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French Railways  —  £ 3.99

Go to the eBook Shop You might think that a book about the French Railway system from before the First World War would contain little to interest the general reader. Mais non!

This is a fascinating look at the unique and quintessentially French way that it was (belatedly) designed, financed, organised and run. The last ten pages get a bit over-nerdy, but there are lessons here that Governments could learn today about how to cope with large-scale capital projects.

This eBook version contains the entire text and all illustrations, as originally published in 1911. Please see the extract below.

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For more than 30 years after they were invented, Railways were banned in France, with a veritable phalanx of vested interests keeping the 'Railway Mania' in the rest of the world at bay. When they finally decided to join in they learned from all the experiments and mistakes that had been made elsewhere and very quickly built a State-controlled but privately-owned system that covered the country. And they are still better at it than we are.

Robert Alfred Hardcastle Collier, 3rd Baron of Monkswell, was a Railway enthusiast par excellence. Nowhere is this more evident than in the last ten pages where he describes several train journeys in minute detail. Obviously standing on the foot-plate, with school-boyish delight, a huge grin and a stop-watch, he records the times taken to reach every kilometre post, excitedly working out the miles-per-hour achieved.

He laments the decision by the British Government in 1907 not to pursue the building of a Channel Tunnel. Estimating that it should be possible to get from London to Paris for Lunch and then home the same day he describes exactly how it should be, and eventually was, built.

The cover of my original just shows the title and author so I made the one above using the illustration called 'Wagon for carrying Wine'.


The text and any images below are identical to the eBook; however, depending on the typeface, etc., that you select, they may not display here exactly as they do on your eReader. Also, pages turn as normal, rather than the scrolling effect seen here.



Chapter I
Development of the railways – Agreements between the Government and the Companies – Constitution of the Companies – Management – Railway Servants

Chapter II
Position of the various lines – International communications – Arrangements in Paris

Chapter III
Permanent Way – Signals – Rolling Stock

Chapter IV
Services – Fares – Rates

Chapter V
The work of the engines

List of illustrations

Calais Pier
Outside the Gare de Lyon
Stores of Charcoal at the P.L.M. Goods Yards
Wine Platform at P.L.M. Goods Station
Wagon for carrying Wine
Carriage Sidings (P.L.M.)
Red and White Chessboard Signals (Nord)
Semaphores etc. (Nord)
Red Discs and Semaphores (P.L.M.)
Signal Box at the Gare de Lyon
4-4-0 Engine with Flaman Boiler (Est)
2-4-2 Engine (P.O.)
Three Successive Types of Four-cylinder Compound Express Engine (Nord)
4-4-0 Four-cylinder Compound Express Engine (P.L.M.)
4-6-2 Four-cylinder Compound Engine (P.O.)
Nord Engine 2.741
Nord Engine 2.741 (another view)
4-6-0 Four-cylinder Compound Engine (Est)
Six-wheel Carriage (P.L.M.)
Eight-wheel Bogie Carriage (P.L.M.)
International Sleeping Car Co.'s Carriages
Twelve-wheel Bogie Carriage (P.O.)
A Station Scene
Rail Motor (P.O.)
4-6-0 Four-cylinder Compound Engine (Nord)
Est Engine 3152
Est Engine 3152 (another view)
P.L.M. Four-cylinder Compound Express Engine 2608
P.L.M. Four-cylinder Compound Express Engine 2608 (another view)
Goods Tank Engine (Nord)
A Running Shed

