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The story of
French rail

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.

  1. ...
  2. 1922
  3. 1930
  4. 1933
  5. 1934
  6. 1937
  7. 1938
  8. ...



The Sceaux line, which departed from the Paris d’Enfer embarcadero (now Denfert-Rochereau), had its beginnings in 1846.

Several extensions had enabled the line to serve communities south of Paris, and in the 1930s, the Transport Minister planned to create an underground network to serve the Paris suburbs. (The Regional Express Network would not be created until the 1970s.)

Since it was impossible to operate steam locomotives underground in Paris, the authorities opted to electrify the line instead, and ordered 150 very comfortable new emus. On the outside, the new vehicles sported light green livery with a white roof; inside, they were carefully decorated, with comfortable seating and Art Deco lighting fixtures.



After a meeting between Raoul Dautry, Director General of the State Railways, and automobile manufacturer Ettore Bugatti, on 9 August 1932 the State Railways purchased two high-speed railcars powered by heat engines. Bugatti then began to build a railcar that would outperform all of its competitors.

Delivered in spring 1933, the first Bugatti was a fast push-pull wagon 23-m long, with an aerodynamic profile and four 200-horsepower Bugatti engines. During testing the new vehicle reached 172 km/h, and on 30 July 1933, French President Albert Lebrun took one of the new railcars to Cherbourg, making the 372-km trip in three hours and 15 minutes—an average of 130 km/h. In October 1934, a Bugatti railcar reached 192 km/h, shattering the previous rail speed record. The Italian manufacturer’s reputation was sealed, and several series (totalling 88 Bugatti railcars) were built for networks owned by the French State, Compagnie Paris-Lyon-Marseille and SNCF.



Trains were now facing competition from other modes of transport. In 1934 the French State formed a rail/road committee, and a first set of regulations was implemented the following year.
The State chose to “coordinate” the various modes of transport, and over a 40-year period, authorities eliminated 10,000 km of local “omnibus” service, replacing passenger rail with coach service.
A commission headed by Eugène Verlant, chief of operations for Compagnie Paris Lyon Marseille, proposed a complete overhaul of the existing signal system to create a single system for the various railway companies. The Code Verlant, adopted in 1934, assigned a different shape—square, circle, triangle, or rectangle—to each mechanical signal and used colours as well: green for “go”; yellow for “slow down” or “caution”; and red for “stop”.



One hundred and ten years after the first rail line opened in France, trains were powering the nation’s economic growth. Yet by 1920, all of the rail companies were losing money—and by 1936 they were 37 billion francs in the red.
Nationalization was the only solution. And on 31 August 1937, the groundwork was laid for SNCF—Société national des chemins de fer français—under an agreement approved by legislative decree. France's big five rail companies merged into a single network to be operated by the French State for a periodof 45 years. Their merger was symbolized by a logo featuring the new acronym as four intertwined letters.



In application of the 1937 agreement approved by legislative decree, SNCF was officially created on 1 January 1938 as a mixed public-private business corporation. The French State owned 51%, with remaining capital held by private investors including the Rothschild group. Founding documents called for SNCF to be managed as an industrial business with a public service mission. Its five divisions were defined in part by the network existing prior to 1937: Eastern, Northern, Western, Southwestern and Southeastern. At this time, the French network operated with 515,000 rail workers and 42,700 kilometers of track of which 8% were electrified.



During the war, the rail network moved men and materiel, playing a critical role in military strategy. But when fighting ended in 1940, the armistice agreement gave control of the French rail system to the German transport command.This made the network a valuable target for sabotage by French rail workers and Resistance groups, culminating in the Plan Vert, or Green Plan, which aided the Allied landing. It was also used by the Nazis to carry deportees to the concentration and death camps.When the war was over, SNCF had to resume service to all of France, but the system had lost 20% of its resources. Steam locomotives, which had totalled over 18,000 in 1944, now numbered only 6,000, and the war-ravaged rail network was badly in need of reconstruction.


Consult SNCF's historical archives