Histoire Des Chemins De Fer En France (History of Railways in France) II, 1883-1937

By Oliva, Jan | The Journal of Transport History, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Histoire Des Chemins De Fer En France (History of Railways in France) II, 1883-1937


Oliva, Jan, The Journal of Transport History


François Caron, Histoire des chemins de fer en France (History of railways in France) II, 1883-1937, Fayard, Paris (2005), 1,029 pp., [euro]40.00.

The institutional and ideological foundations of the organisation of the French railroads were established in the eighteenth century and not in the nineteenth. Their development was not the product of a 'revolution' which would have modified the French system of transport from top to bottom. It was, on the contrary, the result of the successful taming of a new technology by the managers of a strongly structured system after a difficult learning process. This is the reason why it is not paradoxical to begin a history of the railway in France in the eighteenth century.

These are the author's words to introduce the first chapter, which sets the broad chronological spectrum covered by the three-volume work. In the thousands of pages dedicated to French railway history, there is no space wasted with 'introductions', instead the title of the book expresses clearly and soberly the author's objective and ambition.

François Caron is emeritus professor at the Sorbonne. He has dedicated his life to the history of technology and the specific 'culture', technical and social, associated with it. His thesis on the history of the Nord (published in 1973) was like a shunter marshalling his future work. During his time as a professor, teacher and researcher, active in numerous major French historical societies (such as AHICF), he co-founded the French school of (technological) network studies.

The History of Railways in France is in three volumes. The first, published in 1997, treated in 700 pages the 'prehistory' of railways in France. It gave some very interesting insights into the typical French elitist corporate spirit. The second examined the first period of 'real' railway history when the companies were run by private capital.

The first volume ends-and the second starts-in 1883, the date of the 'railway conventions' (agreements), a kind of compromise between the six main railway companies (Nord, Est, Ouest, PLM, PO and Midi) and the state. This was a cessez-le-feu, a sharing of power: monopoly and security of revenue for the companies and a strong tutorial on the overall running of the system for the state. The second volume ends in 1937, when the last remains of private enterprise in the railway sector were nationalised and the Société nationale des chemins de fer (SNCF) as we know it today was born. It is likely that the third volume, to be published in the near future, will be dedicated to the SNCF.

François Caron takes 1883 as the start of the second volume, the year of the 'conventions'. Behind this symbolic date the author sees an important change in railway history as, to his mind, the years 1870-90 represent a real turn in the history of technology in general. Connected with the 'second' industrial revolution, the use of new resources (electric power), new materials (such as rubber, iron and petrol products) and new ways of rationalising and organising the actual work of the (railway) world makes, to quote the author, 1873-86 one of 'the most inventive periods' in French railway history.

Caron is well known to French historians for his general reflections on the economic history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These broader considerations and theories don't enter explicitly into his History of Railways in France, but he recalls them from time to time. In its style and form this work is a classic historical study. Describing as it does French railways as a whole (witness a contents list running to almost nine pages!) the major difficulty must have been deciding which subjects to include or to exclude. The volume is divided into two parts ('books'), the chronological limit being 1914, the beginning of the Great War (one chapter is dedicated to it), after which the Western world wanted 'change'. These changes led, in France, to nationalisation of railways in 1937. …

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