Chapter II

     The seven great railway systems, which together cover the whole of France, consist of the Nord, Est, Ouest, Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée, Paris-Orléans, and Midi, and the State railways. Regarding Paris as the centre of France, the Nord, Est, and Ouest cover almost exactly those areas which correspond to their names. The Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée cover the whole of the south-east, the Midi a large corner in the extreme south-west and south. The Paris-Orléans serve the country between Paris and the Garonne, and the State railways the region lying between the territories of the Paris-Orléans and the Ouest. The boundaries of the territories served by the different systems are, as a rule, very sharply defined. The only notable exception to this rule is that the line from Tours to Nantes and beyond, crossing the territory served by the State railways and extending right into the Ouest's district in the extreme west of Brittany, belongs to the Paris-Orléans.
     As has already been remarked, France is very largely an agricultural country, and the population is very fairly evenly spread over the whole area. In only five of the eighty-six departments is it less than half the average for the whole country, and, on the other hand, the large towns are not numerous. Consequently a large proportion of the railway mileage serves country districts, and the important through routes with intense traffic are few.
     The most prominent geographical features are the hilly country in the south centre, the mountainous regions on the southern and eastern frontiers, and the valleys of the four principal rivers – the Seine, Loire, Rhône, and Garonne. These latter lie in such a manner that it has been found possible to take full advantage of the easy gradients they provide for some of the most important lines in the country. Thus the Seine and the Rhone, with their tributaries, provide a continuous passage from the English Channel to the Mediterranean, except for a narrow ridge which separates the basins of these two rivers, and the main lines of the Ouest and Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée closely follow this passage in either direction from Paris. The Paris-Orléans have an important line down the valley of the Loire from Orléans to the sea, and the Midi make a similar use of the Garonne.

      Besides Paris with its population of nearly 3,000,000, there are only three very large towns in France – Marseilles, Lyon, and (if the neighbouring towns of Roubaix and Tourcoing, only a few miles away, are included) Lille. All these contain between four and five hundred thousand inhabitants. Bordeaux, with a quarter of a million, comes easily next. The lines, therefore, connecting Paris in three different directions with these four places form the principal arteries of internal traffic, and their importance is increased by the fact that a great part of the international traffic follows the same routes for a greater or less distance. The main line of the Nord from Paris to Lille is utilized for various distances by the traffic for England and for Belgium, and that of the Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée to Marseilles by the traffic for Switzerland, Italy and the Mediterranean, while the main line of the Paris-Orléans from Paris to Bordeaux is part of the most direct route to Spain. The Ouest and the Est do not connect Paris with any of the very largest towns, but the international traffic conducted by the Ouest with England over the main line through Rouen, and by the Est over their two main lines from Paris to Germany and Switzerland, entitle all these routes to be considered as of first-rate importance. The Midi forms the continuation to the Spanish frontier of the Paris-Orléans line from Paris to Bordeaux, and is also connected with Spain at the eastern end of the frontier. One of its principal lines runs from Bordeaux via Toulouse to the coast of the Mediterranean. Otherwise the importance of this line is chiefly local. The same may be said to a greater degree of the State system, which, although possessing a line from Paris to Bordeaux, does not, at least as regards the passenger service, effectively compete with the Paris-Orléans route.
     In some cases the main lines, instead of passing directly through certain important towns that lie on their route, pass them by at some distance, and the passengers are set down, or carriages detached, as the case may be, at a station well outside, from which the town itself is reached by a short branch line. There is an arrangement of this kind for both Orléans and Tours on the Paris-Orléans, the main-line trains avoiding both of these places, and stopping at Les Aubrais outside Orléans and St. Pierre des Corps outside Tours. This arrangement removes from the main line the traffic which is purely for the town, and in this manner renders the through trains much less liable to be delayed. It involves, of course, a certain amount of delay and inconvenience for passengers for the places in question, and though well suited for middle-sized towns, to and from which the traffic is not very great, could hardly be used in the case of very large cities.
     The principal arteries of internal traffic were completed long ago and there are now none left to construct, but with international traffic the case is different, and important works are under consideration for improving the means of communication with Switzerland, and an agreement has been come to with Spain for constructing three new railways across the Pyrenees. One of these lines is to be across the western half of the chain, and is to start from Oloron; the other two, across the eastern half, are to start respectively from Ax-les-Thermes and Saint Girons. The first two lines are to be completed shortly, and the third will be taken in hand later.

