A Brief History of French Railways

The first railway in France opened between Saint Etienne and Andrézieux, south west of Lyon, in 1828. Like early English railways it was initially seen as an adjunct to inland waterways, but it rapidly became apparent that here, in embryo, was a revolutionary form of transport. On this railway in 1829, Marc Seguin placed the steam locomotive equipped with the multi-tube boiler which he had invented simultaneously with the Stephensons: a working replica of this engine exists today. 

 The first line to be built specifically for passenger traffic, and the first to serve the capital, was the Paris – St Germain, opened in 1837. Early trunk lines, Paris – Rouen (1843) and Paris – Orleans, drew on English technology and expertise, which left a permanent legacy in the choice of gauge and the left-hand running which is still the practice on double-track in France, except for the lines in Alsace-Lorraine and the Paris Metro. 

 Wishing to retain control of transport policy, the French Government passed a law in 1842 determining the shape and economic basis of the future network. The State was to supply the land, formation and all civil engineering works, which it would then lease to companies which would lay the track and run the trains. By the 1850s, town-to-town routes had coalesced into the "Big Six" grands réseaux: Est, Nord, Ouest, Paris – Orléans (PO, whose territory extended beyond Orléans itself, south to Bordeaux), Midi (in the deep south), and Paris – Lyon– Méditerranée (PLM). The original master plan included a "Grand Central", whose concessions were divided between the PO and PLM before it could come to fruition. 

 After the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, Prussia annexed Alsace and Lorraine and integrated their railways with its own system – hence the right-hand running mentioned above; on return of the territory to France in 1918, the Alsace-Lorraine (AL) remained a separate company until nationalisation. 

 In 1878, the state itself (Etat) took over the operation of a group of loss-making lines in the west of the country, and this system further absorbed the Ouest railway in 1909. The PO and Midi merged in 1934, four years before the whole of the main-line network was nationalised as the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français (SNCF). 

 The earliest locomotives in France were of British design. Stephenson "Patentee" and long-boiler types were built under licence by French manufacturers. William Buddicom took with him the so-called Crewe Type when he set up works at Sotteville to supply the Paris – Rouen and Le Havre railways. The Ouest continued to follow British practice for many years, even playing briefly with a Webb compound. The Crampton engine, shunned in its native Britain, became the TGV of its day. Etat and PLM both tried American 4-4-0s and 4-4-2s and found them wanting. 

 By then, French locomotive development had found its true path, however, informed in particular by two factors. The first was the poor quality of local coal, necessitating costly imports and putting a premium on fuel efficiency. Hence the liking for elaborate valve gears, devices such as feed-water heaters (usually hung about the outside of the engine and giving French motive power its characteristic craggy appearance) – and, above all, compounding, or double expansion. Around the turn of the 19th-20th century, Alfred de Glehn (born in Sydenham, south London, incidentally!) and du Bousquet of the Nord established the four-cylinder compound layout that became almost the norm for large machines, though other companies produced their own variations on the theme, and from time to time someone would build an equivalent simple-expansion locomotive, just to prove that compounds were still a Good Thing. 

 The second parameter affecting French locomotive practice was the overall speed limit, which was for many decades set at 120 km/h. (about 75 mph) nationally. Thus the search for flat-out speed was never a high priority in locomotive design. Rather, what was wanted was a machine that would run as close as possible to that limit for kilometre after kilometre whatever the load, weather or gradient. This ideal was certainly reached in the superb Pacific rebuilds of André Chapelon for the PO and Nord. Chapelon was the master engineer who built on the work of his predecessors and brought a new understanding of thermodynamics to locomotive design. Having improved – some would say perfected – the 4-cylinder engine, he turned to experiments with six cylinders before settling on three as the way forward for steam. His experimental 4-8-4 (242 A 1) turned in astonishing performances (1946-50), a whole family of high-powered designs was on the drawing board and building had actually started on the truly awesome 2-10-4 when work was abruptly stopped and all resources poured into electrification … 

 This line of locomotive development depended also on footplate crews having a high degree of engineering training and on the policy of single-manning – one engine, one crew – which was long sustained in France. The final steam locomotive for SNCF was the 241 P class (4-8-2) delivered in 1952. These too were four-cylinder compounds, based on a much earlier PLM design. As steam withdrew from French rails, however, the rearguard action was not fought by the sophisticated compounds but by the very un-French, unsubtle, unbreakable American 141 Rs. 

