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Introduction

Record setting French train on display by Eiffel Tower

Record setting French train on display by Eiffel Tower

Every era of rail has been defined by France. That’s not to say the French invented the railway or the technology that makes it work. In fact, the French have never been the first to adopt any entirely new rail technology. Instead, what the French have done is refine the expertise and the application of the machinery to the real world – the French haven’t just adopted new technologies, they have perfected them by infusing them with the French ‘spirit of geometry’ and ‘spirit of finesse.’ In doing so France has become the model for the world when it comes to railways.

It might seem astonishing that the French were able to define each epoch of the railway. Yet, the origins of French rail didn’t begin with rail at all – it began with “the struggle between order and freedom in the paintings of Gérôme and Monet, in the sculpture of Rodin, in the music of Perotinus and Debussy… [and] the splendid and brutal history of her streets: the bold building and savage destruction, Gustave Eiffel and Emperor Napoleon, the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the Temple of Reason.”1 It is no understatement to say that the origins of the railway as we know it today came out of the heart of France, Paris, and the soul of that city.

This website will look at each era of railway technology and how it began in France not as a new technology, but as movement, like that which can be found in art. We will look at the history of steam engines and the nationalization of the rail system. We look at the Paris Métro and the subsequent creation of the RER. Finally we look at the TGV and next-generation of high-speed rail, the AGV. For each of these technologies we will discuss who made it, and why. Then we will describe the historical context of the trains in France and what they tell us about the time it was created. Finally, in brief, we will describe how each era of railway in France has become a model for other rail systems around the world.

Mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, and his wife inspecting French high-speed train

Mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, and his wife inspecting a French high-speed train


Read on about steam trains in France >>>


© Brian A. Tyler and Switching Modes, 2009.
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