The great nationalisations of Euro rail travel

Episode 3 – France

Our series on the great nationalisations of Euro rail travel continues with a focus on France. The railways were taken into the hands of the state in 1938 but not in a single stage. In fact, it was the result of various interventionist moves that are very closely tied to the political history of this country during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A period which, most people would agree, was particularly turbulent.

Unlike neighbouring Italy, France was very slow to nationalise the railways, which at least to begin with developed far from the eye of the French state. For a good chunk of the nineteenth century, the latter showed very little interest in this new means of transport. France was home to a vast network of royal roads and canals which were considered by the authorities to be very effective for transporting both goods and people, and the thinking was that there was therefore no need for the railways too. But that didn’t prevent western Europe’s first train line from opening in the country in 1827 – the Saint-Etienne-Andrézieux line.

This 18-kilometre stretch was built to carry the coal extracted by the mines at Saint-Etienne to the vast network of rivers in the Loire region. It started running in 1827, four years after the concession had been handed to two engineers. The first line dedicated solely to passenger transport was built by Eugène Flachat after the concession had been given to the Pereire brothers, two French entrepreneurs who had invested in lots of industrial sectors at the time. It was inaugurated on August 24 1837, linking Paris with Saint-Germain-en-Laye and pulled by a steam locomotive. Gradually, other lines run by private companies also opened up, mostly between Paris and other big cities, or between medium-sized towns like Montpellier and Sète, which was inaugurated in 1839.

The first stage in nationalisation was a law known as the Loi relative à l'établissement des grandes lignes de chemin de fer en France on June 11 1842. This was the expression of a desire on the part of the French government to catch up with other countries, since its network only comprised 319 kilometres of rail lines (against 566 in private hands), compared with 2,521 in England, 5,800 in the USA, 627 in the German states and 378 in Belgium. As part of the new law, a methodical map of all French railways was commissioned, including the famed ‘Legrand star’ around Paris, named after Baptiste Alexis Victor Legrand, the Director-General of Bridges, Roadways and Mines at the time, who was the main guy behind the initiative.

But that wasn’t all. The law also introduced a form of public-private partnership that was summed up well by this extract from a newspaper at the time: ‘Localities responsible for handing over land, the state for construction, private businesses for day-to-day services… general wealth, local wealth, private wealth: these were the three elements put in play to ensure the railways functioned.’ It’s worth noting, also, that the state would also become the owner of the land through which the lines passed. The law incentivised the creation of several railway businesses whose founders were drawn in by the huge profits of certain historic players within the industry.

In 1859, another law shook things up again, by splitting up the various lines between six large firms: the Compagnie de Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée, Compagnie d’Orléans, Compagnie du Midi, Compagnie du Nord, Compagnie de l’Est and Compagnie de l’Ouest. But things weren’t all that easy for these companies. The French state exerted a lot of pressure on them and became increasingly demanding, forcing them to build lines that weren’t that profitable to ensure a high level of service for its citizens. And the finances of certain firms were duly hit hard. Six years later, in 1865, another law allowed departments and communes to create lines or let them be run locally as a so-called ‘local interest’ service.

It was in 1878 that nationalisation really got under way, when the railway network of the Charentes region was absorbed into an organisation called the Administration des Chemins de Fer de l’Etat or the Réseau de l’Etat. Then things really got going. In 1908, the Compagnie de l’Ouest, which was greatly in debt, was also nationalised, while the ‘local interest’ network just kept growing, hitting 20,291 kilometres of tracks in 1928, and the hold the state had on these large firms just kept on growing.

Finally, in 1937, the entirety of the network passed into the hands of the French government, which created a new structure for the occasion: the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français, which we all know today as SNCF. This took the form of a mixed economy company, of which the state was the majority stakeholder. It didn’t start out at a good time, however, as France was soon occupied by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime during World War II. Hitler in fact ordered the whole network to be put at the disposal of the Third Reich, which would use it to achieve its foulest of objectives. What’s less well known is that several railway workers actually fought back against this stranglehold on the network, aiming to prevent the deportation of human beings. But that’s another story we can perhaps tell another day.

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