From the middle of the 19th century, the construction of large rail stations became an important element of the urban landscape and the centrality of cities. However, for large metropolitan areas such as Paris, the city core predates rail technology by several centuries. Even if a footprint could be found to build a rail station in the central area, it is unlikely that a footprint for rail spurs between the station and the outlying area could be available. For cities like Paris, the first rail stations were built in the outlying areas of the time, roughly around 3 km from Les Halles (the central market of Paris at the time). As railways were built by separate private companies, each began its network from a hub station connecting to a specific region of France and its main cities.
Gare Saint Lazare was the first to open in 1837, offering services to Rouen and Le Havre, both important port cities. This was followed by Gare Montparnasse (Gare de l’Ouest; 1840; linking Bordeaux), Gare d’Austerlitz (1840; linking Orleans), Gare du Nord (1846; linking Lille), Gare de Lyon (1849), and Gare de l’Est (1849; linking Strasbourg). By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, all of these stations became surrounded by high-density urban developments, which they helped spur. The French railways were nationalized in 1938 to become the SNCF, responsible for managing the network as a whole.
The construction of the Reseau Express Regional (RER) heavy rail in the 1970s allowed to connect several of these stations with underground rail tunnels that converge at Chatelets-Les Halles, the largest underground rail station in the world (half a million RER passengers per day). In the 1980s, several stations were reconverted to accommodate high-speed rail services, giving them a new dynamism associated with the growth of intercity rail between European cities.