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. 1939
  3. 1946
  4. 1955
  5. 1957
  6. 1959
  7. 1966
  8. ...

1957

THE TRANS-EUROPE EXPRESS

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.


1959

A PRESIDENTIAL COACH FOR DE GAULLE

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.


1966

BERTIN AND THE AEROTRAIN

Though SNCF still held the world speed record, some were saying that rail was no longer the best mode of transport: more and more travellers were drawn to driving, and air travel was becoming a serious competitor for business travel.


In 1966 SNCF created a Research Service to modernize the wheel/rail system. Meanwhile, the aerotrain, a new vehicle that ran on an air cushion, guided by a concrete track in an inverted T shape and powered by twin turbo engines that turned a propeller, was being tested by French engineer Jean Bertin between Orléans and Artenay. On 5 March 1974, the aerotrain reached 417.6 km/h.
But wheel/rail technology was still in the distant future, so SNCF looked for other high-speed solutions that could run on conventional rail lines and be compatible with its entire network.


1967

THE CAPITOLE KICKS OFF THE HIGH-SPEED ERA

Given the remarkable performances of the BB 9291 and 9292—originally designed to reach 250 km/h—SNCF used the same technology for the Capitole, a train serving the Paris-Toulouse line.


The Capitole ran at 200 km/h over a 70-km stretch between Les Aubrais and Vierzon, adding 40 km/h to the previous top speed for that distance and shaving 6 minutes off the travel time. The train made the Paris-Toulouse trip in six hours at a commercial speed of 118.7 km/h.
It was SNCF’s first foray into high-speed commercial service above 160 km/h, and the Capitole was now the company’s fastest train. On 28 May 1967, it began operations in red livery with a white-and-grey stripe bearing the train’s name in polished brass lettering.


1969

TECHNOLOGICAL CHALLENGES

From 1969 to 1975, SNCF took delivery of 74 CC 6500 locomotives that could run on 1,500 volts direct current. Rated at 8,000 horsepower, they towed trains on the major electrified lines in the southeast and southwest networks.


The Mistral, SNCF’s flagship train, bore the number 1 and ran between Paris and Nice. One hundred twenty-two new “Mistral 69” coaches were delivered between 1968 and 1974. Four café-bar cars were fitted out with an office and hair salon, and for meals passengers could choose between the dining car and in-seat service.
On lines without electric power, some trains ran on gas-powered turbines, like helicopters. These turbotrains, which accelerated rapidly and reached a top commercial speed of 160 km/h, combined comfort with the latest technology.


1974

THE OIL CRISIS, HIGH-SPEED ELECTRIC TRAINS, AND THE END OF STEAM

The turbotrain, inspired by aircraft technology, was successful: on 8 December 1972, it reached 318 km/h and took the world speed record for thermal traction. But the oil shock of 1973 prompted a change in engine technology for coming generations of high-speed trains.


On 6 March 1974, French President Georges Pompidou ordered construction of a new Paris-Lyon line based on electric traction. The decision prompted SNCF to continue its research into catenary-based current collection and would ultimately save 150,000 tonnes of oil a year.

And on 31 March of the same year, the 141 R 73 steam locomotive, based at the Sarreguemines depot, made its last commercial run, ending France’s steam traction era after 142 years.