History of Rail Transport in France

France: History of railLong before the advent of the locomotive and caboose seen in plains and countryside, there existed railways. As early as the 17th century, logs were laid side by side to keep heavy coal wagons from sinking into dirt roads impassable from mud or murky swamp. Its history began long before the steam engine was conceived and invented. Logs were sawed and nailed to the planks, with 3 to 4 feet in between, and made parallel to wagon wheels. Horses drawing wagons of mined ores walked between the plank rails. Soon, miners in England and France were building plank roads. This is the earliest form of railway. It made possible for heavy coal wagons to be driven by fewer horses or mules. The railroad track was developed in the late 18th century and further modified to deal with wear from stones accumulating in the hold of the plank rails.

France: History of railIn 1769, Nicolas Cugnot astounded Parisians with a three-wheeled vehicle powered by steam heated in a big copper boiler. Sans horses, it was a marvel to behold. It moved by itself ! Unpredictably, the machine rolled along and got out of control slamming into a garden wall. Cugnot went to prison, unable to pay for the damages his invention had caused.

Salomon de Caus, engineer and architect to Louis XIII, in his book Les raisons des forces mouvants (published in 1615) explained the mechanics of hyraulics and a machine that worked. He built a solar-powered water pump, using glass lenses to heat a sealed vessel containing water and air--regarded as the first use of solar energy since classical times. He described the principles of a steam engine and advocated its use. Although once falsely credited for developing the steam engine, he nevertheless wrote a treatise with a methodical discussion of the facts and principles involved. Alphonse Beau de Rochas , another French engineer who first published in 1861, originally put forth the principle of the four-stroke internal combustion engine.

The Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) altogether put a halt on the development and construction of France's railways. The first railway which began operating in 1832 did not begin to be developed until after a decade. History of french railLeaving France behind, Britain, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland marched on to lay the groundwork of the mass transport rail system. The first railways began its operation in 1832, but the building of the main French railways system did not materialize until ten years later when a law was passed. The French industrial revolution (1815–1860)was brought about by the easier transport of farm produce, home-grown wines, cheese and other dairy, raw materials and imported manufactured products by providing access to a national market of a rich variety of processed food and comestibles. In times of war, the rails deployed the transport of munitions in the wars fought by France against the British Imperial Army (1803-1814).

History of rail in FranceNationwide opposition to railroad construction passing through much of France's countryside were widespread among many sectors. Heated debates in politics and public outcry among its citizens beleaguered by imminent progress were rampant. The prospect of digging the picturesque mountains and postcard-perfect landscape of hills and meadows simply horrified its citizens. Monstrous digging equipment haplessly boring and scraping dirt while bridging the canals with its unpalatable sight of countless workmen in brigades is an anxiety-provoking havoc. The threat of mutilation, imagined or not, bringing the drastic changes in the landscape were met with widespread anxiety.

History of rail in FranceThe coal and iron industries were underdeveloped in France owing to a lack of coalfields. While Britain was already producing over 200 million tons of coal annually, France's production was a mere 35 million. Lacking a unified central government (1830-1848), national decisions on rail transport were arrived at only after long parliamentary debates. The free-market (laissez-faire) system that supported Belgium, Britain, Prussia (Germany) and ultimately propelled these countries to railway construction provided the key incentive to build more. Laissez-faire, literally translated means: "to let people do as they choose". It is the doctrine of minimal government intervention in economic affairs and individual property rights.

France had been blessed with a plethora of navigable waterways and had poured its capital investments in canal construction. Opposition to building an extensive rail network were raised by the water transport industry claiming that the country has no need of such. The rationale behind the Rouen Chamber of Commerce voting down the rail link that would connect Rouen to Paris in 1832 had been the widespread perception of the railway link as detrimental to the local canal and riverside enterprises. They argued that the trains would pose competition as another means of transport that would cause them to lose a percentage of their hauling and cargo business by sea.

History of rail in FranceFinally, the French government passed a law in 1842 subsidizing private companies to build railways linking Paris, as the center, to all other major cities in France. Although at first, it seemed functional, it was disastrous. Cities were not directly linked to each other causing inflated regional shipment costs and significant delays. Supplies and troop movements, among others, were hindered causing the country's defeat in the Franco-Prussian (German) War (1870-1871), where a thousand kilometers of railroad tracks were destroyed but later rebuilt.

