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Encyclopedia > French railway history
This is part of the history of rail transport by country series

During the early 19th century railway construction began in France with short mineral lines. The building of the main French railway system, however, began after 1842 when a law legalised railways.


French railways started later and developed more slowly than those in certain other countries. While the first railway built in France started operation in 1832, not long after the first line had opened in Britain, French progress failed to keep pace over the next decade. Thus France quickly fell behind Germany, Belgium and Switzerland in terms of trackage per person. The rapid growth in United States and in the United Kingdom also seriously outdistanced that in France. Circumstances did not favour a start as early and as successful as Britain's, because Britain generally had a higher level of industrialization, and France also suffered the handicap of the destruction and turbulence of the Napoleonic Wars and the subsequent process of rebuilding. Other more comparable nations, such as Belgium, however, embarked on large railway-building projects soon after the technology appeared. In France it took a full decade to begin railway construction on a national scale.


France's history and level of development almost certainly account for this delay. France's economy in 1832 had not developed sufficiently to support a railway industry of national scope. The limited iron industry for many years forced French railways to import many of their rails from England at great cost. French coal supplies also remained under-developed compared to those of England and Belgium. Until these complementary industries developed French railways always suffered an economic disadvantage relative to those of other states.


As well as the economic condition of the nation, France also saw powerful opposition to the changes that railroads would bring: the critics contributed somewhat to France's slower development. For example, in 1832 the Rouen Chamber of commerce opposed a rail link between Rouen and Paris, arguing it would be detrimental to agriculture, hurt the traditional way of life, and impinge upon the business of the canals and rivers. This last argument emerged commonly throughout France. Unlike Russia or Germany, which did not have well-developed canal systems, France had a great deal of capital invested in water-borne transport, and these interests saw the railways as dangerous competition. The origins of this opposition stem from France's geography. France was naturally endowed with many navigable waterways, and also with much terrain suitable for the construction of canals. Much of France also lies not far from the coast, and coastal shipping successfully and cheaply carried much trade. Thus the interests which profited from canals, river, and coastal shipping all used their sway in government to limit the construction of railways. While other countries, such as Britain, already utilised canals and coastal shipping well, these nations did not have government-controlled railways, and thus the vested interests of water-borne trade had more limited ability to oppose new competition.


In France existing interests combined with popular worries about the introduction of railways, especially concerning their safety. While those in opposition to railway development certainly remained a minority, they loomed larger in France than in most other industrializing nations. Since French rail development depended on government initiatives, French opponents had a clearer target to oppose than in countries where completely private corporations constructed the new-fangled railways.


The central involvement of government in French railways also slowed their construction, as it took a great deal of time to forge a national railway policy. France under the July Monarchy became a far more democratic state than most others in Europe. While the multitudinous individual German states mostly each had strong central authorities, decisions in France needed to survive lengthy debates in parliament. France also exhibited considerable internal divisions within the state. Belgium, with its extremely unified political class just after independence (1830), could quickly embark on elaborate railway projects. France, however, remained long divided between liberals, conservatives, royalists and democrats, with laissez-faire liberals consistently holding a great deal of parliamentary power. All parties did support some form of governmental rail initiative, but they all had differing visions of the shape of that initiative. The parliament thus rejected all major rail projects before 1842, and during this period France steadily fell behind the nations that had reached quick consensus on railway policy.


The French rail system could not develop successfully without the involvement of the state. Unlike Great Britain or the United States, France did not have a substantial industrial base willing to pay for railroads to bring its products to new markets. French investment capital also lagged considerably behind the amounts available in Great Britain. Early troubles, such as the failed Paris to Rouen line, only reinforced the deep conservatism of the French banks. French private industry did not have the strength to construct a railway industry unassisted by government. Thus in the period of inaction by government before 1842 the French built only small and scattered railway lines.


The eventual relationship created between the French rail system and the government formed a compromise between two competing options:

  1. the completely laissez-faire free-market system that had created Britain's elaborate rail network
  2. a government-built and government-controlled railroad, such as had grown up in Belgium.

