In this photo from around 1910, a train has just arrived from Paris and is waiting on the quay in Cherbourg. The photo, much enlarged, is now on display at the spot where it was originally taken over a century ago.
The railway line from Paris to Cherbourg was inaugurated in 1858 — eleven years later than the line from Paris to Le Havre, which no doubt gave Le Havre a considerable head start in the brave new world of rail transport.
Until 1912 there wasn’t any railway station on the quay in Cherbourg, just a couple of tracks with no platforms and with only a few tents for customs and passport controls. Nonetheless, passengers just had a short walk from their train to the tenders which took them out to the transatlantic ships anchored in the harbor. (Other passengers had the option of leaving the train at the main Cherbourg station on the other side of town.)
I don’t know what year this photo is from, but I think it might also have been from around 1910, since the railway car in the foreground is a typical dining car from that era, marked Voiture-Restaurant and belonging to the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits et des Grands Express Européens (International Company of Sleeping Cars and of the Great European Express Trains).
The first railway terminal building on the quay in Cherbourg was inaugurated in 1912. According to the website Cherbourg-Titanic, this terminal building “housed the various maritime companies and included a central hall where travellers could buy souvenirs and newspapers.”
I’m sure my father didn’t buy any newspapers when he went through this station on Thursday, January 19, 1928, because he was on a tight budget and noted down everything he spent, down to the last centime.
He did spend 6.65 francs for six picture postcards, however, as well as 2.00 for coffee and 1.00 for something I can’t quite decipher, perhaps some sort of roll to go with the coffee — all presumably in this terminal building, which was demolished a few months later to make room for a new one.
This was probably more or less what the quay in Cherbourg looked like when my father came through again in 1931.
Apparently he was not on such a tight budget this time, because he didn’t note down all his expenses. He arrived in Cherbourg on April 14, 1931, met a Mr. Bloch (whoever that was), and went through customs, where he didn’t even have to open his suitcase (not in New York, either).
After customs in Cherbourg, he must have caught the first train to Paris, because on the same day he found a room in Paris at the Hôtel du Brésil (possibly the same one where I stayed 85 years later) and paid a short visit to his former hosts in Bois-Colombes (where he only noted “pas très chaud” = not very hot) before returning to Paris and going for a walk there (“Promenade à Paris”).
Two years later, in 1933, the “most beautiful and largest maritime railway terminal in the world” was inaugurated on the quay in Cherbourg. It had four train tracks, and the water on both sides was deep enough that two ocean liners could dock right next to the quay. (Location and aerial view on monumentum.fr.)
(Another two years later, in 1935, an even larger maritime railway terminal was inaugurated at Le Havre, one hundred km to the east, so the one in Cherbourg was no longer the world’s largest. But perhaps still the most beautiful.)
When I went to Cherbourg in 2021, I took the 10:57 from Gare St Lazare in Paris. I was on a new, smooth and comfortable double-decker train that went non-stop for two hours and five minutes (at speeds of up to 200 km/h, depending on the tracks) before its first brief stop in Caen. From there, it made four more stops in small towns, arriving in Cherbourg 14:16 after a travel time of three hours and eighteen minutes. There are ten such direct trains per day in each direction, i.e. one every two hours.
These are now called NOMAD trains because they are managed by the new region of Normandie (new since the rearrangement of the regions of France in 2016).
The current station is not on the quay, but about 1½ km further inland. It is still a terminal station, meaning that the tracks end here.
My text and photos in this post are from 2021.