Development and Underdevelopment in the History of Economic Thought

Fourth Railway Package and rail transport operations to implement: tales of the French debates of 1870-1914

De Paoli Joachim, Laboratoire Triangle

The question of whether public services should be operated under State control or under concession arises regularly. With regard to railways, the European Commission is currently providing the liberalization of national passenger transport with the fourth railway package. In a few years, private companies could again circulate on the European railways, and in particular in France, thus competing with the public company which is the SNCF. Calls of tender will also take place to find out who will operate certain lines. The question of the best operating mode to implement may arise. This debate is not new. From the beginnings of railways in the 19th century, the question had already arisen. The debates which have taken place in the past may provide answers. We choose to focus on the debates taking place during the implementation of the Freycinet plan in France, corresponding to the period in which the railways were most developed. We present the opinion of authors representing the different positions involved: the "socialist" Léon Walras, the interventionist Paul Cauwès and the liberal Clément Colson. We will see that the mode of exploitation defended is influenced by the ideological position of each of them. Walras is therefore carrying out a theoretical study to demonstrate that the railways constitute a natural double monopoly and must be operated by the State. Cauwès arrives with a practical study at the same result, he focuses in particular on the case of the public exploitation in Germany. On the contrary, Colson, using the same example as Cauwès, conducts a practical study and shows that the exploitation must be managed by private companies in the form of concessions. We will highlight that the authors develop the same arguments to arrive at different results. From a theoretical point of view, the exploitation modes each have advantages and disadvantages. The defense of one is explained more by ideological than by theoretical considerations.


Keywords: Operating mode of railways, concession, State management, Walras, Colson, Cauwès