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The Great Train Race: Railways and the Franco-German Rivalry Review

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France and Germany have a history of being both remarkably similar and yet within their frameworks arriving at diametrically opposed solutions. Thus it was for the development of railroads in France and Germany, where both started out with a mixed system of private and state enterprise, but diverged dramatically over time, so that the French system saw the private companies entrenched while in Germany the state grew to nationalize, if not necessarily unify, the rail lines. But both were also marked by extensive similarities with the continued existence of particularism or regional interests, in France by the regional rail companies themselves and in Germany by the smaller states such as Baden, Bavaria, Wurtenberg, and Saxony. The Great Rail Race is a look at these dynamics, on political, economic, and military lines and how this impacted and related to the development of rail lines in France and Germany.

Alan Mitchell clearly invested a massive amount of time into writing The Great Train Race: Railways and the Franco-German Rivalry, 1815-1914 and it feels very much like a labor of love. The degree of detail which he has found is staggering, in almost every regards of his analysis: the bureaucratic wrangling in the French and German administrations, the political battles over the railroads, the war of rates and the intricate concerns which played out over how adjustments to rates for certain goods could favor different interests and products. He put, as his introduction shows, a great deal of thought into how to arrange the book, and his chosen plan of covering the different periods of 1815-1870, 1871-1890, and 1890-1914 works well in conveying the different stages of development of the rail lines, and putting the French and German experiences into intertwined and yet put into good comparative perspective.

This is amplified by a good usage of tables and statistics, showing a whole range of subjects: most importantly the rail length in France and Germany, but also the income of the two networks, the industrial output of the two nations, traffic intensity, labor composition and size, and a host of other matters. Beyond being a good specific history, this gives it great value as a reference source, which is only improved by the large numbers of maps which exist for it.

French rail lines and their respective companies in 1912

French rail lines and their respective companies in 1912


Its analysis of the systemic side of the subject is a great element, exploring the combination of ideology, economics, and situation which drove differing results in France and Germany. In both a private rail network was a necessity to avoid crippling costs to the state which a fully nationalized network would require. But France’s liberal ideology and the weakness of political power prevented the development of state ownership of the rails, while in Germany different states gradually found taking control of the rails to be useful for their economic development. The principal battle lines thus became between different regions and the Prussian centralized core in Germany, while in France it was between the government and the companies themselves. This was still enough to prevent the Germans from merging and creation a unified national structure, but government-owned and operated railroads became the mot du jour in Germany. Other historical differences, like the higher construction standards in France due to the influence of the Ponts et Chaussees and central engineering schools, are key components of the distinctions between the two.

Given the extreme importance of railroads to military operations, the look at the military aspect of rail lines is of crucial value and very well done. Both France and Germany were very concerned with configuring their railroads to enable military operations, since the number of rail lines and their quality (single or double tracked) were of the utmost importance to mobilization speed and the number of troops that could be supported and supplied in the field. Thus if there was a rail race, it was in the sector of military lines to the front, where German and French military planners breathlessly counted the number of rail lines the enemy had and constantly agitated for increases in their own numbers. And furthermore the book provides a great look at the strategic role of railroad organization and planning and how the institutions managing and organizing mobilization were set out on both sides.

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There’s no doubt as the author said, that France lost the great railroad race in terms of kilometers and rail line usage. But it seems odd to write that France lost it in terms of having a rail network less suited to its nation. After all, French railroads succeeded in achieving a whole range of objectives: they fulfilled splendidly their missions for mobilization in WW1, they broke up insularism and led to broadened horizons for the French people, and they enabled commerce and trade for France. Of course they were less commercially efficient and less used than their German counterparts, this seems like a general result of the laggardness of the French economy rather than any problem of the French rail system. AUTHOR admits this but the way he phrases it takes away from this clarity, in trying to compare different and unequal countries. There could also have been more talk about competition from canals, particularly along the Rhine, and in the final decade before the Great War how trucks and cars began to alter the picture, but as far as railroads go it succeeds excellently.

The Great Train Race is a great comparative look at the French and German railroad networks which analyzes their development, the differences and similarities between them, and shows the interaction of military, economic, political, and ideological factors to produce networks that were very similar and yet also quite distinct. It shows their linkages to broader society, how the economic histories of France and Germany affected their rail networks, and gives a very nice feel for the overall states of both. A well-researched and well-constructed book.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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