History of railways in Europe

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See also Railway history,


Throughout western Europe, railway construction was the main engine of economic growth in the 1840s and into the 1850s, stimulating growth in coal mining, iron mongering, machinery making and civil engineering. By speeding up turnover, the railways made wholesaling and manufacturing more profitable, while bringing remote farmlands closer to markets and thus much more profitable. The creation of complex business organizations led to the multiplication of new managerial and engineering skills that spread from railways to other technologically-oriented industries. As T. H. Ashton concluded: “The locomotive railway was the culminating triumph of the technical revolution: its effects on the economic life of Britain and, indeed, of the world, have been profound.”


In France, railways became a national medium for the modernization of backward regions, and a leading advocate of this approach was the poet-politician Alphonse de Lamartine. One writer hoped that railways might improve the lot of “populations two or three centuries behind their fellows” and eliminate “the savage instincts born of isolation and misery.” Consequently, France built a centralized system that radiated from Paris (plus lines that cut east to west in the south). This design was intended to achieve political and cultural goals rather than maximize efficiency. After some consolidation, six companies controlled monopolies of their regions, subject to close control by the government in terms of fares, finances, and even minute technical details. The central government department of Ponts et Chaussées (bridges and roads, or the Highways Department) brought in British engineers and workers, handled much of the construction work, provided engineering expertise and planning, land acquisition, and construction of permanent infrastructure such as the track bed, bridges and tunnels. It also subsidized militarily necessary lines along the German border, which was considered necessary for the national defense. Private operating companies provided management, hired labor, laid the tracks, and built and operated stations. They purchased and maintained the rolling stock—6,000 locomotives were in operation in 1880, which averaged 51,600 passengers a year or 21,200 tons of freight. Much of the equipment was imported from Britain and therefore did not stimulate machinery makers. Although starting the whole system at once was politically expedient, it delayed completion, and forced even more reliance on temporary experts brought in from Britain. Financing was also a problem. The solution was a narrow base of funding through the Rothschilds and the closed circles of the Bourse in Paris, so France did not develop the same kind of national stock exchange that flourished in London and New York. The system did help modernize the parts of rural France it reached, but it did not help create local industrial centers. Critics such as Emile Zola complained that it never overcame the corruption of the political system, but rather contributed to it. The railways probably helped the industrial revolution in France by facilitating a national market for raw materials, wines, cheeses, and imported manufactured products. Yet the goals set by the French for their railway system were moralistic, political, and military rather than economic. As a result, the freight trains were shorter and less heavily loaded than those in such rapidly industrializing nations such as Britain, Belgium or Germany. Other infrastructure needs in rural France, such as better roads and canals, were neglected because of the expense of the railways, so it seems likely that there were net negative effects in areas not served by the trains.


Belgium provided an ideal model for showing the value of the railways for speeding the industrial revolution. After breaking with the Netherlands in 1830, the new country decided to stimulate industry. It planned and funded a simple cross-shaped system that connected the major cities, ports and mining areas, and linked to neighboring countries. Belgium thus became the railway center of the region. The system was very soundly built along British lines, so that profits were low but the infrastructure necessary for rapid industrial growth was put in place.


In Germany, political disunity (Germany did not become unified until 1870) and deep conservatism made it difficult to build lines in the 1830s. However, by the 1840s, trunk lines did link the major cities, although each German state was responsible for the lines within its own borders. Economist Frederick List summed up the advantages to be derived from the development of the railway system in 1841:

First, as a means of national defense, it facilitates the concentration, distribution and direction of the army. 2. It is a means to the improvement of the culture of the nation…. It brings talent, knowledge and skill of every kind readily to market. 3. It secures the community against dearth and famine, and against excessive fluctuation in the prices of the necessaries of life. 4. It promotes the spirit of the nation, as it has a tendency to destroy the Philistine spirit arising from isolation and provincial prejudice and vanity. It binds nations by ligaments, and promotes an interchange of food and of commodities, thus making it feel to be a unit. The iron rails become a nerve system, which, on the one hand, strengthens public opinion, and, on the other hand, strengthens the power of the state for police and governmental purposes.[1]

Lacking a technological base at first, the Germans imported their engineering and hardware from Britain, but quickly learned the skills needed to operate and expand the railways. In many cities, the new railway shops were the centers of technological awareness and training, so that by 1850, Germany was self sufficient in meeting the demands of railroad construction, and the railways were a major impetus for the growth of the new steel industry. Observers found that even as late as 1890, their engineering was inferior to Britain’s. However, German unification in 1870 stimulated consolidation, nationalization into state-owned companies, and further rapid growth. Unlike the situation in France, the goal was support of industrialization, and so heavy lines crisscrossed the Ruhr and other industrial districts, and provided good connections to the major ports of Hamburg and Bremen. By 1880, Germany had 9,400 locomotives pulling 43,000 passengers or 30,000 tons of freight.

Peripheral Europe

Russia was a latecomer, building a private system in the 1870s and 1890s. The state nationalized most of the lines, with military goals in mind, as exemplified by the Trans-Siberian railroad, and with the aid of foreign funding. While the modernizing dreams of Count Wittke in the early 20th century were not fully realized, the lines did give an impetus to the metallurgical industry, as a major new industrial area grew up in the south, based on the coal mines of the Donetz basin and the iron ore of Krivoi Rog, linked by rail lines.

In Spain, the railways were designed by the government to foster industry, but setting the hub in Madrid for political reasons negated much of the advantage. The lines were poorly built and poorly managed, and probably slowed industrialization by diverting capital and talent.

In Italy, the railways were a political necessity to bind together the new nation. The equipment, expertise and funding was imported, but the main export, silk, was too light to make the system profitable.
  1. List in John J. Lalor, ed. Cyclopædia of Political Science (1881) 3:118 online