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 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.



After World War I, the Ministry of Public Works launched a master plan to electrify rail networks serving the public, using 1,500 volts direct current.

Work began with the 150-km line running along the Pyrenees from Toulouse to Dax, which was electrified between 1922 and 1923. Also in 1922, Compagnie du Midi converted its catenary-based electric lines to alternating current and ordered a series of 50 locomotives from mechanical engineering workshops in the south-western city of Tarbes.

On 30 October, a BB E 4002 locomotive inaugurated the first section of line, between Pau and Lourdes. With its off-white livery, the new vehicle contrasted sharply with steam locomotives and symbolized the modernization of rail.



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”.