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.

  2. 1827
  3. 1837
  4. 1841
  5. 1842
  6. 1849
  7. 1852
  8. ...



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.



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.



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).



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.



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.



Steam traction—immortalized by cinema pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière in their 1897 film Arrival of a train at La Ciotat Station—was due for an upgrade. As more and better-equipped passenger trains came into service, coaches had become longer and heavier, requiring faster, more powerful locomotives.

Enter the Pacific 231. Just a few years later, in 1907, prototypes of this legendary locomotive appeared, with a two-axle bogie at the front, three coupled driving axles and a carrying axle at the back—a new design that would be immortalized by composer Arthur Honegger in Pacific 231.

Since their creation, passenger trains had offered three different classes of service, but in 1906, the Alsace-Lorraine network downgraded some of its coaches to offer a fourth class, where passengers usually travelled standing up.

Video :
Arrival of a train at La Ciotat—Louis Lumière, summer 1897 © Association frères Lumière