Europe Takes to the Rails

AS BRITAIN WAS PIONEERING THE RAILROADS, the cafés of Paris were abuzz with news of the recent developments—but not everyone was enthusiastic. Just as railroad opponents in Britain had warned that it might be impossible to breathe when traveling at more than around 30mph (50kph), or that cows would stop producing milk because of the noise of the railroad, in France and the rest of Europe, too, there were eminent doubters of this new technology. Indeed, the French habit of philosophizing over major issues meant that Parisian intellectuals discussed the pros and cons of the new railroads in great detail—the writer Edmond de Goncourt warned that when traveling on the railroad, “one was so jolted about that it was quite impossible to collect one’s thoughts.”

However, despite the naysayers, the major European countries—particularly France, Belgium, and the German Confederation—were now scrambling to construct their own lines. The economic advantages of doing so were obvious, but there were political reasons too—railroads were not only vital assets in war, they could help bind nations together. At first, Europe was dependent on Britain both for technology and drivers, but many countries soon became independent, notably France, whose early efforts were close behind Britain’s. In 1823, during a brief revival of the French monarchy, Louis XVIII signed an Act that permitted the construction of France’s first railroad. The 14-mile (23-km) track ran between St.-Étienne and Andrézieux in the Massif Central and was built to carry coal from the mines to the Loire for shipment to the rest of the country. The line opened in 1827 and, although horse-drawn, it was an instant success. As a result, extensions were added, and by 1832 the line, which now used locomotives and carried passengers, stretched to the major city of Lyon. The elaborate French cars were an improvement on the rather more austere British trains and were divided into compartments, an arrangement that soon became standard across Europe.


France’s equivalent of George Stephenson (see The Father of Railroads) was Marc Seguin, a scientist and inventor who had in fact advised Stephenson on how to improve the boilers of his locomotives. He produced two locomotives for the extended St.-Étienne–Lyon railroad, each featuring a multitube boiler (see Powering the Engine) and a mechanical fan to deliver oxygen to the fire. Later, in another case of Anglo-French cooperation, Robert Stephenson built locomotives designed by Seguin. The lengthy debate over the advantages and disadvantages of railroad construction slowed the pace of development in France, so there were only 350 miles (560km) of track by 1840, compared with 2,000 miles (3,200km) in Britain.

The cause of the railroad promoters was not helped when the world’s first major rail disaster occurred between Versailles and Paris, in May 1842. The train, returning from Versailles, was so heavily laden with vacationers who had been watching the celebrations for the king’s fête that it required two locomotives to haul it. The leading engine suffered a broken axle—a relatively commonplace event in the early days of railroads—and then derailed, along with three passenger cars, which quickly burst into flames. The death toll was at least 50, and may have been as many as 200; people couldn’t escape because they were locked in and many bodies were consumed by the inferno. As a result, the French authorities stopped locking passengers into their cars, although the practice continued elsewhere, contributing to the high death toll of the 1889 Armagh disaster, the worst in Irish history (see Armagh crash).

Many other countries around Europe joined the Railway Age in the 1830s, and the state was usually much more directly involved than in Britain, where the government had remained aloof. Nowhere was this more true than in Belgium, a new country carved out of the Netherlands in 1830 and anxious to demonstrate its independence. The railroads were an ideal way of doing so, since building a railroad system was thought to stimulate a sense of national identity. Consequently, the country’s first king, Leopold I, approved the design of a whole network, and in 1834 building started on the first line. This crossed the entire country from Antwerp in the north to Mons in the west, and into Prussia via Aachen in the east—a total of 154 miles (248km), a very ambitious plan at that time. Together with an Ostend–Liege line forming an east–west axis, Belgium quickly created a fully planned national railroad system—the first of its kind in the world. Inevitably, George Stephenson was involved, his company providing the first three locomotives and he himself traveling incognito in 1835 on the first train carrying the royal party. When the train broke down, Stephenson went to the engine to help fix the problem, and was knighted by the king for his pains. The support of the government gave Belgium a lead in railroad development, and by 1843 most of the heart of Belgium’s railroad network—which forms a “cross” shape centered on Brussels—had been built, giving the heavily industrialized country the densest network in the world.

Germany’s first railroad also opened in 1835, doing so in Bavaria, where King Ludwig approved a steam-hauled line that ran the 4 miles (6.5km) between Nuremberg and Fürth. Unlike most of the inaugural lines, this was built mainly for passengers, as it relieved traffic on the busiest highway in Bavaria between the two towns. The congestion was the result of peculiar local circumstances. For centuries, the Nuremberg authorities had forbidden laborers and foreigners to live in the town, so they had to commute from Fürth, which had become a dormitory town, presaging a use for the railroad that remains commonplace today. Saxony, another important German state, followed Bavaria’s lead, building Germany’s first major railroad, linking Leipzig with Dresden. Saxony was the industrial heartland of Germany, similar in character to the northwest of England, where the pioneering Liverpool and Manchester line had been built (see Manchester line). More than 200 factories had sprung up in the region, and local industrialists, realizing that a railroad was essential to carry the minerals and ore needed by the factories, quickly raised the money to build the 65-mile (105-km) line, which was built remarkably swiftly thanks to the use of British technology and personnel.