 Electric traction had come early to France. The 1900 Universal Exhibition spawned the Métro and Paris suburban lines. The shrewd and sober Midi company, surrounded by mountains capable of providing hydro-power, began electrifying its routes in the early decades of the 20th century, ultimately linking up with the wires of the PO pushing southwards from Paris. Meanwhile, the Etat had electrified Paris – Le Mans – all this prior to 1939 and at 1500 V dc. The national network of standard-gauge lines provides only two-thirds of the story, however. Two government decisions, the Loi Migneret of 1865 and the Plan Freycinet of 1879, opened up the way for a network of secondary railways – both standard and narrow gauge – feeding the national system. There grew up an incredibly convoluted system of minor standard and narrow gauge lines totalling at its zenith 22,364 km.: one third of the total national railway network. The aim for every Sous-Prëfecture – in effect every town of over 1500 inhabitants – to be on a standard-gauge railway was never quite achieved. Of course very many of these petits trains never stood a chance of being profitable and they rapidly succumbed to road competition in the inter-war period. A couple of metre-gauge electric lines and three diesel-worked, still provide a public service operated by, or in conjunction with, the SNCF. There are a few preserved as tourist railways, but the archaeology of dozens more is readily traceable on the ground. 

 The nationalised SNCF had hardly drawn breath before the network was ravaged in World War II, first by the German occupation, then by the bombing efforts of the RAF and USAAF and, finally, by the zeal of the French Resistance in carrying out Plan Vert to cripple the railways on the eve of D-Day. 

 Picking up the pieces, the SNCF focussed its recovery on massive electrification and the quest for speed. In March 1955, an electric locomotive, BB 9004*, flashed (literally) across the plain of the Landes at 331 km/h. If this speed seemed incredible at the time, so, later, did the 380 km/h (1981), 515 km/h (1990) and 574.8 km/h (2007) attained by modified versions of the Trains à Grande Vitesse, which epitomise the progressive thinking of today's SNCF. In the fifties also, France developed the use of high-voltage, industrial-frequency electrification (25,000 V, 50 Hz ac), which has since become a worldwide standard. 

 For non-electrified lines, diesel locomotives were introduced in a measured way, relatively few classes being built in large numbers. Railcars had been an integral part of operations since the l930s (and the PLM had produced a few entirely practical main-line locomotives whose development was stifled by the war). An interesting diversion was provided by the turbo-trains, multiple units powered by modified helicopter gas-turbine engines. These set a popular new standard for speed and comfort, but were not fuel-efficient enough to keep up with hikes in oil costs and the last were withdrawn in 2000.  

From 1980 onwards, the future was seen to be the Train a Grande Vitesse. A new network of dedicated lines – Ligne à Grande Vitesse (LGV) was superimposed on the old, in a flurry of railway building, the like of which has not been seen since the 'manias' of the nineteenth century. The LGV-Sud Est (Paris – Lyon) was completed in 1983, the LGV-Atlantique line to the west in 1989/90, LGV-Nord to the Channel Tunnel in 1993, and the Paris and Lyon avoiding lines in 1994. The LGV- Méditerranée line from Valence to Marseille and Nîmes opened in 2001 and the TGV LGV-Est in 2007, the latter two with an increased line speed of 320 km/h. In 2010 the first stage of the Perpignan to Barcelona high speed line opened, followed by the upgrade of the Haut Bugey line to reduced Paris to Geneva journey times. The 140 km long LGV-Rhone-Rhin line opened in 2011. In July 2016 the 106 km extension of the LGV-Est, from Baudrecourt to Vendenheim, on the outskirts of Strasbourg, was opened. 2017 saw the opening of three further extensions to the existing high speed network. A further 60km was added to the LGV-Mediterranée from Nimes to Montpellier; this section is used by both TGV and freight trains. Extensions to the LGV–Atlantique, the LGV-Bretagne(182km) and LGV-Océane (306km) were opened, bringing the high speed network direct to Rennes and Bordeaux. Both of these lines were built using a private-public financial funding arrangement with the builders meeting 50% of the construction costs in return for retention of all access charges for the following 50 years. More emphasis is now being given to the upgrade of ‘classic’ lines such as POLT (Paris, Orleans, Limoges, Toulouse).The only LGV currently planned is GPSO (Grand Project Ferrovaire de Sud Ouest). This will see the LGV extend from Bordeaux to Toulouse and Dax. A second phase will extend it from Dax to the Spanish border.