     The question of improved communications with Switzerland arises in connection with the opening of the Simplon tunnel. Up to the time when that event took place, there were two great highways of traffic between France and Italy, one direct by the Mont Cenis tunnel, and the other through Switzerland and via the St. Gothard tunnel. To these the Simplon route has now been added, but, though the Simplon tunnel itself is open for traffic, the approach to it from Paris is not completely satisfactory. There exists indeed a line, which is tolerably direct, except in the neighbourhood of the frontier between France and Switzerland, where it makes a large détour via Pontarlier. By building a direct line, some fifteen miles long, between Frasne in France and Vallorbe in Switzerland, where moreover the existing line is of a very difficult nature, a considerable improvement might be effected and fairly adequate provision made for the Simplon tunnel traffic. In many ways, however, it is desirable for the principal line of approach to the Simplon to pass through Geneva, which is much the biggest town and most important railway centre anywhere near the north end of the tunnel. There is at present nothing approaching a direct line from Paris to Geneva, but several slightly different routes have been considered, along which a direct line might be built. The principal difficulty would be the necessity of making a very big tunnel through the Jura near the Col de la Faucille, about fifteen miles from Geneva, and, under any scheme, the piercing of a tunnel would have to be supplemented by the construction of many miles of completely new line and extensive reconstruction of existing lines. Before such a direct line from Paris to Geneva could be begun, an understanding had to be reached between the French and Swiss authorities as to how the traffic was to be forwarded from Geneva towards the Simplon. From Geneva to the Rhone Valley there exist two routes, one to the north of the Lake of Geneva, lying entirely in Swiss territory, and the other, a shorter one, to the south of the lake, chiefly in French territory, and belonging to the Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée. At the present time there is in Geneva and its immediate neighbourhood no connection between these two lines, and when the Swiss Government allow one to be made, they will facilitate the passage on to the shorter French line south of the lake of traffic from the north, which now follows the Swiss route. The French, on the other hand, might well be reluctant to undertake the great expense involved in making a new line to Geneva if they failed to secure the whole of the advantage which they felt that the new line ought to bring with it. If, moreover, the French were unable to secure acceptable terms from the Swiss Government with regard to the Simplon traffic, it was possible for them, by making a completely new tunnel through the Alps somewhere in the neighbourhood of Mont Blanc and building the necessary connecting lines, to make for themselves a new route to Italy to avoid Swiss territory altogether. This would, however, be an extremely expensive proceeding, would take a long time to finish, and would also require the consent of the Italian Government, who, being interested in the Simplon route, might put difficulties in the way.
     In 1909, therefore, an agreement (the Convention of Berne) arranging about the Simplon traffic, was come to between France and Switzerland. It provided for the immediate construction of the Frasne-Vallorbe line, and laid down the conditions on which the two countries agree to the Faucille line and the link connecting the lines north and south of the Lake of Geneva.