France employed a mixture of these two models to construct its railroads, but eventually turned definitively to the side of government control. The relationships between the government and private rail companies became complicated, with many conflicts and disagreements between the two groups.


The 1842 agreement proved the most important piece of railway legislation. It aided the companies by having the department of the Ponts et Chaussée doing most of the planning and engineering work for new lines. The government would assist in securing the land, often expropriating it. The government also agreed to pay infrastructure costs, building bridges, tunnels, and track bed. The private companies would then furnish the tracks, stations and rolling stock, as well as paying the operating costs.


Under state guidance, France's railways followed a national construction plan, which stipulated that every town with a population of around 1,500 inhabitants should have a standard gauge rail link, with a network of metre gauge lines filling in the gaps.


This general policy, however, masked many exceptions and additions. The most successful companies, especially the Compagnie du Nord, would often build their own lines themselves in order to avoid the complications of going through government. During the economic boom period of the 1850s, for instance, the national government had to pay only nineteen percent of the costs of railway construction. Other less successful lines, such as the Midi, would often need more assistance from the government to remain in operation. The same proved true during recessions, such as in 1859 when the railway lines gained a new agreement to save them from bankruptcy. In exchange for funding part of the construction of rail lines, the French government set maximum rates that the companies could charge. It also insisted that all government traffic must travel at a third of standard costs.


The expectation that the government would eventually nationalize the rail system formed another important element in French railway legislation. The original agreement of 1842 leased the railway lines to the companies for only thirty-six years. Napoleon III extended these leases to ninety-nine years soon after he came to power. That the rail companies only operated on leases paved the way for the nationalization of the French rail lines under the socialist government of the nineteen-thirties.


The French rail policy, once put in place, had its deficiencies, but one certainly cannot consider it a failure, and other powers attempting to encourage rail developments adopted many aspects of the French railway laws. We have already seen how the dependence on government for rail development allegedly delayed the construction of the French rail system. The bureaucratization and influence of special interests associated with all governments, even those of corporations, also negatively affected the French railways. However, the French rail system had failed to grow on its own and required government intervention to expand successfully. While the alleged intrusion of government into the railway sector caused problems, it also proved necessary and inevitable.


Unlike in countries where the construction of railways became a field for private enterprise, the state constructed the bulk of the French railway system, and magnanimously invited private companies to operate the lines under leases (of up to 99 years). France's railways form a somewhat unusual case in that they have never suffered private ownership. The state guaranteed the dividends of the railway operating companies, and in exchange took two-thirds of any greater profits.


The close relationship between the rail companies and government has much to do with French history. France had long had a large and elaborate bureaucracy and governmental structure that regulated many areas of French life. This bureaucracy survived the revolutionary period intact and played an important role in every government that ruled France in the nineteenth century. Thus when railways arose there already existed well-established governmental structures and procedures that could easily expand to encompass railway regulations as well. This regulatory régime, through the professional and powerful department of the Ponts et Chaussée, had very close control over the construction of roads, bridges and canals in France and it seems all but inevitable that the new railways would also fall under the government's close scrutiny.


Other reasons also led the French government to control its railways closely. Unlike the United Kingdom or the United States, France as a European continental power had pressing military/strategic needs from its railways, needs which a private sector might not provide. The French government constructed long stretches of railway lines in eastern France along the German border that served strategically crucial ends, but lacked economic viability. "Pure" private economic interests would not have constructed these routes on their own, so France used government rewards and pressure to encourage the rail companies to build the needed lines. (The German and Russian Empires also had widespread strategic railway systems, and in those countries as well private companies would not have built appropriately).


The first completed lines radiated out of Paris, connecting France's major cities to the capital. These lines still form the backbone of the French railway system. By the 1860s workers had completed the basic structure of the network, but they continued to build many minor lines during the late 19th century to fill in the gaps .


