The First Mountains Railroads in the World and their inclined planes!



The Andrezieux - Roanne Le Coteau inclined planes (France)

By Gérard Vachez

The 3rd railroad of France : Andrézieux - Le Coteau

The concession, the construction and the operation

The difficulties of the navigation on the Loire river between Andrézieux and Roanne restricted the export of the coal from Saint Etienne so it was decided (even before the first railroad) to prolong the export to Roanne.
The conditions and contract were approved on March 29, 1828. The tender took place o July 21, 1828 and there was only one tenderer, Henry et Mellet company which tendered with only half centime discount! On August 27, 1828 a Royal decree confirmed that choice. On April 14, 1829, Mallet et Henry, two graduates of the Ecole Polytechnique, formed the company "Compagnie du chemin de fer de la Loire". In 1828, they presented the planed route. They rejected the route along the Loire riverside which was a route with a continuous slope but which was longer (80 kilometers instead of 67) and because it was impossible to build a double tracks line in the more difficult part of this route. They preferred the direct way thru Neulise and L'Hopital. Thirty years later, the rejected route was the route which was chosen to modify the first route but the technical and financial resources changed a lot in this period. The route was approved on March 21, 1830.

The iron rail #1 , with simple head weighted 65 kg with 5 meters length (13 kg/m). They were supported by cast iron chairs every 0.83 meters fixed on stone dices. Wooden sleepers were used on unstable ground. The railroad was composed of two 1.45 m tracks with 1 m between the tracks except a 2500 m one way section. Though only one track was installed on the majority of the line. The curves had more than 300 m radius except two of them which had 200 m radius. Two tunnels were digged in porphyry along Gand river, they are more than 100 m length, 3.50 m width and 4.50 m high.

The company was operating transportation during the second part of 1832 with some relay on the La Mure (St Bonnet les Oules) to St Etienne road. The company owned 2 locomotives and quite 250 trolleys for coal and freight transportation and some trolleys with benches for employees and travelers. Their wheels and axles were built in Lyon and manufactured in le Coteau where they were assembled.

As for the St Etienne - Andrésieux railroad, the opening day could be confused. Quite often, the opening day is February 5th, 1834. This day corresponds to the first direct trains from St Etienne or Lyon to Le Coteau. As we already saw, the company was already operating in August 1832. The line was completely finished in February 1833 except the junction to Andrézieux. The first travel on all the entire line were operated on March 15, 1833. The start point of the line was road #82 where they were installing the rails to make the junction to Andrézieux, it was done on November 15, 1833.

The inclined planes

1 - La Quérillère Inclined Plane

On July 23, 1833 it was decided to modify the junction of the railroad to the St Etienne railroad at La Quérillère (St Just sur Loire) instead of making a detour thru Andrézieux. This junction required a 2.93% inclined plane on 800 meters operated by horses to help to reach the plateau near La Renardière. From this point to Balbigny the 37.7 km route follows the actual railroad in the Forez plain. This route has a continuous smooth slope from La Renardière to Lachat hamlet near Balbigny. Fortunately this slope was going down to help heavy coal transportation. It is just after Balbigny that the route has to face with hill relief with inclined planes instead of digging tunnels or viaducts as Mr. Seguin did on the St Etienne - Lyon railroad.

2 - Biesse Inclined Plane

After the "Le Bernand" river we are the bottom of the first inclined plane, the Biesse Incline. It is a 1936 m long with 4.46% gradient . It is operated by a fixed 70 horsepower steam machine built the Chaillot workshop. It was able to help 8 trolleys (24 tons) to climb the slope. The route continues with a 0.2% gradient on 4290 meters before arriving at the bottom of the second inclined plane, Neulise Plane. On the way there was the biggest engineering structure, the Saint Marcel bridge, called La Revoute bridge, composed of 3 wooden arches 22 meters above the river.

At Biesse the building, where there was the steam machine, is still in good overall conditions but it is threatened to be demolished if no local authority buy it. It is certainly the last french remain of an inclined plane on an non industrial railroad, it would be upsetting that this building would disappear.

Remains of the building where there was the fixed steam machine at Biesse.
(photo Andreas Gossweiler)


Map of the time of the fixed steam machine at Biesse. On the right, the place of the water tank. You can see a short track to a small building, a shed for the locomotives.


The today's water tank at Biesse.
(photo Andreas Gossweiler)


Biesse, remains of the locomotives shed. You can see a stone which is the remain of a dice which was used to support rail (red circle).
(photo Andreas Gossweiler)


Biesse, today's remains of the track.
(photo Andreas Gossweiler)


3 - The two Neulise inclined planes

The south side of the Neulise incline, called Champagny, is 2230 m long with a 3.9% gradient. The north side, called Grand Ris, is also 2230 m long with a 4% gradient. The difference of levels is 92 m.
The plateau between the two inclined planes is 628 m long with a 30 horsepower steam machine in its center. This machine with its weak power, installed by Chaillot workshops, was a reuse of the "Le Rhône" steam boat which sunk at Lyon in 1827. It was only able to pull on one side of the slope if a load was counterbalanced for the descent. So the operations were quite difficult! It was even able to pull 33 tons in 13 minutes. Less than one year after its first operation, the boiler of the Neulise steam machine exploded on October 21, 1834 in the morning.