     In connection with the Simplon tunnel there arises also the question of the influence on the trend of international traffic which will be exerted by the Loetschberg tunnel, which is now being driven through the mountains on the north side of the Rhône Valley, and, when completed, will provide a direct route from Berne to the Simplon. The Swiss authorities will be glad to direct as much traffic as they can through Berne and the Loetschberg, and it is quite possible for them, in conjunction with the Est, and by altering some sections of the Swiss lines between the French frontier and Berne, to arrange a new through route from the north of France and from Belgium. In the Convention of Berne, therefore, an agreement is come to for the establishment of this new route also.
     The question of improved communication with England by means of a tunnel under the English Channel comes up at intervals, but, owing to the decision of the British Government in 1907 not to allow a tunnel to be made, it is unlikely that much will be heard on the subject for some time to come. From an engineering point of view the difficulties of construction and working are not supposed to be very great. There is under the Channel a stratum of almost impervious chalk, which, from the indications at present available as to its location and thickness, is admirably suited for tunnelling operations. Through this chalk it was proposed that two tunnels should be driven, parallel to one another, each to contain a single line of rails. This arrangement would give greater strength than could be secured by one larger tunnel containing a double line of rails, and would also facilitate ventilation owing to the traffic through each tunnel always moving in one direction only. The submarine length of the tunnel would be about 24 miles. The traffic through it would, of course, be worked by electricity, the possibility of using this power for the purpose being a most important advantage which has only comparatively lately become available. If the tunnel were constructed in accordance with the latest proposals, the distance from London to Paris would be about 285 miles, which should occupy five hours. It would therefore be possible, with a suitably arranged service, to leave London in the morning, have five or six hours in Paris, and reach London again the same night.
     As an alternative to a tunnel it is suggested that the trains might be ferried across the Channel in specially constructed ferry boats. Some arrangement of this kind would possess numerous advantages, without having any effect upon the strategic position of Great Britain; under the most favourable circumstances, however, it could hardly be expected to increase the volume of passenger traffic to the same extent as a tunnel would do, if the hopes of the advocates of a tunnel were fulfilled. But, though not possessing the peculiar advantages of a tunnel, a ferry would save passengers two changes, together with part of the delay attendant upon such changes, and. as regards the goods traffic, would eliminate all handling of the goods.

