From the perspective of the twenty-first century, especially in America, we tend to forget how important the railways were during the Second World War. We remember them in the horrific image of cattle cars rolling toward Auschwitz or as targets for bombing runs. But we forget that everyone relied on them every day.

By the end of the war only the Germans, the police, doctors and collaborators had legal access to gasoline. If you’re remembering films of resisters hanging off the sides of vehicles waving sub-machine guns, that was at the Liberation. During the Occupation, ordinary people either walked, got on a bicycle, hitched a horse up to a cart, found a bus running on a wood conversion engine, or took a train or a tram.

There were a lot more trains and trams running in western Europe in the early 1940’s than there are now, and many of them ran on steam, belching out grey smoke and scattering smut as they went. Belgian had an enviably dense network of public transportation. The Pyrenees had regular service on lines that have since been overgrown and even turned into roads for automobiles.

The slower a train went and the more local stops it made, the less likely it was to be controlled by anyone, let alone Germans. Or the inspectors might be looking for free-loaders riding without a ticket or for smugglers. That meant that resisters and other fugitives riding with a paid ticket and without any illegal butter in their pockets could pass inspection without any worries. The authorities did, however, control the main lines that ran between, say, Brussels and Paris or Geneva and Toulouse. But not every day and not every train. If you weren’t sure whether a particular train would be controlled, it was best to get on a crowded train in the middle because inspectors started at the ends. Obviously, the more people on the train, the more slowly the inspectors moved through it, giving the people in the middle time to hear about the controllers and take evasive action.

Dutch-Paris and other Resistance lines relied on these trains and trams just as much as everyone else. In fact, Dutch-Paris’ couriers and leaders purchased railway subscriptions that entitled them to discounts on their train tickets. After trips in France and Belgium, John Weidner reported on the state of the lines (increasingly broken due to sabotage and bombing) and morale among passengers (declining among Germans) to the Dutch military attaché in Switzerland.

Dutch-Paris used trams or local trains in Belgium to get fugitives from the Dutch border to Brussels. Then they found it simpler and safer to use the main line night train from Brussels to Paris. They used the main line night train again to move fugitives between Paris and Toulouse or the Alps and Toulouse. From Toulouse to the Pyrenees, they used local trains. The Gestapo tended to be regrettably zealous on the main line running east to west at the base of the Pyrenees, so it was best to take the slow train there.
More on trains in the next post….