station, the end was nigh when completion of building works on the latter were formally marked on 10th December 1993 (ref: The Railway Magazine, February 1994). The Channel Tunnel was officially opened with ceremony on 6th May 1994, public Eurostar services began on 14th November of that year (ref: Branch Line News No. 744, Branch Line Society, 17th December 1994) and regular public car-carrying shuttles commenced on Thursday, 22nd December 1994 (ref: Kent Messenger, 22nd December 1994). In the meantime, commercial TGV services between Paris and Lille via the southern part of LGV Nord had started on Sunday, 23rd May 1993 (ref: Branch Line News No. 706, Branch Line Society, 29th May 1993); the northern part of the line between Lille and the Chunnel portal at Calais came into use on 26th September of the same year (ref: The Railway Magazine, July 1993).

Hoverspeed’s existing SeaCat service to Boulogne was withdrawn on and from 4th January 1995, so the vessel could be overhauled, but trains continued to serve Maritime station until the weekend of 21st of the same month, in spite of no boat connection (ref: Branch Line News No. 753, Branch Line Society, 6th May 1995). However, diesel-hauled trains between Paris Nord and Boulogne Maritime restarted on 1st April 1995, on the recommencement of the SeaCat service. There was one service in either direction daily: a 10:56 departure from Paris and a 13:54 departure from Boulogne Maritime (ref: Branch Line News No. 753, Branch Line Society, 6th May 1995). These trains last ran on 31st October 1995; thereafter, the SeaCat service from Folkestone was linked to Boulogne Ville station by a shuttle bus (ref: Branch Line News No. 764, Branch Line Society, 21st October 1995).