It is one of the most important stations in Europe, but is also the youngest of Paris’major terminuses. France almost missed the start of the railway age. While central and southern France and the Alsace were moving about on the rails by the first decades of the nineteenth century, the Parisians were still getting about in carriages and goods were delivered to the capital by canals. The canal operators were particularly opposed to the spread of the railways and the French government opted to view the rails as merely supporting canal traffic. Paris got its first rail line only on 26 August 1837: a 19 km long route stretching from the Gare Saint-Lazare westwards to Saint-Germain-en-Laye. A million passengers took the line in just the first two years of its operation. But itwas only in the second half of the nineteenth century that saw the construction of Paris’s major railway stations.
France did not have a national rail company until the Second World War: individual private companies operated and managed rail service in various parts of the country and operated their own stations in Paris. Every company had its own culture, its own spirit: the companies severing the north of France were considered snobbish, because they transported wealthy Englishmen. Those in the east appeared to be “militarized”. The worst reputation was held by the company that served the west, thanks to its financial problems and delays. The PML was initially considered “catholic and rural” as it initially served mainly the Massif Central. But soon it became the company of kings, princes and princesses. The rich and the famous were drawn to the French Riviera and the Alps. But the Paris train station from which the trains departed was rather shabby. The preparations for the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris became an occasion for many building projects. PLM seized the opportunity and offered a new Gare de Lyon, a grand building in the Belle Epoque style. The result was a monumental piece of railway architecture designed by Marius Toudoire with a 100 metres long façade decorated with allegories and a 64 metre high clock tower. A copy of London’s Big Ben, to make the incoming British tourists feel at home. At the same time as the World Exposition of 1900, the Grand Palais, the Petit Palais, the Alexandre III bridge, and the Gare d’Orsay were also built.