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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.
From 1969 to 1975, SNCF took delivery of 74 CC 6500 locomotives that could run on 1,500 volts direct current. Rated at 8,000 horsepower, they towed trains on the major electrified lines in the southeast and southwest networks.
The Mistral, SNCF’s flagship train, bore the number 1 and ran between Paris and Nice. One hundred twenty-two new “Mistral 69” coaches were delivered between 1968 and 1974. Four café-bar cars were fitted out with an office and hair salon, and for meals passengers could choose between the dining car and in-seat service.
On lines without electric power, some trains ran on gas-powered turbines, like helicopters. These turbotrains, which accelerated rapidly and reached a top commercial speed of 160 km/h, combined comfort with the latest technology.
THE OIL CRISIS, HIGH-SPEED ELECTRIC TRAINS, AND THE END OF STEAM
The turbotrain, inspired by aircraft technology, was successful: on 8 December 1972, it reached 318 km/h and took the world speed record for thermal traction. But the oil shock of 1973 prompted a change in engine technology for coming generations of high-speed trains.
On 6 March 1974, French President Georges Pompidou ordered construction of a new Paris-Lyon line based on electric traction. The decision prompted SNCF to continue its research into catenary-based current collection and would ultimately save 150,000 tonnes of oil a year.
And on 31 March of the same year, the 141 R 73 steam locomotive, based at the Sarreguemines depot, made its last commercial run, ending France’s steam traction era after 142 years.
ROGER TALLON AND THE CORAIL REVOLUTION
On 9 June 1975, the Corail coach made its debut on the Paris-Hendaye line. A year later, 100 Corail trains were departing from every station in Paris.
The Corail revolution prompted SNCF to update its older passenger coaches—some of which had been built before SNCF’s creation in 1938—and soon all rapid and express trains featured the new cars.
The Corail was 26.40 m long and sported off-white livery with a wide grey stripe and doors painted red-orange to play off the meaning of its name—French for “coral”. All of the new coaches had air-conditioning and modern bogies, and most—inspired by the vision of industrial designer Roger Tallon—had a centre aisle regardless of service class.
380 KM/H: THE TGV SETS THE WORLD RECORD
By 3.05 p.m. on Thursday, 26 February 1981, more than 100 journalists had gathered in Pasilly, France. They watched as TGV No. 16, a very high-speed train, shot out of the station and accelerated to 340, 360, then 370 km/h. Finally, at Moulins-en-Tonnerois, the train reached 380 km/h, breaking the world speed record at 3.41 p.m.
At 6.30 a.m. on Sunday, 27 September 1981, an unusually large crowd streamed into the Gare de Lyon in Paris, converging on the platform next to the first commercial TGV. At 7.15 a.m. Train No. 807 departed ceremoniously for Lyon’s Perrache station: along the way, its 300 passengers would travel at 260 km/h for the first time. Twenty-five years later, that number had swelled to more than one billion.
SNCF’s first advertising campaign—“Gagnez du temps sur le temps” or “Steal time from time”—went straight to the point: a TGV gets there faster than a plane, and much faster than a car. For rail travel, the next boom was right around the corner.
ÉPIC SNCF IS CREATED
On 31 December 1982, the 1937 agreement expired and SNCF became an ÉPIC, defined as a state-owned enterprise responsible for managing a public service of an industrial and commercial nature. As sole shareholder, the French State has full operational autonomy.
TER: A NEW BRAND FOR QUALITY REGIONAL SERVICE
In 1984, French regional transport began to decentralize, and SNCF opened negotiations with regional authorities with an eye to reaching agreements on regional service. By 1987, agreements were in place in all but three regions, and SNCF launched Transport Express Régional (TER)—a new brand with its own charter.
The company planned to revamp “local” service (previously called “omnibus” trains), and give it a new, quality-oriented brand, modernizing regional rail, increasing traffic and highlighting the role of SNCF and French regions.
The new TER logo gradually appeared on equipment, in stations and on sales materials, and SNCF offered a more unified livery for rail equipment, which often varied widely. Under the new plan, each region could choose from among four colours—red, green, yellow and blue—and display its own logo in a specific place. The TER brand would also replace “Micheline”, another name often applied to railcars by secondary-line passengers.