History of rail in FranceBy 1880, about six thousand (6,000) locomotives were fully operational , catering to more than fifty-thousand passengers a year and hauling over twenty-five thousand (25,000) tons of freight goods. By 1914, the French railway system extended to some sixty thousand (60,000) kilometers and had become the most developed surpassing any other country in the world. The lines radiated from the heart of Paris, similar to the planned construction of its arrondisements, connecting to major regions or departements in France. The railroad tracks were laid projecting outward from the Parisian capital. It was a centralized system designed not to maximize efficiency but to achieve political and cultural goals. The central government department of Ponts et Chaussées was in charge of coordinating the work with British engineers and private French companies who managed the project by hiring labor, planned and laid the tracks, rail terminals and segregated lands by estate planning. In the southern part of France, lines were planned to cut from East to West, mostly in Provence, Toulouse and Bordeaux.

In 1899, France had finally surpassed Britain with 37,494 kilometers of track as against the competition with 29,828. The legislation passed in 1842 did not allow private ownership of the railway system but leased the operation of lines to a group. The French government, on the other hand, funded the infrastructure, bridges, canals, embankments, terminals, tracks beds and the like. A large number of small companies built the network rail from scratch which later had become grouped into six (6) large regional companies—none of which were physically connected or directly linked to each other.

History of rail in France SNCFAs a result, Paris became the focal point of activity acting as a central hub of the network and the center of its financial, political and economic affairs. The six regional operators were adamant in their refusal to be connected to one another which resulted in a lack of coordination and a chaos of logistics. They were called the Grandes Compagnies or the six principal railway companies: Chemin de Fer du Nord, Chemins de Fer de Paris à Lyon et à la Méditerranée, Chemin de Fer de Paris à Orléans et du Midi, Chemin de Fer de l'Est, Chemin de Fer de l'Etat, and Chemin de Fer de l'Ouest. The six principal companies were nationalized on 1st January 1938 to form the SNCF (also known as Sociéte nationale des chemins de fer français). Sadly, shortly after the SNCF was born, the Nazis of German Occupation (WW II) seized its control in June 1940, aided by the collaborationist french Vichy government, for four agonizing years. In the 1980s and following a decade after, the SNCF extended its network to include the TGV Atlantique which fully became operational in 1990. In 1993, the TGV Nord Europe was completed linking the underground Eurostar line to England beneath the English Channel a year after. The Thalys line, completed in 1996, extended the high-speed TGV network from Paris to Brussels. The TGV Est Européen, begun June 2007 and still under present expansion, connected Eastern France, northeastern cities of Strasbourg and Metz, spanning further on to Luxembourg, and principal cities in Germany and Switzerland.


Notable years in the chronology of rail construction in France:
•1842 --- Legislation codifying the construction of the French national rail transport by the private sector is passed.
• 1938 --- SNCF was formed;
• 1955 --- SNCF sets a train speed record;
• 1974 --- TGV line between Paris and Lyon construction of first phase;
• 1981 --- Inauguration of the first TGV line;
• 1991 --- directive from the European Parliament drafting the segregation of railroad infrastructure from its operations in Europe;
• 1997 – RFF Réseau de Ferré de France where SNCF became government-owned and controlled;
• 2001 ---TGV line from Paris to Marseille is inaugurated;
•2004 ---RFF opens its doors to competition welcoming foreign and private ownership. Réseau de Ferré de France (RFF) is a government-owned company incorporated in 1997 with about 600 employees and annual sales of US $ 2.7 Billion in 2002.

Fastest Train in the world TGV v150After hurdling obstacles from its endless wars to restoration of its borders, France finally led the world in the production of trains in contemporary times. The "Train à Grande Vitesse" (high-speed train) or simply “LeTGV” (pronounced te-zhe-veh) is faster than the Shinkansen (bullet trains of Japan). The TGV network spans the entire star-shaped “pays La France” reaching all major cities. The TGV holds the speed record for rail of 380 kilometers per hour (set in 1981) and boasts of the most extensive network of high-speed rail lines worldwide. On a clear Tuesday afternoon, third of April 2007, the TGV set a new world train record of 574.8 kilometers per hour (357.16 mph) in 15 minutes (TGV POS 4402, nicknamed train V150) arriving at Champagne-Ardenne station at 1:30 shortly after leaving Prény (Meurthe-et-Moselle). The previous record was in 1990 with 515.3 km/h set by train 325 on the TGV Atlantique.

History of rail in France: TGV