Government involvement in the railroads did mean that the French rail system became based on a very inefficient design. By 1855 the many original small firms had coalesced into six large companies, each having a regional monopoly in one area of France. The Nord, Est, Ouest, Paris-Orleans, Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée (PLM), and the Midi lines divided the nation into strict corridors of control. Difficulties arose in that the six large monopolies, with the exception of the Midi Company, all connected to Paris, but did not link together anywhere else in the country. The French railway map comprised a series of unconnected branches running out of Paris. While this meant good train services for Paris, other parts of the country were less well served. For instance: one branch of the Paris-Orleans Line ended in Clermont-Ferrand, while Lyon stood on the PLM Line. Thus any goods or passengers requiring transportation from Lyon to Clermont-Ferrand in 1860 needed to take a circuitous route via Paris of over seven hundred kilometers, even though a mere hundred and twenty kilometers separated the two cities.


This grave inefficiency lead to great problems in the Franco-Prussian War (1870 - 1871). The German railway lines, inter-connected in a grid-like fashion, proved far more efficient at advancing troops and supplies to the front than the French one. "Combien nous a été funeste l'absence de lignes transversales [...] unissant nos grandes artères" reported a military officer to the parliamentary inquiry on France's defeat.


The arrangement of the lines also hurt France's economy. Shipping costs between regional centres became greatly inflated. Thus many cities specialised in exporting their goods to Paris, as trans-shipment to a second city would double the price.


France ended up with this regressive arrangement for a number of reasons. Paris formed the undisputed capital of France, and many viewed it as the capital of Europe. To French railway planners it seemed only natural that all the lines should involve the metropolis. By contrast Germany ended up with a far superior system because it had little unity and many centers vying for pre-eminence. Thus a variety of rail centres arose. Berlin, Munich, Dresden, Hamburg, and the Rhine areas all had links to each other.


The French railway lines also exhibited a high degree of centralisation because plans dictated this. Unlike Britain and America, France had a central government which greatly influenced the layout and the planning of the railways. This Paris-centric government had minimal local representation, especially in the bureaucracy. The Ponts et Chaussée department that supervised the railways remained thoroughly Parisian. Because of strong governmental and administrative influence, all six of the French railway companies had their headquarters in Paris. This occurred not only because of the unquestioned centrality of Paris, but also because the rail companies always remained in close contact with the French government, and needed bases in Paris to ensure positive relations.


Nineteenth-century Britain largely lacked intensive government interference in the railways, and railway companies thus experienced fewer pressures to center their lines on London, and also less necessity for each company to cultivate such close links to the center of political power. In England, for instance, local businesses financed and promoted the Stockton and Manchester lines. In France, cities like Lyon and Bordeaux did not have many wealthy investors: capital emanated almost exclusively from Paris. This concentration of capital in Paris also contributed to the concentration of the railway system in the metropolis.


The most important of the railway operating companies during this period included:

  • Chemin de Fer de l'Est
  • Chemin de Fer du Nord
  • Chemin de Fer Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée
  • Chemin de Fer Paris-Orleans
  • Chemin de Fer du Midi


By 1914 the French railway system had become one of the densest and most highly-developed in the world, and had reached its maximum extent of around 60,000 km (35,000 miles). About one third of this mileage comprised narrow gauge lines.


By the 1930s, road competition began to take its toll on the railways, and the rail network needed pruning. The narrow-gauge lines suffered most severely from road competition: many thousands of miles of narrow-gauge lines closed during the 1930s. By the 1950s the once extensive narrow-gauge system had practically become extinct. Many minor standard-gauge lines also closed. The French railway system today has around 40,000 km (25,000 miles) of track.


Many of the private railway operating companies began to face financial difficulties. In 1938 the socialist government fully nationalised the railway system and formed the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer (SNCF). Regional authorities have begun to specify schedules more recently.


From the late 1970s onwards, a newly-constructed set of high-speed TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) lines linked France's major cities.


In 1994, the Channel Tunnel opened, connecting France and Great Britain by rail under the English Channel.


See also


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