The story of French rail dates back to 1827, when horse-drawn wagons began carrying coal on a 21-km track between the Saint-Étienne mines and the banks of the Loire River. Ten years later, the first passenger line was inaugurated, and the rail revolution had begun.
Private-sector railways expanded at an unprecedented rate. Monumental stations and engineering works brought lasting change to the French landscape. And as new lines opened, tourism arrived, driving rapid, steady growth in passenger numbers. To keep pace with rising demand, trains became more and more comfortable, and some—such as the legendary Orient Express—were even luxurious.
World War I
After World War I began, rail workers and equipment were requisitioned to transport soldiers. Behind the lines, rail companies struggled to find the labour they needed to maintain their infrastructure, and they began to recruit new workers, including prisoners of war and several thousand women. After the war, the Ministry of Public Works launched a master plan to electrify rail networks across France.
SNCF is born
Under a 1937 legislative decree, France’s five leading rail companies merged, and on 1 January 1938 they officially became the Société nationale des chemins de fer français—SNCF. At the time, the French network spanned 42,700 km of track and employed 515,000 railway workers.
Shortly afterwards, World War II broke out, and Nazi Germany invaded France. Under the armistice agreement of 22 June 1940, the country’s railways were placed “at the full and complete disposal of the German Head of Transportation”, and the Wehrmacht’s Transportation Department (WVD) brought in German workers to oversee their French counterparts as they ran the network. Beginning in 1942, the WVD also used the rail system to deport Jews from France. French railway workers chafed under these conditions and expressed their opposition to the occupying forces through strikes and daily acts of resistance. Some joined the armed struggle by committing sabotage and relaying intelligence.
Reconstruction and high-speed rail
By the end of the war, the rail network had lost 20% of its resources. Repairing and electrifying it was a priority in the post-war reconstruction effort, and training new workers became essential as staffing requirements grew.
The next goal was to make trains faster by modernizing the wheel-rail system, and in 1967 SNCF launched the Capitole, a high-speed train that ran at 200 km/h.
In 1974, the quest for a high-speed train became official. After several years of testing, SNCF’s new train à grande vitesse (TGV) hit 380 km/h in 1981, shattering world speed records, and the effort set a new milestone in 1989 with the inauguration of the TGV Atlantique, designed to offer passenger service at 300 km/h. Eurostar trains went into service in 1994, and Thalys and TGV Duplex trains followed two years later.
Meanwhile, the French government had adopted a new policy of decentralization, and new TER (Trains Express Régionaux) trains and Corail coaches were rolled out to improve regional rail service. Gradually, SNCF expanded its range of services to meet the needs of its diverse customer base. New offerings, from onboard catering to special areas for children, were highlighted in major advertising campaigns.
From 1827 to the present: Our video timeline
Relive the great moments of French rail history through this video timeline, designed jointly by SNCF and the French National Audio-Visual Institute (INA). We’ve combined outstanding material from INA’s archives and our own Media Collection to create an incredibly rich experience. Don’t wait! Set off now on your journey through time.