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. 1922
  3. 1930
  4. 1933
  5. 1934
  6. 1937
  7. 1938
  8. ...



In application of the 1937 agreement approved by legislative decree, SNCF was officially created on 1 January 1938 as a mixed public-private business corporation. The French State owned 51%, with remaining capital held by private investors including the Rothschild group. Founding documents called for SNCF to be managed as an industrial business with a public service mission. Its five divisions were defined in part by the network existing prior to 1937: Eastern, Northern, Western, Southwestern and Southeastern. At this time, the French network operated with 515,000 rail workers and 42,700 kilometers of track of which 8% were electrified.



During the war, the rail network moved men and materiel, playing a critical role in military strategy. But when fighting ended in 1940, the armistice agreement gave control of the French rail system to the German transport command.This made the network a valuable target for sabotage by French rail workers and Resistance groups, culminating in the Plan Vert, or Green Plan, which aided the Allied landing. It was also used by the Nazis to carry deportees to the concentration and death camps.When the war was over, SNCF had to resume service to all of France, but the system had lost 20% of its resources. Steam locomotives, which had totalled over 18,000 in 1944, now numbered only 6,000, and the war-ravaged rail network was badly in need of reconstruction.


Consult SNCF's historical archives



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.



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.



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.



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.