CZ/SK verze

Railway (R)evolution: From Horses to High-Speed Trains - How France Built a World-Class Railway Network

Railway (R)evolution: From Horses to High-Speed Trains - How France Built a World-Class Railway Network
photo: Allain Lloyd / Wikimedia commons / CC BY-SA 4.0/TGV M N997
10 / 07 / 2024

The French railway network serves as a model for many European countries. How did this modern network come about, and where will the billions be invested in the future?

The First Steps

The first idea for building a railway in France was proposed in 1810 by Michel Moisson-Desroches. The plan involved seven lines connecting Paris to its nearby surroundings. However, this early concept of a railway network faced political opposition from transportation companies that used canals, rivers, and roads to transport goods, fearing the new competition.

It wasn't until 1828 that the government greenlit the first railway. This private initiative by a mining company aimed to transport coal from the vicinity of St. Etienne to the Loire River, 11 miles (17.7 km) away. The fact that King Charles X's government approved this project, without any financial contribution, marks the beginning of railway history in France. This initial effort was followed by a 58 km long line connecting the local centers of Lyon and St. Etienne, completed in 1833. Initially, horses were used for traction, later replaced by steam locomotives. Passenger transport on the railway began in 1835, as reported by SNCF Groupe.

Source: Wikimedia commons / Public Domain

Initially, the French railway construction system mimicked the British model, relying on private entrepreneurs. However, due to insufficient entrepreneurial activity, the government began playing a larger role in railway network construction. In 1842, France had only 480 km of railways compared to over 3,000 km in nearby Britain. This discrepancy was due not only to Britain's technological superiority and head start but also to the rigid French regime, which couldn't match the British system.

A Change of Course

In 1842, the French government started actively investing in the railway network, recognizing its significant economic, military, and strategic potential. The Ponts et Chaussées department ("bridges and roads") was tasked with planning and engineering new railway lines. Private enterprises were responsible for equipping stations and operating rolling stock, which involved paying substantial fees to the state for railway use. This imperfect system favored the largest players and practically hindered the creation of regional lines due to the unprofitability for private operators.

This new system proved advantageous for construction speed, with over 3,200 km of tracks built by 1848, operated by nearly 30 railway companies. Among these lines was one connecting Strasbourg with Basel, Switzerland, completed in 1844, and one of the first international railways in Europe.

Source: Wikimedia commons / Ulamm / CC BY 3.0

The rise of the Second French Empire in 1852, under President Louis Napoleon (nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte), who became Emperor Napoleon III, played a crucial role in consolidating small railway companies into larger ones, emulating the British model. By 1857, six companies operated all French railway lines, connecting major routes into a comprehensive network centered in Paris. This system was completed by 1870, just a year before the fall of the Empire. Despite the controversial reign of Napoleon III, the French railway system benefited significantly, resulting in a comprehensive network of 23,000 km of tracks. Ironically, this centralized network contributed to military inefficiencies, leading to France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and Napoleon III's downfall.

Expansion and Modernization

By the start of World War I in 1914, the French railway system was among the densest in Europe. Post-war efforts focused on electrifying the entire network. The system of large railway companies persisted until 1937, when the five leading companies merged to form the Société nationale des chemins de fer français (SNCF).


World War II inflicted significant damage on the French railways due to their strategic importance and frequent bombings. Post-war repairs were coupled with the completion of the network's electrification. The clear goal was then to increase speed. This objective was achieved in several stages, starting with the launch of the Le Capitole Express in 1967, transporting passengers between Paris and Toulouse at speeds of up to 200 km/h

Source: Wikimedia commons / Rob Dammers / CC BY 2.0

The ultimate goal was partially reached in 1981 when the new TGV unit broke the speed record, achieving a maximum speed of 380 km/h, and fully realized in 1989 with the introduction of the TGV Atlantique into regular service, reaching speeds of up to 300 km/h. This was followed by the Thalys trains, operating between Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, and Cologne, and the TGV Duplex trains, reaching speeds of up to 320 km/h.

Source: Wikimedia commons / Florian Pépellin / CC BY-SA 4.0

Additionally, the opening of the Eurotunnel in 1994, connecting France and the UK under the English Channel, marked a significant milestone. The final step in creating a modern network was the policy of decentralization, moving away from the system established over a century ago by Napoleon III, through the introduction of regional express trains (TER) and Corail passenger trains.

Source: Wikimedia commons / Etalab / CC BY-SA 4.0

Future Investments

Thus, France has one of the most modern railway networks in the world. However, the work is never truly finished, especially in the railway sector. This is underscored by the new plan recently presented by French President Emmanuel Macron, aiming to increase the number of daily connections by up to 100,000. Investments amounting to tens of billions of euros will lead to the construction of several new lines, including the planned high-speed lines: Paris-Clermont-Ferrand-Lyon, which will ease congestion on the existing Paris-Lyon line, and the Bordeaux-Toulouse high-speed line.


Source: French Railway Society, Gaugemaster