France was far behind many of its western European counterparts when it came to railways in the 19th century but that was to change when the Legrand Star was created. Five railway companies were granted concessions to operate from Paris to different regions of France. Each had its own railway stations: Paris-Rouen (today called gare Saint-Lazare), Nord (today called gare du Nord), Paris-Strasbourg (today called gare de l’Est), Paris-Lyon (today called gare de Lyon) and Paris-Orléans (today called gare d’Austerlitz). There was no service linking these stations so to move from one to another, passengers had to commute through the congested city streets.
The train stations were all just inside the new Paris fortifications which had been completed in 1845. When Napoleon III came to power in 1851, he began planning the construction of a project to link all of the city’s railway stations. The five railway companies came on board with a contribution of 1 million francs each. The government would cover the rest and pass ownership to a syndicate of all five companies called Compagnie de Chemin de fer de Ceinture de Paris. They would transport passengers and freight using rolling stock from the individual railway companies.
The section between Nord and Strasbourg was opened in April 1852 although it had already been in construction as part of a separate concession. It would later form part of the Ceinture. The first section of the arc between Rouen and Nord was opened in December 1852 and then extended to meet the already completed Nord-Strasbourg section. By September 1843, freight could travel from the yard at Batignolles at Paris-Rouen to La Villette at Paris-Strasbourg-Est. The eastern section to Paris-Orléans was fraught with difficulty by eventually opened fully in May 1854. This railway line became known as the Ceinture Rive Droite.
An extension to the line from Batignolles to Auteuil was operated as a passenger only service from 1854, bringing the wealthy of Paris to their country homes outside the city. It was operated as a separate entity by the Ouest company. The 9.5 kilometere length was mostly built underground, mainly in trenches and then bridged.
The 1867 International Exposition was to be held at Champs de Mars and Napolean III and the Ouest company signed a concession to build a temporary connection from Auteuil to the exposition site as well as an extension of the Ceinture to their Rive Gauche line which ran between Paris and Versailles and beyond to the Orléans line. The Auteuil line was also expanded to allow for freight trains and connected directly to the northern Rive Droite line. The completion of the Courcelles underpass in 1867 meant trains could circle the entire city of Paris for the first time, although passengers still needed to change between lines. It became known as the Circulaire at this point.
As Paris grew, a new outer radial rail line was planned; the Chemin de fer de Grande Ceinture. It was decided that all but local freight traffic would move to this line and the inner line would be renamed Chemin de fer de Petite Ceinture to concentrate mainly on passenger travel. All of the level crossings which had been a feature of the Rive Droite section of the original line were either bridged or trenched and the need to change trains was eliminated, all in time for the 1889 Universal Exposition. By this time, 19 million passengers a year were travelling on the Ceinture. By the time of the 1900 Universal Exposition, it had peaked at just under 40 million.
It was in 1900 that the Porte Maillot–Porte de Vincennes line on the Paris Métro opened. Line 1, as it became known, was the first of 10 lines which would open by 1920. By that time, passenger numbers on the Chemin de fer de Petite Ceinture had dropped below 10 million and continued to fall in subsequent years. Discussions began about replacing the line with a bus service on Boulevards Maréchaux, the ring road around Paris which had been constructed following the demolition of the city fortifications. The Chemin de fer de Petite Ceinture finally closed to passengers in April 1934. It remained open for some local freight operations. As the years passed, however, piece after piece of the railway fell into disuse. The final section still operating is between Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est and used as a diversion track.
Today, some of the line has been re-purposed as a city park. More sections are set to be redeveloped as parkland in the coming years. The line is still visible in some areas of Paris.