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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. 1939
  3. 1946
  4. 1955
  5. 1957
  6. 1959
  7. 1966
  8. ...

1946

TOWARDS A MODERN ELECTRIC NETWORK

In 1946 the French State created a planning commission to rebuild the nation’s railways. Beginning in 1947, SNCF implemented a series of five plans to rebuild and update its network. Rail transport was treated as a priority for economic growth.


The first plan, covering 1947-1953, called for modernizing the Paris-Lyon line and converting it to 1,500 volts direct current. Meanwhile, French engineer Louis Armand began testing commercial-frequency single-phase current on the Savoie line, opening the way to cost savings and improved performance. To step up critical shipments of coal, iron ore and iron and steel products, SNCF electrified the Valenciennes-Thionville line—the main industrial artery in north-eastern France—using single-phase alternating current.


1955

A 25,000-VOLT LINE FOR NORTHEASTERN FRANCE AND A DOUBLE SPEED RECORD

SNCF now began to focus on high-volume, heavy transport for freight.


After Louis Armand refined the use of 50-Hz  alternating current, SNCF opted to electrify France’s north-eastern line, which served the coal and steel industries.
Because it was more cost-effective than 1,500 volts direct current, the new commercial current was selected for all of the system’s high-speed lines. In 1955, SNCF began testing speeds of around 300 km/h, using CC 7107 and BB 9004 locomotives on the Landes line.
On 28 March, the CC 7107 reached 331 km/h, and the BB 9004 hit the same mark one day later, scoring a double world record for SNCF.


1957

THE TRANS-EUROPE EXPRESS

In 1957, eight governments formed the Trans-Europe Express (TEE), an international rail network under the direction of the International Union of Railways, to offer businessmen a rail alternative to air travel.



To rival the airplane—the epitome of fast, modern, comfortable travel—the Trans-Europe Express had to offer fast, direct and comfortable connections to major European cities.
The problem: travelling throughout Europe without changing trains. Though most countries now used the same track gauge, the rail system was still far from unified.
The solution: electric locomotives compatible with multiple voltages, current types and signal systems. The CC 40101-40110 series, designed by Paul Arzens, were built at Belfort by Alsthom.


1959

A PRESIDENTIAL COACH FOR DE GAULLE

From the earliest days of the Fifth Republic, French President Charles de Gaulle frequently chose rail for his travels throughout France.


The underframe of a 1924 coach was reinforced to accommodate air conditioning and armour-plated sides, and the coach was converted into a rolling presidential palace, with a ceremonial platform at the back, a formal reception room designed by Leleu, an office, a bedroom with an extra-long bed to accommodate de Gaulle’s height; and a bathroom with a shower.
The walls of the presidential reception room were painted with “Mediterranean Blue” lacquer and adorned with a gilded band. On the outside, each wall of the coach bore a crest with the words “President of the Republic”, designed by Revol and cast in bronze by SNCF’s Arles workshops.
The coach was dubbed PR2, and de Gaulle used it frequently for official travel.


1966

BERTIN AND THE AEROTRAIN

Though SNCF still held the world speed record, some were saying that rail was no longer the best mode of transport: more and more travellers were drawn to driving, and air travel was becoming a serious competitor for business travel.


In 1966 SNCF created a Research Service to modernize the wheel/rail system. Meanwhile, the aerotrain, a new vehicle that ran on an air cushion, guided by a concrete track in an inverted T shape and powered by twin turbo engines that turned a propeller, was being tested by French engineer Jean Bertin between Orléans and Artenay. On 5 March 1974, the aerotrain reached 417.6 km/h.
But wheel/rail technology was still in the distant future, so SNCF looked for other high-speed solutions that could run on conventional rail lines and be compatible with its entire network.


1967

THE CAPITOLE KICKS OFF THE HIGH-SPEED ERA

Given the remarkable performances of the BB 9291 and 9292—originally designed to reach 250 km/h—SNCF used the same technology for the Capitole, a train serving the Paris-Toulouse line.


The Capitole ran at 200 km/h over a 70-km stretch between Les Aubrais and Vierzon, adding 40 km/h to the previous top speed for that distance and shaving 6 minutes off the travel time. The train made the Paris-Toulouse trip in six hours at a commercial speed of 118.7 km/h.
It was SNCF’s first foray into high-speed commercial service above 160 km/h, and the Capitole was now the company’s fastest train. On 28 May 1967, it began operations in red livery with a white-and-grey stripe bearing the train’s name in polished brass lettering.