The permanent lack of funds of the company did not allow to immediately replace the steam machine and during about ten years the traction was made by horses and exceptionally by ox. In 1843, the recreated company ordered to Le Creusot a 120hp steam machine able to pull a train without another train as counterweight. After some tests on January 10, 1845, is was first operated on February 10 with more than one year late.

Engraving showing the Neulise building with its fixed steam machine..


4 - Le Buis Inclined Plane ( self-propelled )

Then the slope becomes less steep with 0.6 to 0.7% gradient on 1424 m. Then we are at the top of the last inclined plane, Le Buis Incline. It is 882 m long with a 4.95% gradient and a difference of levels of 43.5 m. The cable was 1100 m long and a weight of 2200 kg. This incline was self-propelled because no machine was necessary. Hopefully the slope was oriented to the good direction, the heavy loads were mostly using the descending slope so it was used to pull up the trains going the opposite way, the way up the slope.
This system was used until 1850. After that year, the number of passengers and goods going from Roanne increased and it was not very pleasant to wait until the next coal train going the opposite way! In case of un sufficient counterweight, the locomotive was attached to the cable to join its power to the machine and had to continue to the bottom of Neulise incline. In case of no counterweight, the locomotive had to climb attached with two or three wagons then the locomotive was attached to the cable to be taken down and then its was used to pull six to eight wagons.

Then, we go thru the Gand river valley and the two tunnels. Following a 0.5 to 1.2% slope, we arrive at L'Hôpital sur Rhins and then we follow the Rhins river on 6415 m until Le Coteau with a 0.4% slope then only 0.2% at the end. The Le Coteau station was built along the road to Lyon with all the buildings and workshops of the company. The track continues along an old branch of the Loire river where landing stage were built for unloading the coal.

5 - Varenne Inclined Plane

A self-propelled inclined plane was built to link the river side to the top of the Varenne landing stage.

The harbor at La Varenne in 1834, on the right the Varenne inclined plane.


Close up of the Varenne inclined plane.


Click to enlarge
Roanne09x.jpg Plan of the le Coteau station on the edge of the Loire river. On the left the landing stage and the Varenne inclined plane.
Roanne10x.jpg Profile of the Andrezieux (La Quérillère) - Le Coteau (Roanne) railroad.


After the use of the fixed steam machines, the operations were done with locomotives on the plain for the goods and with horses on all the other sections.
Auguste Bousson, engineer of the company and future director of the "Compagnie du Rhône et Loire" which regrouped the 3 first companies, published in 1863 a memo on the different ways of towing and operations used on the different lines of Rhône and Loire.
Large number of accidents occurred, specially at the Neulise inclined plane after drifts of the train due to cable breaks or breaking failures.

During its Tour de France in 1844, Flora Tristan used our railway from Roanne to St Etienne. She said that this railway was very colorful but with a bad construction and that there was many misfortunes on this route.

For a complete story of the third french railroad (and also for the first and second french railroad), you may read the book « La Loire berceau du rail Français » ARF Editor ( or read the web site ).

At Biesse the building, where there was the steam machine, is still in good overall conditions but it is threatened to be demolished if no local authority buy it. It is certainly the last french remain of an inclined plane on an non industrial railroad, it would be upsetting that this building would disappear.

Responsable de l’Histoire et du Patrimoine
Amis du Rail du Forez

Les dessins, plans et photos sont des archives de l’auteur ou de l’ARF (sauf mentions spéciales).


Google Map positionning of the railroad track and the Inclined Planes (Michel Azéma)

You may click on the markers (foot markers) to see precise vue of actual locations of the planes


Technical Datas

Inclined Planes inclinés
Length (m)
Diff of Levels (m)
Gradient (%)
Andrézieux - Bif la Quérillière
La Quérillère
animal traction from 1833/11/15 till end of 1845
fixed steam machine (030 Koechlin) from 1846 till 1857/6/22
fixed steam machine (70 hp) from 1833/3/15 till 1857/11/20
Neulise Champagny
Fixed steam machine (30 hp) from 1833 /3/15 till 1834/10/21
Animal traction from 1834/10/21 till 1845/2/10
Fixed steam machine (120 hp) from 1845/2/10 till 1857/11/20
Neulise Grand Ris
Le Buis
Self-propelled inclined plane with a pulley at the top.
Simple track with siding in the middle (later they was a section with 3 rails)
Locomotives (120 schneider) were used in complement because of lack of descending heavy loads after March 1845.
Self-propelled inclined plane with a pulley at the top.
Double track
Locomotives (120 schneider) were used in complement after March 1845
Le Coteau
Start: 15 mars 1833
End : 20 novembre 1857



Video at Biesse, the house where was the steam machine of the Biesse inclined plane (October 1, 2012) (Video Michel Azéma)


Video at the place where was the steam machine of the two Neulise inclined planes (October 1, 2012) (Video Michel Azéma)


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Funimag Issue #28 / Funimag Numéro 28

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# Funimag 28 #

The First Mountains Railroads in the World!

The Allegheny Portage Railroad (USA)

The Andrezieux - Roanne Le Coteau (France)

Game 28