Rêves Parisiens : L'échec De Projets De Transport Public En France Au XIXe Siècle (Parisian Dreams: The Failure of Public Transport Projects in Nineteenth-Century France)

Article excerpt

Allan Mitchell, Rêves parisiens : l'échec de projets de transport public en France au XIXe siècle (Parisian dreams: the failure of public transport projects in nineteenth-century France), Presses de l'Ecole nationale des ponts et chaussées, Paris (2005), 139 pp., [euro]30.00.

Allan Mitchell, professor emeritus at the University of California in San Diego and specialist in public transport history and French-German history during the nineteenth century, chooses quite an original approach as he explores the failure of four public transport projects in nineteenth-century France. Instead of writing about some success stories he tries to understand the reasons for those four failures, as explained in the foreword.

The introduction presents the administrative organisation of nineteenthcentury France to help the reader understand the contradictory forces involved in the four case studies. The main characteristics of the French state during this period were its strong centralisation concerning public works and the role of a specific institution, the Conseil général des ponts et chaussées, composed of senior public engineers. The council examined every project concerned with public works and public utilities, with the Ministry following its conclusions.

Chapter 1 brings to mind the many changes encountered by the 'Anglo- French railway'. It begins with the pioneering project of Thomé de Gramond, a French engineer who defended the undersea solution in 1856. Despite a negative report from the Conseil général des ponts et chaussées, his project bore some fruit with its creation around 1865 of the Anglo-French Association of the Channel Tunnel. The association carried out some encouraging geological surveys, but the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 stopped the process. From 1871 to 1905 the Anglo-French railway project faced some significant difficulties. The Conseil général des ponts et chaussées remained sceptical, if not completely opposed to the tunnel but favourable to building a bridge, an alternative considered at the end of the 1870s. In 1875 the French state offered the association a contract but only for five years (for technical studies without any financial support), not for eight, as proposed. During the 1880s France experienced an economic crisis and the tunnel appeared too expensive and risky. In England people feared a possible invasion through the tunnel and were opposed to any fixed link with the Continent. This period was also characterised by competition between France and England, especially regarding colonial expansion; it was difficult to imagine a truly bilateral project back in those days. From 1904 the conditions became much more favourable, mainly because relations between France and England turned to Entente cordiale. At the beginning of the 1910s the tunnel was considered a necessity on both sides of the Channel but unfortunately the war began too soon to allow its realisation.

At least the Channel tunnel was eventually built, which is not the case with the Paris seaport explained in chapter 2. Mitchell considers this project as a consequence of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Indeed, the war revealed the inadequacy of the French transport system. As navigation on the river Seine remained difficult because of its numerous meanders and irregular depth, projects aimed to canalise it. This led in 1885 to the creation of the Society Paris Port de Mer (Paris seaport) in order to convert the Seine into a true ship canal from Clichy (a few kilometres downstream from Paris) to the sea. Despite great popular enthusiasm, numerous objections remained. On the technical side, it seemed difficult to convert every bridge from Paris to Rouen into a mobile one to develop the waterway without impeding the railways, etc. On the economic side, the project was simply too expensive. On the national scale, seaports located on the Channel feared a decrease in their activities; on the regional scale, some argued that 'Clichy is not Paris' and that the location of the seaport outside Paris would have negative impacts upon the local activities. …