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. 1883
  3. 1888
  4. 1897
  5. 1900
  6. 1907
  7. 1914
  8. ...



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



In 1898, the Gare d’Austerlitz—the starting point for the network operated by Compagnie du Paris-Orléans—was on the outskirts of Paris. The company decided to extend the line, adding 3.8 km of rail to come closer to the city centre and building the Paris-Orsay station, now the Musée d’Orsay.

The new section could only be built underground, and with no way to evacuate smoke, steam-powered trains were out of the question. To solve the problem, the engineers opted for electric trains.

Eight locomotives, with shoes that collected current from a third rail running beside the track—much like the one used in the Paris subway system—were delivered between 1900 and 1904. They were called “salt boxes” because of their design, which featured a central driving cab and two sloping motor covers on either side.



In the early twentieth century, Compagnie du Paris à Orléans concluded that its steam locomotive fleet was not powerful enough to tow rapid and express passenger trains, which were becoming heavier and heavier.

The rail network continued to expand, as new lines opened and more passengers travelled by rail. To cope with this non-stop growth, rail companies modernized their passenger coaches, using metal bodies and fitting them with bogies. To accommodate more passengers, the new coaches were longer and heavier, and trains needed faster, more powerful locomotives.

To meet this need, Compagnie du Paris-Orléans teamed up with Société Alsacienne de Construction Mécanique to study a new type of steam locomotive featuring a two-axle bogie at the front, three coupled driving axles and a carrying axle at the back. The new “2-3-1” vehicle was dubbed the Pacific locomotive. The first prototypes appeared in 1907—forerunners of a series that would become a legend with rail professionals, connoisseurs and the general public, and be immortalized by Arthur Honneger’s composition Pacific 231.



On 2 August 1914, military authorities took control of the French rail network for what would become four and half years, as rail equipment and personnel were requisitioned to transport soldiers.

The French rail network had become a strategic asset during the Crimean campaign of 1855 and the Italian campaign of 1859, and a commission had defined the obligations of the French State and the nation’s rail companies after the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. By government decree, all enclosed wagons that could be used for military transport were required to display a panel showing the number of soldiers or horses they could carry: “40 Men – 8 Horses Lengthwise”.

Many soldiers deployed from the Gare de l’Est. Today a huge painting by artist Albert Herter hangs in the station, commemorating the rail network’s vital role in World War I.