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From its beginnings in 1827, the French rail industry has been driven by colourful personalities, cultural revolutions and ingenious solutions to technological challenges. Learn more about the history of French rail and the people behind it.
FRANCE’S FIRST RAIL LINE
On 5 May 1821, the French government received a request for a concession to build a 21-km rail line from Saint-Étienne to Andrézieux, near Lyon.
Completed in July 1827, the line was used to transport coal between the Saint-Étienne mines and the banks of the Loire River.
The trains, which consisted of three mine cars, were powered by gravity on downhill trips. Horses pulled them back up until 1844. The line began official operation on 1 October 1828.
In July 1830, the first French passenger train began running between Givors and Rives de Giers on the brand-new Lyon-Saint-Étienne line, still under construction. Passengers were seated in coal wagons, which were still horse-drawn. The entire line would open in 1832.
FIRST PASSENGER LINE FROM PARIS TO SAINT-GERMAIN
On 24 August 1837, Queen Marie-Amélie of Bourbon-Sicily, wife of King Louis-Philippe I, officially inaugurated the first rail line departing from Paris—which was also the first built specifically for passenger traffic.
Departing from a platform at the Place de l’Europe, the line ran 19 km northwest, linking the French capital to Le Pecq, a small town near Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
The new line served 18,000 passengers on its very first day in operation. Enormously successful from the beginning, it was said to carry twenty times as much traffic as the road that ran parallel to it. The Paris-LePecq line was built by Émile Péreire, who won the concession and invested six million francs to found the Compagnie du Chemin de Fer de Paris à Saint-Germain “at his own risk”.
STRASBOURG TO BASEL—TOWARDS A EUROPEAN RAIL NETWORK
The 140-km Strasbourg-Basel line, which began operating in 1841, was the longest in France in its day—no local spur, but a genuinely international line linking France to Switzerland and competing with a German line across the Rhine.
The Strasbourg-Basel line, which operated under the name Compagnie du Chemin de Fer de Strasbourg à Bâle, was built by Nicolas Kœchlin, an Alsatian textile magnate who had already won a concession to build the Mulhouse-Thann line.
LEGRAND’S MASTER PLAN: A STAR IS BORN
In the 15 years from 1827 to 1842, only 569 km of line were built in France, but it was clear that rail could play a vital role in economic growth—advancing the industrial revolution, facilitating trade and making people more mobile.
Baptiste Alexis Victor Legrand, the nation’s Superintendent of Civil Engineering, presented the government with a master plan for a full-fledged national rail network—a five-pointed star that radiated out of Paris to the Belgian and German borders, the English Channel, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. This meant building five new lines: Paris-Lille, Paris-Strasbourg, Paris-Le Havre, Paris-Lyon-Marseille, and Paris-Bordeaux-Hendaye.
As the great rail companies were founded, they built monumental stations all over Paris.
ENGLISH LOCOMOTIVES FOR FRENCH RAILWAYS
In 1844, the country’s first major rail line linked Paris to Rouen under a concession granted to an Anglo-French company. To operate the new line, British engineer William Barber Buddicom had a Rouen workshop build 40 steam locomotives with a top speed of 60 km/h.
In 1846, when a 120-km line linked Avignon to Marseille, the company ordered nine vehicles from Robert Stephenson, an English engineer and the first great locomotive manufacturer. With his son, also named Robert, Stephenson invented the famous Rocket locomotive, which was built in England.
In 1852, Compagnie du Chemin de Fer de Paris à Strasbourg bought steam locomotives designed by Thomas Russell Crampton. Built under license in Paris, the locomotives towed trains at 120 km/h—an incredible speed for their day—and were called iron greyhounds (lévriers du rail).