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. 1827
  3. 1837
  4. 1841
  5. 1842
  6. 1849
  7. 1852
  8. ...

1841

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.

 

 



1842

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.


1849

MONUMENTAL STATIONS

As the great rail companies were founded, they built monumental stations all over Paris.


  • Gare de l’Est: opened in 1849, it expanded in 1854, in 1900 and again in 1931.
  • Gare de Lyon: though an early station was built in 1849, the current building was inaugurated in 1901.
  • Gare du Nord: the first station, built in 1846, was demolished around 1860. The current structure dates from 1864.
  • Gare Montparnasse: the original station in Avenue du Maine, dating from 1840, was replaced by a building erected in 1852. A new station was built in 1969, slightly behind the original site.
  • Gare Saint Lazare: the 1837 platform at the Place de l’Europe, used for departures on the Saint-Germain line, was replaced in 1867.
  • Gare d’Austerlitz: the platform at the Jardin des Plantes, inaugurated in 1843, was replaced by the current building in 1869.

1852

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).


1883

PARIS-CONSTANTINOPLE: THE LEGENDARY ORIENT EXPRESS

In 1876, Belgian engineer Georges Nagelmackers founded Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. After travelling in the United States, where he experienced the comfort of George M. Pullman’s trains, he began to envision cross-border trains that could operate throughout Europe.


A Nagelmackers train featured Pullman coaches with roomy armchairs, luxury sleeping coaches and a dining car, giving wealthy passengers the comfort of a grand hotel. The décor included fine inlaid wood panelling and moulded glass ornaments by Lalique.

On 5 June 1883, the Orient Express was inaugurated. This legendary line linked the Gare de l’Est in Paris to Constantinople (now Istanbul) via Strasbourg, Munich, Vienne, Budapest and Bucharest.


1888

INFRASTRUCTURE AS ART: THE GARABIT VIADUCT

As each line was built and expanded, it adapted to its terrain. Crossing mountainous regions meant building bridges, viaducts and tunnels: on the Cévennes line, built by Compagnie Paris Lyon Marseille, a single 153-km segment of track features 101 tunnels.


To cross the Alps, a large 12-km tunnel was built under Mont Cenis on the line leading to Italy from Modane, France.

The Neussargues-Béziers line, built by Compagnie du Midi, includes the Garabit Viaduct, designed by engineer Léon Boyer and built by Gustave Eiffel from 1882 to 1884. France’s first major civil engineering structure made of metal, it is 564 metres long, with a 448-metre-long deck supporting a single track, and towers 122 m above the Truyère River. Today the Garabit Viaduct has been classified as a national heritage site.