Tourist and minor railways in France are covered in detail in a separate group of pages
The first public railway in France was officially opened on 1st October, 1828, a year after it had been brought into use and just three years after the opening of the pioneering Stockton & Darlington Railway in the United Kingdom. The French line ran from Saint-Étienne to Andrézieux, a distance of some 18km. It was built to the standard (1435mm) gauge that had by then become established in the United Kingdom.
The first railway in the French capital ran from the Place de l’Europe (near the present Saint-Lazare station) to Le Pecq, a few km short of its eventual destination at Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
In most countries, the “rule of the road” for trains is the same as for road traffic. For example, in England, where cars drive on the left of the road, trains run on the left hand of a pair of rail tracks, while in Germany, where cars drive on the right, trains use the right hand track of the pair. France is an exception to this rule. Cars drive on the right, but trains run on the left. This is because the early railways were mainly built using British expertise and standard equipment “out of the box”. No major operational problems are caused by this discrepancy, but it did give rise to an oddity: between the end of Franco-Prussian war of 1871 and the end of the First World War, the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine formed part of the German Empire, and during this time their lines were converted to right-hand running. When the provinces were returned to France in 1919, right hand running was left in place. To cope with the change from left hand to right hand running at places where there was no necessity to stop for a border crossing, a number of flyovers or sauts de mouton (literally, “sheep jumps”) were installed whose sole purpose was to take one running line over the top of another in the opposite direction.
The Paris Métro also runs on the right; this is believed to be because the first lines, opened at the beginning of the 20th century, were closely based on electric tram technology and operation. Paris trams of course had to run on the right when operating in the streets.
Although the early railways were for the most part developed by private companies, there was close State regulation which meant that there was little of the unnecessary duplication of lines that arose in other countries, notably the United Kingdom. By the 1870s, the bulk of the lines had been merged into just five companies: Est, Nord, PLM, PO and Ouest: organised around groups of lines radiated from the capital. A sixth group was owned and operated by the State. The Ouest company eventually got into serious financial difficulties and was taken over by the State in 1909. This situation continued until 1938, when all the remaining companies merged with the State system to form SNCF.
France has created an extensive network of high speed lines (LGV, lignes à grande vitesse). The French government is keen to encourage further expansion and in 2012 signed the first contracts for new LGV which will be built and maintained by public-private consortia.
Apart from the main line railways, there were also a many minor railways and tramways, built to standard or metre gauge. Some of these lines survive as tourist operations.
Like England and unlike many other European countries, most French cities lost their urban tramways in the latter part of the 20th Century, the sole exception being a single line in Marseille. However, many cities now have new tram and even metro systems, and others are projected or in the course of being built.
See separate index
Responsibility for rail infrastructure in the major ports has been transferred from the national infrastructure authority RFF to the individual ports. The majority of these have subcontracted infrastructure management and maintenance to Socorail.
Not unique to France, but especially popular there, are otherwise unused lines on which it is possible to hire a hand or pedal powered work trolley and make your own way. The locations where they can be found are listed on the Tourist and minor railways pages.
The trolleys have even been hired by RFF for inspecting main lines, as seen here in a still from an SNCF video showing one in use on the LGV Méditerranée shortly before its opening.
For tramways and light railways in overseas departments and territories, see the relevant tourist and minor railways page.
Flag image from CIA World Factbook