Places to visit | up-to-date timetables & travel info


Railway history
Today's railways

MAP: Railways open in 1843 and in 1860. Construction in France was held back by political upheaval and economic uncertainty

First railway to the North

Paris - Lille railway opened in 1843. You could travel from Paris to Belgium by train, but not to the Channel ports or to the south of France.

By 1843,the first railways was spreading out from the capitals of both Britain and France. In France the main lines from Paris had extended to the industrial North, reaching round Lille, but not yet as far as the coastal ports.

The railway made it much cheaper to send northern farm produce, textiles, coal and industrial products to Paris, opening up important new markets.
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Cross-channel travel by train and boat

Dover Harbour: when the London-Dover railway opened in 1844, the railway company built a grand hotel for posh travellers waiting for the next paddle steamer.

French travellers to London still had to complete their journey to the channel ports by stage coach. Once in England they could catch the South Eastern Railway which opened from Folkestone in 1843. The railway company bought the harbour, and began running a steamship ferry service from Boulogne.

A year later, they completed a line between Folkestone and Dover - whose harbour at that time could only be entered at high tide, making it impossible to keep to regular timetables.
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Completing a national network of main lines
Meanwhile French railway companies were slower to extend their lines to the coast. Political instability after the Napoleonic Wars did not provide a good climate to encourage investment. The monarchy installed after Napoleon's defeat was unpopular and its government ministers were corrupt - there were popular revolutions in 1830 and 1848. In mid-century a new government - the "Second Empire" under Louis Napoleon - encouraged more railway building - to Calais from Lille, and to Boulogne from Amiens via Abbeville.

By the 1860's it was possible for wealthy passengers to travel by rail-ship-rail from London to Paris much more quickly, cheaply and conveniently than ever before. It became fashionable for the English to spend holidays in France, in Paris, Le Touquet, Wimereux and Wissant...
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Rural branch lines
During the late 19th century, the French railway network expanded (as in the UK) until most small towns were linked by a "spiders web" of rural branch lines - many of which have been closed in recent years.

Very recently the old country line from St.Omer to Boulogne has been partly re-opened as a summer tourist attraction, with a growing collection of old trains.
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Old 1950s branch-line diesel - now part of the rolling stock of the Valley of the Aa Tourist Train.

See SNCF website for up-to-date timetables & travel info

Today's railway in the north
Like the north of England, Nord - PasdeCalais has inherited a dense network of legacy railways. Many branches were built in the 19th century to carry huge volumes of coal from the pits of the coalfield.

Some little used lines have been closed, but there is a good and improving network of services. Trains are not as frequent as in Kent, but they run at useful times, and generally offer good connections.

Buses and cyclists
To complete your journey from A to B, the regional council has invested in bus-rail integration, with local buses running from most bigger town stations. Cycles are carried free on all local “TER” trains, but other arrangements apply on longer distance services, or the high-speed HGV and Eurostar expresses.
see Cycling
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New trains, including double-deckers to handle daily commuting of office-workers and students into the metropolis of Lille

Progress is being made in connecting up bus and rail services, and providing facilities for cyclists.

Places to visit:
Denis Papin Centre, Oignies - industrial railways & mining museum

More information and Weblinks

Building the high-speed rail link from the Channel Tunnel to London:

Tourist railways in France:

Restored railways:
River Deule Tramway, Lille: [2km] the only restored electric tramway in France.
River Aa Railway, revived rural branch line [17km] with diesel railcars Arques-Lumbres (near St-Omer)

Related background information
Channel Tunnel
Cross channel Ferries
Industrial Revolution
Early coalmines
Rise & fall of coal
Early canals


Textile industry


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A-Z © Copyright 1999-2001 Invicta Media Last updated 17th August 2001