Western European Railroads

In the mid-1830s, railroad technology spread from its birthplace in Britain to continental Europe. Belgium enthusiastically adopted steam locomotion as a means to cement its fledgling nationhood. France stifled the iron road with bureaucracy (see box, below), while the German states used the railroads to further the case for national unification. The lines spread in the ensuing decades until Europe was crisscrossed with a vast web of railroads. Spain and Portugal, however, chose to use different gauges from the rest of the continent. This map shows modern Europe’s main lines.

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A SLOW START FOR FRANCE

Given its large landmass and ready supply of raw materials, it is perhaps surprising that France was one of Europe’s laggards in the early days of railroad construction (see France). Legislation to permit the laying of rails in France was passed in 1842, but growth was hindered by a high degree of government intervention: tracks and infrastructure were built by the state, while only the locomotives and rolling stock were supplied by railroad companies.

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THE CONTINENT’S FIRST LINE

In 1835, the very first railroad in continental Europe was built in Belgium. The line ran about 16 miles (27km) from Brussels to the city of Mechelen, which brought about the rise of metalworking industries in the town. Many new European lines used British expertise in their construction, since Britain had a decade’s head start on rivals.

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