     Paris itself is provided with a very complete system of railways. There is a whole network of the lines of the electrically worked Metropolitain across and across the city. The Petite Ceinture runs round the city, keeping inside the walls, and the Grande Ceinture forms another ring further from the centre, connecting a large number of the more remote suburbs with one another. Of the big terminal stations, two – St. Lazare, the terminus of the Ouest, and the Paris-Orléans terminus at the Quai d'Orsay – are situated in extremely favourable positions in the middle of Paris; the others are much less central. The Quai d'Orsay station is quite the most remarkable of all. Till nearly the end of the last century the terminus of the Paris-Orléans railway was at the Quai d'Austerlitz, some 2½ miles from the present terminus, part of the site of which was occupied by the ruined remains of the Cour des Comptes. On this very favourable spot the Paris-Orléans set to work to build their new station, which was finished in time for the exhibition of 1900. The continuation of the line from the Quai d'Austerlitz is almost entirely in tunnel, below the level of the streets and houses, and the platforms of the Quai d'Orsay station itself are therefore some distance underground. The booking-offices and waiting-rooms are, however, on the street level, so that over a good portion of its area the station has two storeys, and a proportionate economy of space is secured. Unlike the other Paris termini, where the platforms used for the main line trains at least are of the ordinary low continental type, the platforms of the Quai d'Orsay are level with the floors of the carriages, a reform which is certainly conducive to the convenience of the passengers.
     All the trains which run into the Quai d'Orsay are worked from the Quai d'Austerlitz by electric locomotives, which, of course, have great advantages over steam locomotives for a line running through the heart of the city and very largely in tunnel.
     The great floods which occurred in the early part of 1910 brought to light a weak spot in the extension of the Paris-Orléans line from the Quai d'Austerlitz to the Quai d'Orsay. This line, which, as already remarked, is much below the level of the streets, runs close to the Seine all the way, and the river rose to such a height that the water overflowed and converted the course of the railway into a raging torrent. The Paris-Orléans line was not the only one in Paris that was affected. All traffic over a great part of the underground Métropolitain system was stopped, and many other lines at different points in and around Paris were under water. Neither were the railways by any means the only sufferers from the floods, and the losses and disasters caused by them were so great that it will probably be considered necessary for the sake of the future protection of the city as a whole to establish some elaborate system of regulating the flow of the river during flood time.
     The Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée being much the biggest railway in France, their traffic in and out of Paris is perhaps more important than that of any other line. Fortunately, indeed, their suburban traffic is not very large, being nothing like so great as that of several other railways, particularly the Ouest. But the Gare de Lyon being, as it is, the starting-point for an exceptionally large number of important places, its not particularly extensive accommodation is heavily taxed at busy times of year.
     The passenger terminus, however, covers only a small part of the area which the Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée require for carrying on their Paris traffic, and for nearly two miles the ground on the south side of the main line is occupied by the various yards and sidings of the company, and a good part of the north side is similarly utilized also. Nearest to the passenger station are the grande vitesse goods sheds, to and from which vehicles arriving and departing by the main passenger lines can conveniently be transferred; the despatching station is on the north side of the main line and the receiving station on the south, corresponding to the down and up sides of the passenger station. A large part of the grande vitesse traffic coming to Paris is composed of fresh fruit and vegetables. The first new potatoes, for instance, come from Algeria, the next lot from Spain, the gardeners of which country have apparently, during the last few years, rapidly awoken to the advantage which their hotter climate gives them in sending supplies to the northern markets, as against French growers, whose produce can only arrive later.
     Beyond the grande vitesse sheds, the main line bears away to the north, while a branch continues straight on through the petite vitesse goods station. Here, as elsewhere, the goods are despatched from sheds situated on the north side of the station, and received at other sheds on the south side. The despatching station for ordinary miscellaneous merchandise consists of an immensely long raised platform, about fifty feet broad, all under cover. The goods to be despatched are unloaded from carts on to this platform at one side, and when all the necessary formalities have been gone through at one of the offices situated at convenient intervals, they are loaded into vans or on to wagons, which stand on a line of rails at the further side of the platform. The platform is divided up into sections, the vehicles standing at each section being for a different destination, which is marked in large letters on the roof above. In order to make it possible to get loaded vehicles out of the way and to replace them by empty ones, without at the same time moving all the others standing at the platform, turntables are placed at intervals, on to which the vehicles can be run, turned at right angles, and then drawn out by means of hydraulic capstans.
     Marseilles is the only point for which the traffic is, as a rule, so great that it is possible to make up whole trains to run straight through. All other trains leaving Paris from this station comprise vehicles for a certain number of different destinations, which involves subsequent sorting.
     The south side of the station where the goods are received differs from the north side in that there is a series of short platforms arranged at right angles to the principal lines, and every vehicle has to be turned before it can be drawn in and unloaded.
     Here, too, is situated the office of the Customs, where may be seen every variety of package which has entered France by the various frontier stations of the Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée, and been brought to Paris in bond.
     Further away still from the passenger station are various extensive sidings and sheds, where the more bulky and wholesale objects are dealt with. In one place are rows and rows of trucks loaded with charcoal. In another, for moving heavy timber and large pieces of machinery, is an enormous electric travelling crane, capable of lifting forty tons; and perhaps the most remarkable sight of all is acres of barrels of wine, lying ready to be transferred to the cellars of the numerous wine merchants, whose premises lie immediately outside the railway enclosure. The wine is generally brought to Paris in specially constructed wagons; they consist of one or two enormous barrels mounted on a wagon framing; one, which I noticed, was capable of transporting seventeen tons of wine. Arrived in Paris the wine is run out straight from the big barrels into barrels of ordinary size, and carted away on the peculiar long carts, with one pair of big wheels, which are used for the purpose.
     Passing on through a sorting yard of rather small dimensions, where only the most necessary sorting is done, the rest being performed at Villeneuve St. Georges, some miles out of Paris, the carriage sidings are eventually reached. Here most of the marshalling and cleaning is done, and a good opportunity is afforded of examining the carriages of different kinds now used on the Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée. Particularly remarkable is the much greater weight per passenger of the new corridor carriages of 34 tons apiece, running on two bogies, and with only about the same capacity as the older carriages of not much more than a third of the weight. Besides the Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée rolling stock were also to be seen some of the carriages of the International Sleeping Car Company, which are used on the Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée trains, and undergo cleaning operations here at the hands of a party of the Sleeping Car Company's men.


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