In part since 1996, and fully since 2003, all local services have been under control of the regional authorities, who also have the responsibility of stock procurement. For some years the viability of their rural lines has been in the balance. While the politicians are now supporting their retention on environmental grounds, there remains a massive maintenance backlog that will be very expensive to address. A vast programme of rolling stock modernization has taken place in recent years. This is seeing further development on environmental groups with the introduction of hybrid battery and hydrogen variants. Since 2019 many of the former medium distance routes operated by SNCF, and sponsored by the Government under the Intercite banner have been transferred to the regions. As part of the transfer agreements the Government has funded new rolling stock generally based on the Alstom Coradia/Regiolis or Bombardier Omneo Premium/Regio 2N platforms. A further future development will be the introduction of RER networks around major cities.

The freight side has seen significant change in recent years. In the early years of this century SNCF FRET put in place plans to update both the electric and diesel locomotive fleets with orders for large numbers of classes 27000, 37000, 60000 and 75000. As delivery got under way the economic downturn, and the opening up of the domestic freight market to open-access operators hit them. To alleviate the financial position small wagonload flows were terminated and marshalling yards closed or reduced. Although the rail-freight market is now beginning to pick up the growth tends to be with the open access operators. The three main open access operators are Euro Cargo Rail (owned by DB), Europorte (owned by Eurotunnel) and Colas Rail who between them now handle over a third of the traffic. SNCB subsidiary OSR also handles traffic in the north of France especially where the flows begin or terminate in Belgium. Many of the new locomotives were transferred to Akiem, SNCF’s locomotive leasing subsidiary and leased to open access operators both in France and abroad. Akiem was subsequently sold off as part of SNCF re-organisation as not having a strategic fit with its role as a transport operator. In 2020 as part of it's post pandemic environmental investment programme the Government announced a multi-billion euro investment programme in the rail freight sector. Since then SNCF's freight business has been re-structured into a number of different companies. It is being re-organised again from 2025 following an EU investigation into uncompetitive financial support by the government, and it has agreed to hand over some of it's traffic flows to competitors to resolve the issue.

The process of competitive tender to operate passenger services in France was started in 2019. The introduction of the legislation was met with extensive industrial action despite the unions being involved in drafting the legisalation that aimed to create a "level playing field" between SNCF and private operators. Although there was some expression of interest from private operators the combination of expensive tendering exercises, potential industrial action, and the disruption caused by Coronavirus initially detered potential bidders, with early returns showing that only SNCF was prepared to submit a bid. Since December 2023 all publicly supported services are required to be competitively tendered. In the final months before December 2023 a number of regions renewed their contracts with SNCF to avoid competitive tendering. Of those that have undertaken competitive tendering  the Marseille - Nice service has been awarded to Transdev, and all others retained by SNCF, although generally on much better terms

For the nostalgic, the preservation scene in France is somewhat different from that in Britain. Few of the "tourist" railways own their right-of-way. Some operate over lines owned by the local départment or have arrangements to operate on closed or freight-only SNCF branches, with the result that, if SNCF decides to lift the track, the preservation group has to move its stock elsewhere – hence the apparently ephemeral nature of some tourist lines. One should also be aware that "tourist railway" does not always equal "steam railway". Many outfits – and their passengers – are content with a rustic railcar, especially if the journey breaks to visit a place of interest and, of course, to allow time for a good lunch! 

A handful of steam locomotives (plus a small number of heritage electrics, diesels and several preserved railcars) are cleared for mainline operation. French enthusiasts tend to be envious of the variety of traction available in Britain, but the French certainly make up for this in ambitious and imaginative itineraries which deserve to be better patronised than some appear to be.

*For many years, published information stated that, on the following day, CC 7107 attained the identical speed – and the locomotive still carries a plaque to this effect. The myth seems to have been perpetuated in order to give equal merit to the work of MTE and Alsthom, the respective project leaders. It has since been revealed that CC 7107 reached only (!) 328 km/h