This 1-meter gauge railway runs between Nice and Digne-les-Bains, 151 km, and takes about three hours. The track follows rushing rivers and steep-sided mountain valleys, many not accessible by car, and the view is magnificent. The ride is an adventure. The stations are old, tiny and personal, with everything on a human level. The name Train des Pignes comes from the pinecones, once used for tinder to start the steam engines.
From Nice, the journey begins through the city streets, crossing through main road intersections to the little urban stop at Gambetta, then passes through a few tunnels to the little La Madeleine and St Isidore stations before dropping down to the Var valley and the Lingostiere station. Along the Var river and the busy route 202, the train stops at the Carrefour/Lingostiere shopping complex and a couple of other places on the way to Plan-du-Var. This urban section is quite busy, having a service of 20 trains a day for the commuters and shoppers.
From Plan-du-Var at the mouth of the rugged Gorges de Vésubie, the tracks follow the deep valleys and gorges of the Var river, turning west at the mouth of the Tinée valley. Stops along the section include the villages of Villars-sur-Var (with the picturesque station building now serving as the Alp'Azur restaurant and chocolate factory), the lovely tiny village of Touet-sur-Var nestled against the side of the mountain, past the gap of the Gorges du Cians and Puget-Theniers, where the steam trains are garaged.
From Puget-Theniers it's only a few minutes the station at the Vauban-fortified village of Entrevaux and its high fortress guarding this narrow gap in the mountains. Continuing along the deep river valleys through the hills, the train continues west towards Annot, leaving the Var river where it flows down north through a narrow gap in the mountains. The station at Annot is the other end of the steam-train section, and from here the Train des Pignes will go northwest up into the mountains, cross beneath them, then drop down south to St. André.
Six minutes after Annot, at the little village of Le Fugeret, in the beautiful Vaire river valley, the train climbs up through a tunnel and loops around on itself so it can get enough altitude to continue the trip north. A few minutes after Le Fugeret, there's a flag-stop at the mountain side below the little perched village of Méailles. Between Méailles and Thorame, the track passes beneath the mountains, with a 3.5 km tunnel carved through the heart of the rock. On the 150 km journey, the track climbs to an altitude of 1000 m above it's starting point in Nice, with inclines up to 3%.
The train exits the mountain on the west side and heads south along the Verdon river (the same one that becomes famous where it flows through the Grand Canyon, past the station of Thorame Haute Gare, and down the wide Verdon-river valley to the town of Saint André;-les-Alpes. From S André the route is west, through a long tunnel beneath the Col des Robines and along a very lovely valley to the village of Barrème. The train arrives beside the Asse de Moriez river and heads northwest along the Asse de Blieux river, through the mountain park area of the Trois Asses. Along this gorgeous stretch we've seen huge birds of prey hunting from the low poles alongside the track, including bussards and harriers.
The mountain valleys are a bit more gentle, less rocky and savage, than the earlier part of the journey, as the train curves north on the final leg into Digne-les-Bains.
Out and Back
If you're on a day excursion, you can take the train out to one of the stations along the way, visit the town, have a picnic or go for a walk or hike, and catch a later train back again. At many of the stations you will see picnic walks and hiking trails marked by signboards.
With one ticket you are allowed to descend from the train en-route and take a later train on to your destination. We're not yet sure of the time limit for this, but we've done it with one overnight stop. With a Nice-Digne round trip ticket, we took the 9h00 from Nice to Entrevaux, and visited the citadel and had lunch in the medieval town. Then the 14h18 from Entrevaux on to St André. There is time for a 4-hour stop at Annot (more time than needed here), with the 18h52 train out, but the rest of the journey could be in fading light, depending on the time of year. The second day was from St André to Digne, with lunch and a nice visit, then the 13h58 to begin the return journey. With a 15h10 stop at Meailles (you need to inform the conductor when you get on), there's a great hike through the hills to Le Fugeret, with pleanty of time to catch the 18h40 back to Nice.
Nice Gare du Sud
The old Gare du Sud in Nice was torn down (about 1993) and replaced with a modern, efficient station. While the station has lost its character, the train still has it. Even the modern rail cars can't take away from the jerking, jolting ride caused by the ancient narrow-gauge rail, which never gets enough budget to modernize and every year is threatened with closure.
The modern new station is at 4 bis, Rue Alfred Binet, one long block west of the old station; about 6 blocks north of the main railway station (see Schedule below).
The parking lot opposite costs 1 euro/hr, and is limited to 4 hours; 9-12, 14-18, except Sun, holidays. Not useful for leaving your car during a trip (except Sunday and holidays), but there are no barriers so it's good for dropping-off and picking-up.
Parking is easier at the Gare de Lingostiere (2 stops out of Nice), and is recommended by the train company. The railway has a goods depot at Lingostiere, which has about 8
spaces marked out in the yard. There are also spaces for another half dozen cars parked nose in on the "verge". (info provided by reader Steve Taylor, Apr 2005)
There are four trains a day between Nice and Digne-les-Bains, two during the morning and two during the afternoon-evening.
The current Train des Pignes schedules are [should be] available on the Chemins de Fer de Provence website: http://www.trainprovence.com/. Click on "Horaires" at the top of the left column.
Unfortunately, no proper schedule of times is presented. You must enter the date/time you wish to travel to obtain the time of the next departure. [Winter 2013-2014]
Unfortunately again, selecting the Departure Station (Gare de départ) does not work on their website with our computer (using Safari or Firefox), so we are not able to calculate any schedules or current prices! [Jan 2014]
Unofficial (but probably accurate) schedules are avalable on the GECP (Provence Railways Study Group) website
GECP Nice-Digne schedules
Depart Nice (approximate): 6h55, 9h25, 13h05, 17h15
Depart Dignes-les-Bains (approximate): 7h15, 10h45, 14h25, 17h35
Full fare between Nice and Digne-les-Bains was about €17 in 2010. The round-trip price is double that.
In 2012, a roundtrip Nice-Digne-Nice excersion, including lunch, was available for €59 (adult), €45 (child 4-12 years).
Bicycles cannot be taken on the train with you. You must deliver your bike the day before your trip. The bike will be sent in the baggage compartment of a train to your destination stop, and be waiting for you when you arrive. The price for the bicycle is about 8 euro. Baggage now has to go through the Lingostière station.
During the summer season, a steam train with refurbished old carriages runs between two towns for part of the journey between Nice and Digne. The last time I took this ride, people followed along the road in cars, rushing ahead to stop and take pictures whenever they could. At one point, the engineer stopped the train in the middle of a long bridge crossing over a valley to give the people on the road more time for their pictures. At another long, curving viaduct, away from the road, the engineer stopped and let some of the passengers walk out across the bridge so they could photograph the train as it crossed.
Photo: crossing the viaduct just east of Annot.
The Train des Pignes steam train runs every Sunday from early May to the end of October. An
unofficial calendar is avalable on the GECP (Provence Railways Study Group) website's Steam Train page 
GECP steam train calendar
The steam train schedule is usually the same from year to year. These are the 2013 times:
Puget-Theniers depart: 10h55
Entrevaux arrive / depart: 11h15 / 11h25
Annot arrival: 12h05
Annot depart: 15h10
Entrevaux arrive / depart: 15h34 / 15h35
Puget-Theniers arrival: 15h50