Saft's origins are closely linked to the rail sector, which was booming at the time. One of the company's first orders was for 25 batteries to power electric luggage trolleys for the railway company Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée (P.L.M.), which later merged with five other companies to become SNCF. These batteries, which were delivered in 1919, allowed P.L.M.'s engineers to enjoy the benefits of alkaline batteries.
In the early 20th century, luggage trolleys were a necessity as travelers often set out on long trips, taking with them several trunks filled with clothing - they changed a few times a day to go for a walk, dine, attend receptions, etc. - as well as household linen, and sometimes even cookware. At the time, traveling in first class with a single suitcase would have seemed ridiculous. Since the origin of the railways, the train companies strove to keep luggage moving smoothly and quickly.
Saft batteries were also used for lighting trains. An initial order of 12 batteries gave Saft the opportunity to showcase the superiority of its nickel-based batteries over lead-acid batteries. "We can confidently say that the success of this first trial helped Saft gain a foothold in an application that would unexpectedly take off a few months later", says Victor Herold, the company's founder, in "The Origin and History of Saft".
In October 1921, a suburban train equipped with gas lights caught fire in the Batignolles tunnel in Paris, causing dozens of casualties. Following this terrible accident, electric lighting became mandatory for all trains in France three years later.
In December 1921, P.L.M. ordered 2,000 batteries from Saft. Saft won the contract by offering a price that was not much higher than the production cost, but consequently laid the groundwork to begin mass production at the Romainville factory near Paris. After this first order, the other railway companies turned to Saft. Saft's order book then expanded in leaps and bounds.
Saft had a strong business relationship with P.L.M. The September 1935 issue of "Bulletin P.L.M." included a small advert on the back cover touting the fact that "All P.L.M. passenger cars are lit using Saft's batteries, and come with a four-year guarantee".
An international sales network
Saft also supplied batteries to foreign railway companies. An order from the Madrid-Zaragoza-Alicante railway company spurred a shift in Saft's strategy. This order caught the interest of the Stone Company in London, which until then had been the world's largest supplier of equipment and batteries to power lights for trains. A Stone representative offered to give Victor Herold exclusive rights to supply Saft batteries to power lights for trains all over the world except for France. In return, Stone agreed to pass on to Saft all orders that it would receive for alkaline batteries. This arrangement gave Saft access to an established international sales network. "The Stone contract was very beneficial to Saft", says Victor Herold. "Until 1939, 30 percent of its output was delivered to Stone at very profitable prices". Saft batteries were used by various railway companies in Spain, Portugal, but also in South American countries, South Africa, India, Pakistan and other English colonies in Africa and Asia.
At the same time, Saft continued to supply more and more batteries for electric tractors and trolleys. After starting off with a production of 1.6 million Ah (ampere hours) in 1921, Saft reached 20 million Ah in 1930 and 36 million Ah in 1939.
SNCF was thus Saft's first customer. Today it is still a key partner, and Saft equips most of their new rolling stock and provides them with innovative preventive maintenance solutions. SNCF’s entire fleet of over two hundred TER 2N NG (double-decker new generation) trainsets are currently being equipped with Saft nickel-based batteries to replace traditional lead-acid batteries. These on-board batteries play a vital role on SNCF trains, providing critical back-up power for the control, safety and communication functions in the event of a power outage.
Today, Saft batteries, which have been designed to ensure improved performance and reliability over a long service life and a wide temperature range, are still widely used all over the world: from Europe to the United States, Hong Kong to mainland China, India to Japan, and in many other countries.