The railway in Paris

The railway in Paris

  • The first Parisian railway.

    COURBOIN Eugène (1851 - 1915)

  • North railway station.

    RIVER Charles

The first Parisian railway.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Arnaudet

North railway station.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Arnaudet

Publication date: September 2006

Historical context

After opening, the 1er January 1828, of the first French railway line, which connects Saint-Étienne to Andrézieux, Baptiste Alexis Victor Legrand (1791-1848), general manager of Ponts et Chaussées, implemented in 1832 a vast railway program which brought Paris for center. At the same time, the capital has been gradually equipped with "landing stages" from the main lines. Due to the increasing importance of traffic, these stations will be repeatedly extended and even rebuilt.

In 1851, however, the various networks operated by private companies were not interconnected, and transfers between stations had to be made by horse-drawn vehicles in a crowded Paris, which Haussmann's work had not yet transformed. Built between 1852 and 1869, this circular line, located inside the recent Parisian fortifications, was very quickly saturated: from 1875, a new circular line was created outside Paris this time, the railroad of the Great Belt.

Image Analysis

A pupil of Bonnat and Coninck, Eugène Courboin (1851-1915) was a genre painter who exhibited at the Salon from 1878. Draftsman, caricaturist in his spare time, he collaborated, among others, in The Butter Plate and at Paris illustrated, and also illustrates many literary works, including The Man with the Broken Ear by Edmond About, The Blue Room by Prosper Mérimée or the Tales of Gil Blas by Catulle Mendès.

It represents here the first Parisian railway, therefore probably the departure of the Paris-Saint-Germain-en-Laye line, at the Saint-Lazare station inaugurated in 1837. The railway infrastructures are still extremely basic. We do not see any building constructed. There is no difference in level between the platform and the track on which the train is parked. The mechanic warms up the steam locomotive. Near the first car, whose perforated walls and wooden seats, a group of elegant travelers are talking to the station master. He wears a cap, trousers with braid, a short jacket over a waistcoat, and holds a horn in his left hand. To the right, a porter, seated on his wheelbarrow, has deposited luggage on the uneven ground. A second porter, wearing cap and bourgeron, arrives pulling his wheelbarrow.

Work of Charles Rivière, little known artist of the XIXe century, the second lithograph is probably after 1864. It represents the monumental facade of the new Gare du Nord, built from 1861 to 1866 under the direction of the architect Jacques Ignace Hittorff (1792-1867). Embellished with colonnades and adorned with statues, the building has two perpendicular wings terminated by pavilions. The ensemble dominates the rue de Dunkerque, crossed by cabs and carriages and where elegant and onlookers stroll.


The large Parisian stations are imposing buildings that have been transformed, enlarged or moved in close connection with the evolution of traffic. These are old ladies who have a story today.

The oldest is the Gare Saint-Lazare, founded in 1837. At that time, a simple temporary wooden construction sheltered the "landing stage" on the Place de l'Europe. In 1841, the Pereire brothers, promoters of the line, commissioned architect Alfred Armand to build a first "hard" station, rue de Stockholm. It was the organization of the Universal Exhibition of 1889, which required a major expansion of the building, led by the architect Juste Lisch on behalf of the Compagnie de l'Ouest, which gave Saint-Lazare station the physiognomy it still has today.

The Gare du Nord was inaugurated in 1846, at the same time as the Paris-Amiens-Lille line. As early as 1854, the building proved unsuitable, for lack of adequate facilities, to the volume of ever-increasing traffic. This was particularly evident in 1855 when the procession of Queen Victoria, who had come to visit the World's Fair, was to be directed towards the Gare de l'Est. In 1857, the decision was taken to build a station three times the size in this district undergoing modernization. The old station is dismantled and rebuilt in Lille. Built from 1861 to 1866 under the direction of architect Jacques Ignace Hittorff, the new Gare du Nord combines neoclassicism and modern metal structures. The main facade, in neo-Corinthian style, is 180 meters long and topped by eight statues representing eight capitals of northern and eastern Europe: London, Vienna, Brussels, Warsaw, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Cologne and Berlin. They surround the one that symbolizes Paris. The arcades of the facade house the statues of large cities in northern France: Arras, Lille, Beauvais, Valenciennes, Calais, Amiens, Rouen, Douai, Dunkirk, Cambrai, Saint-Quentin. Inside, two rows of cast iron columns support the main canopy, 72 meters wide and 38 meters high. The station has undergone considerable modifications with the work of the underground station of the RER B, D and E. The arrival of the TGV, the Eurostar and the Thalys in the 1990s was the occasion for a major renovation with, in particular, the construction of an ultramodern wing and side hall.

  • railway
  • station
  • Paris
  • industrial Revolution
  • town planning
  • city
  • Merimee (Prosper)


Clive LAMMING, Paris by rail: stations, forgotten lines, famous trains, curiosities, depots, equipment, Paris, Parigramme, 1999. Clive LAMMING and Jacques MARSEILLE, The Age of Railways in France, Paris, Nathan, 1986 François and Maguy PALAU, Rail in France, volume I, "The Second Empire, 1852-1857", Paris, Éd.Palau, 1998. Michel RAGON, The architecture of stations: birth, heyday and decline of railway stations, Paris, Denoël, 1984. Pierre WEIL, Railways, Paris, Larousse, 1964.

To cite this article

Alain GALOIN, "The railway in Paris"

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