The railroads were particularly important for Germany as a means of uniting the country. As early as 1817, economist and visionary thinker Frederick List had understood the importance of the railroads for Germany. He argued that a nation could prosper only through trade and industry, and that a fast, efficient rail network could carry food and industrial products throughout the country. His theory was borne out. Customs duties between states were soon scrapped as impractical, and within a generation of the first rail line being completed, Germany’s railroad system had helped it become a powerful unified state.


Like the Nuremberg–Fürth line, the first line in Holland, another relatively early starter, was also built for passengers rather than freight. The Holland Iron Railway between Amsterdam and Haarlem opened in 1839 and reached Rotterdam eight years later. It was extremely successful, killing off the competing coach and barge traffic that had previously dominated the route between the country’s two main cities. Holland, though, did not have the centrally planned scheme of its Belgian neighbor and so never developed such an intensive network.

The Belgian, German, and Dutch railroads were all steam-hauled, but the idea that railroads could be operated successfully by horses still lingered. In Austria, remarkably, the early network was entirely horse-drawn, and grew to an extensive size. It included the world’s longest horse-drawn railroad—a 90-mile (145-km) line linking Linz in Upper Austria with Budweis in Bohemia (home of the world-renowned beer, now in the Czech Republic). The horse-drawn system was later extended further to the salt works at the Upper Austrian health resort of Gmunden, and by 1836 it had reached an impressive 170 miles (274km). Only then did the Austrians replace horses with steam engines.

The railroads of both Italy and Russia began as royal initiatives, albeit for the private purposes of connecting royal palaces. In Italy, the King of the Two Sicilies, the portly Ferdinand II, fancied connecting his main palace in Naples to his other residence on the bay of Naples at Portici with a 5-mile (8-km) railroad line, which was completed in October 1839. The idea had been recommended to him by a Frenchman, Armand Bayard de la Vingtrie, who was keen to make money from railroad plans. The first section of the line was built quickly and proved to be immensely popular, carrying up to 1,000 people per day. Oddly, the king himself eschewed traveling on the inaugural journey, perhaps because he was aware of the risks of train travel.


In Russia, Tsar Nicholas I built the first railroad line between his main residence in St. Petersburg and Tsarskoe Selo, the enormous royal residence favored by Catherine the Great. He was advised by an Austrian engineer, Franz Anton von Gerstner, who was keen to bring Russia into the railroad fold, and had sought to build a far more ambitious line between St. Petersburg and Moscow. Initially, however, only the Tsarskoe Selo line was commissioned, and opened in 1837 with the first train, carrying eight full passenger cars, taking a mere 28 minutes to reach Tsarskoe Selo—an impressive average speed of almost 30mph (50kph). The following year, the line was extended by 16 miles (26km) to Pavlosk, a small holiday resort complete with buffets, concerts, and a ballroom to entertain the St. Petersburg crowds on their day trips. To attract the crowds, the railroad subsidised the public entertainment at Pavlovsk, which is described in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot as “one of the fashionable summer resorts near St. Petersburg.” At first, the line was hauled by horses and various locomotives imported from Britain and Belgium, but before long the animals, exhausted from pulling the heavy trains, were put out to grass and steam locomotives were introduced. The line was a great success, with people flocking to the railroad both out of curiosity and the desire to sample the attractions. More than 725,000 people traveled on the line in its first year, an average of 2,000 per day. The 400-mile (640-km) long St. Petersburg–Moscow line was completed in 1851, becoming one of the longest and most impressive trunk routes in the world at the time.


Most countries in Europe adopted the 4ft 8½-in (1,435-mm) gauge devised by Stephenson (see standard gauge), and this proved vitally important in ensuring that a continental network was created, with trains passing through borders relatively easily—although customs and technical factors relating to signaling and driver training usually meant delays at the frontier. Russia and Spain were exceptions—both used a 5-ft (1½-m) gauge for fear of invasion from hostile neighbors, reckoning that making trains change gauge would prove a useful defensive barrier.

Traveling on these early lines was not always made easy, either by the regimes of the day or the railroad companies. Governments were suspicious of their citizens’ desire to travel, and the companies were diligent in collecting fares. On the Leipzig–Dresden line, for example, there were no advance ticket sales and access to the station was allowed only a quarter of an hour before the train left—a practice that persists in remote parts of Europe even today. Passengers were required to purchase a return ticket and children under 12 were banned. In Russia, there was also an extraordinary amount of bureaucracy involved in taking a train. Passengers had to obtain an internal passport before traveling, and then go to their local police station to obtain permission for the journey. Even today, Russians have to show their internal passport before buying a ticket for a long-distance journey. Nevertheless, despite the bureaucracy and the technical problems incurred on many pioneering lines, all these early railroads proved popular and successful, spurring the rapid spread of rail travel throughout Europe and to many other parts of the world.


If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!