In 1926, the Compagnie Internationale des Wagon-lits celebrated 50 years since its foundation, producing a commemorative booklet to mark the achievement. The company operated some of the most luxurious trains in Europe, and many of its elegant dining cars and sleeper services ran on lines built by the French Rothschilds.
Rothschild has been involved with railway finance for over 180 years. In the 1830s, while railway mania gripped England, leading to haphazard development, the Rothschild banks remained aloof, observing the best practices of the time and then carrying them forward into continental investment in rail networks. Careful assessment of emerging business opportunities ensured that the business was not exposed to high-risk investments.
Building on the contacts already established during the early 1830s, N M Rothschild & Sons acted for the Belgian government in raising funds for a national railway system, planned by George Stephenson to radiate out from Brussels. The first line, from Antwerp to Cologne, was opened in 1835. Encouraged by Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777-1836) in England, the family in Vienna and Paris determined to become involved in pioneering rail development on the continent. In spite of the success of the railways in England, continental 'experts', were loud in their opposition to the innovation. It was claimed that passengers would suffocate in tunnels, spectators and livestock would be driven mad by the speed of the passing trains and the countryside would be ravaged by fire from the locomotives. However, there were enough forward-thinking engineers and contractors to ensure that, with proper financial backing, it was not long before steps were taken to establish new lines.
Railways in Austria
Salomon von Rothschild (1774-1855) of the Vienna banking house, S. M. von Rothschild, was an early convert to the cause of the railways. In 1835 permission was granted to begin construction of the Kaiser-Ferdinands-Nordbahn, from Florisdorf to Vienna so named to appeal to the new Emperor's vanity. Baron von Drohsdick, the official concerned with granting the application, in recommending Salomon's proposal, wrote, "…through his considerable personal resources, his vast credit, and his extensive connections, the banker Rothschild is so exceptionally suited for forming a Public Company, that there could not be any objection…". The enthusiasm of the public for the railway was such that the initial share offering was six times oversubscribed. Substantial difficulties were overcome to build the line and with the success of this venture Salomon began to realise his vision of developing a much wider network within the Austrian Empire.
Don't risk it, Your Majesty!
James de Rothschild (1792-1868), who had established de Rothschild Frères in Paris, was quick to follow his brother's example. His first steps were taken as a financier, when he took a 23.5 % stake in the Paris-St Germain line, the brainchild of two entrepreneurial brothers, Emile and Isaak Pereire. The 12-mile long line opened ahead of schedule, in 1837. "Don't risk it, Your Majesty" was the advice given to Louis Philippe, King of France, by his Government when Queen Marie-Amélie and her children boarded the first train to make the journey to St Germain at a speed of ten miles per hour; a speed considered potentially dangerous to the nervous courtiers and politicians. The success of this venture led to a further collaboration between the parties, the Paris-Versailles line along the left bank of the river Seine, which opened in 1839.
The 1840s witnessed the rapid growth of James de Rothschild's involvement with French railways. The major undertaking and jewel in the crown of the Rothschild rail network in France was the Chemin de Fer du Nord, running initially between Paris and Valenciennes on the Belgian border. When the French government finally awarded the contract for the line in 1845, the Paris and London houses were the largest shareholders, providing funding and overseeing the construction. By 1860, the Chemin de Fer du Nord had become one of the key rail routes in France.
N M Rothschild & Sons
In the nineteenth century alone, the London house handled over twenty loans to bring railways to Austria (South Austrian, Lombardo, Venetian and Central Italian Railway) France (including the Chemin de fer de Nord), Spain (Madrid - Zaragoza Railway, in conjunction with the French Rothschilds), Burma (Burma Railways Company Limited), Russia (Imperial Russian Livny Narrow Gauge Railway) and Brazil (Bahia and San Francisco Railway Company). The firm engaged the most skilled engineers, such as George Stephenson's company, to work on the lines it financed, ensuring popular confidence in rail investment and travel. Closer to home, the London bank participated in the funding of London Underground Electric Railways in the 1920s and 1930s.
Compagnie Internationale des Wagon-lits
Georges Nagelmackers (1845-1905), founder of the Compagnie Internationale de Wagons-Lits, was born in the Belgium city of Liege in 1845. He was the Jewish son of wealthy bankers and was a trained engineer. During his trip to the US in 1867 he was impressed by the Pullman night trains, and upon his return home, he decided to establish a network of such trains in Europe. He envisioned that such trains should be luxurious and travel across borders. The company quickly established itself as the premier provider and operator of European railway sleeping and dining cars during the late 19th and the 20th centuries. The company ran either complete trains of Wagon-Lits cars or individual sleeping and dining cars were coupled onto services operated by the state railways of the European countries through which the Wagon-Lits cars passed. The company introduced famous services, such as the Orient-Express, the Nord Express, and the Sud Express and the Train Bleu and expanded to markets outside Europe with involvement in the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia. The Company's trains also reached China and Cairo. Many of its trains ran over Rothschild tracks, and its luxury services were patronized by members of the Rothschild family.