When Were The Railways Built In France?

A brief history of the French railroad system.

railroads in france
Photo by Barthelemy de Mazenod on Unsplash

Whether you are visiting the vast country sides or the numerous boulangeries and cafés, France has something that every traveler can enjoy, and there are a handful of modes of transportation that can be used to get there. One popular choice is to use the train.

Ironically, France was slow to begin developing its rail system. By the time the first railway was built in 1828, Belgium and Britain already had a massive head start in their railway development.  In addition to dragging its feet, this railway was created by mining companies to move coal instead of people. The first passenger service wouldn’t be opened until later, in 1835.

railroads in france
Image by Lola Mamasheva via Unsplash

The French banking system funded these initial developments, but this situation became quite a financial burden over time. Eventually, the government became involved in financing and developing the railways.

In 1842, the Theirs Plan was put into place. This way, private companies and the government contributed to the railing system. Even though this alleviated some of the pressure the banks were facing, this created a strange relationship between the public and private sectors.

The terms of the agreement outlined that the state would own the system and was responsible for contributing $50,000 per mile. The state would also secure the land needed for development and cover infrastructure costs.  Private companies were responsible for covering the cost of the tracks, buildings, and other resources required for operation. These businesses also had to purchase leases directly from the state to use the system. This arrangement prevented monopolies from forming but inhibited regional networks from materializing.

By 1848, there were several companies in the railway business, and many of them were faring poorly economically. The lines built until this point were primarily incomplete, limiting traffic.

railroads in france
Image by Gontran Isnard via Unsplash

When Napoleon III seized a more imperial role in 1851, he selected infrastructure and improving the railroad system as one of his priorities. One of the steps he took to accomplish this was to consolidate six of the leading railway companies. The merger was successful, but because all the lines ran from Paris outward, citizens were limited in how they could travel by train. This inefficiency became especially apparent during the Franco-Prussian War (1870 – 1871.)

Later during the turn of the century, the Paris Metro was designed by French civil engineer Fulgence Bienvenüe and inaugurated to help handle the city’s traffic needs.

When World War I started in the early 1900s, the rail resources were converted to transport soldiers instead of civilians. Following 1918, France received significant additions to its locomotive and wagon fleet as part of the reparations from Germany required by the Versailles Treaty.

To make this highly centralized more efficient, the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français (SNCF) was founded in 1937, effectively nationalizing the railway system in France.

railroads in france
Image by Chris Curry via Unsplash

This new railroad system was not official for long before the German forces overtook it once France was invaded during World War II. Postwar efforts focused on repairing, modernizing, and electrifying the railway to rectify the damage during the war.

The following primary goal was to make the trains faster. This led to the creation of the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) in 1981. These high-speed trains are incredibly efficient for traveling between major cities and broke speed records with their ability to travel at 380 km/h.

The last significant advancement made was the decentralization of the rails. The rollout of the Train Express Régionaux (TER) trains and Corail coaches was created to provide convenient regional travel by train and improve rail service.

Today, the French railway industry ranks second in Europe, and though it was late to the scene, it has been updated to accommodate the needs of its passengers and help daily life run on time.

Jade Hargrove

Jade is a Georgia native who has enjoys trying new foods, podcasts, and long car rides with friends. She hopes to one day travel to every French-speaking country in the world to experience the different dialects and cultures that can be found around the world.

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