Paulin Talabot (1799–1885)

The engineer Paulin Talabot built the first railway in south-east France and played a key role in proposals for the Suez Canal.

Talabot was born in Limoges in western France, where his father was a lawyer and president of the civil court. He studied at the École Polytechnique in Paris from 1819 and in 1821 began his career constructing canals at Brest in Brittany with the Corps des Ponts et Chaussées. In 1829 he moved to canal works at Decize in central France. He was then asked to consult on improvements to the canal between the Mediterranean at Aigues-Mortes and the river Rhône at Beaucaire. After considering the problems of water shortages in summer he recommended a railway.

He visited George and Robert Stephenson to see their railways in the north of England and proposed a railway to transport coal from mines of La Grand-Combe to Nîmes. He went into partnership with his brothers and others as the promoters of the new railway under the title of the Compagnie des Mines de la Grand Combe et des Chemins de fer du Gard. The project was approved in 1833 but he was unable to raise the necessary capital until the project won government backing in 1837. The first section of the line (from Nîmes to Beaucaire) opened in 1839. The train travelled 28 km in 32 minutes, using steam locomotives from Newcastle and French-built carriages. The line was fully opened in 1841. In 1843 Talabot received permission to build a 122-km long line from Avignon to Marseille, which included constructing a 600-m bridge over the river Rhône and the 4,638-m Nerth tunnel.

The financial crisis after the Revolution of 1848 led to the merger of Talabot’s railway with others to form the Lyon Méditerranée railway company. In 1857, this amalgamated with the Paris-Lyon line to form the Chemins de fer de Paris à Lyon et à la Méditerranée. Talabot was Director General from 1862 for 20 years.

In 1845 he was asked to undertake studies for the proposed canal to link the Mediterranean and the Red Sea through Suez and came to the crucial conclusion that the two seas were at the same level. In the 1850s he rebuilt the docks of Marseilles. Talabot worked on mining, railway and maritime transport projects in Algeria and on railways in Italy and Austria. He was also a politician and banker and was the first director of the bank Société Général.