TGV: The French Rail Revolution

By Teresa A. Propeck Adria Mallin Posted on Adventure


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If you are standing at a train station in France when the TGV hurtles by at 186 mph, you might experience an enormous intake of breath, a human whoosh to its electrical one, but even with your eyes wide open, you won’t see it.

And yet, if you are inside the world’s fastest train, you will find it quiet and elegant, and if you look out at the landscape, there is such clarity that you will be fooled into thinking you are riding at very ordinary speeds.

Used to a world in which we casually fly from continent to continent and send men to the moon, the idea of a train, even a high-speed train, seems almost antiquated. But the French TGV is really revolutionizing not only the French and European rails, but the economy and the way the French are choosing to work and live.  

Once Upon a Time…

The story of the French and their TGV is reminiscent of America at the dawning of rail transport in the 19th century – though the French have moved more slowly and maintained such high safety standards that there has not been a single fatality. In the United States in the1820s, the merchants of the eastern seaboard cast railroad tracks into the western hinterlands so rapidly that by 1840, the United States had 60 different lines operating 3,000 miles of railroad track. That was nearly twice the total in all of Europe.

By 1850, there were 9,000 miles of track, by 1860, 30,000 miles, and for over a century, the railroads were an unstoppable force. Europeans were astonished by the American mania for railroad construction, and a Frenchman, Michel Chevalier, commented that “the Americans have railroads in the water, in the bowels of the earth, and in the air.”

The steam locomotive had its beginning in 1825. In 1839, an eight-wheeled engine was designed in Philadelphia, to which a Philadelphia builder added engine cabs, headlights, bells and cow catchers – a design that remained in vogue for the next half-century. In 1865, the first steel rails were produced, followed by the automatic coupler, the air brake, and electric lights. By 1893, the New York Central locomotive No. 999 had attained a speed of 112.5 mph, and by 1895, the first electrified locomotive train service was introduced. All-steel passenger cars were commonplace in regular domestic service by 1906, the first diesel electric locomotive was on the track in 1925, and by 1952, the diesel exceeded steam locomotives. But dark times were ahead for railroads, displaced by the airplane and the automobile.

When I was a child, there was still plenty of magic in the train. As a five-year-old, I walked to the Sedgwick Station to meet my father every night after work, and I waved to the engineers, each of whom waved back as they slowed their noisy, cumbersome engines to a halt. Everyone traveled overnight by Pullman, movie stars and heads of state were hosted glamorously, often legendarily, on entire VIP cars, and parlor cars, fine linens and fine dining were part of train vocabulary, along with the battery of people employed to make train travel enjoyable. Even our luggage was designed for train travel, spellbound as we were by railroad lure and lore.

But by 1957, passenger movement by air exceeded that by rail, and by 1997, there were only nine Class I railroads in America.

So who would have thought, in the United States or abroad, that a train like no other train, the French TGV, at a speed of 186 mph, would be the millennial train? On just a single line of dedicated tracks from Paris to Marseille, the TGV Méditerranée, which began service in 2001, carried 23 million passengers in 2002. Who would have thought that a train could attract 6 million passengers away from air and road transportation? Or entice city dwellers who lived and worked in Paris to relocate and reside in the pretty countryside of Avignon or Aix-en-Provence and commute to work in Paris? Or just do lunch in Lyon? Thank the TGV.

TGV Basics

TGV is an acronym for Train à Grande Vitesse or “train at great speed,” that is, high-speed trains. TGVs are owned and operated by the Grandes Lignes unit of the SNCF, or Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français, the French national railways. The tracks they run on, 932 miles of them, without crossings or extreme curves, are also owned and operated by the French government.  

The term TGV can refer to the trains themselves or to the entire French high-speed rail system. Because the TGV trains can only go as fast as conventional trains when they operate on conventional tracks, the “system” refers to the special dedicated tracks and signaling devices essential to moving at high speeds. A newcomer to the TGV system may assume that he will have to switch trains when his TGV service concludes, but the train simply moves towards its final destination on regular tracks at regular speeds.

When I boarded my first European train in 1962, from Paris to Rome in 28 hours with two train changes, the TGV was not even a gleam. The future, everyone thought, would be in new technologies of magnetic levitation and jet-powered hovertrains. Yet less than 20 years later, in 1981, the TGV Paris-Lyon began commercial service, using electric propulsion. (The gas turbine propulsion originally planned was cut short by a dramatic rise in oil prices and a dramatic fall in the world economy in 1973.)

By 1989, the TGV Atlantique was heading west and southwesterly, and by 1993, the TGV Nord-Europe took the service to Calais and through the Channel Tunnel on the way to London. Not only has the TGV transformed France and Europe with routes to 70 major towns and cities in 13 regions, connecting France to London, Brussels, Geneva, Lausanne, Zurich, Turin, Milan, and more, but it brings cold, damp, wind-whipped North Sea people to the sun-drenched Mediterranean in just over four elegant, amenity-laden hours.

Now, about speed. Weather does not limit speed on the TGV, and the top speed in commercial service is 186 mph. (Compare this to the American fast train, the Acela, which has a maximum speed of 150 mph, but for most of its Washington-Boston run, travels at 125 mph or less.) In 1990, under special test conditions, a TGV trainset reached the astonishing speed of 320.3 mph!

It could only happen after 2,000 shop hours were put in, adjusting parameters: the brakes on the trailers, special brake pads, changes in the pantograph, modifications in the catenary (the hanging cable between pylons along a railway track, from which the trolley wire is suspended), a new traction ratio, change to the wheel diameter, insertion of shims, strain gauges for the axles, rubber membranes to cover the gaps between the trailers, large airdams between the power cars and the trailers, larger transformers, stiffened yaw dampers.

The list goes on, culminating in a test run in which the train moved at high, higher, and highest speeds, decelerating quickly and securely to a stop and to the world speed record of 320.3 mph that has not been broken.

In 2001, TGV track extension opened the TGV Méditerranée line, which goes to Marseille in just three hours, using wide reclining seats and foot rests in first and second class cars. The TGV Med was 10 years in the making at a cost of $3.5 billion, some of which went towards such environmentally sensitive items as building a detour to avoid a pair of protected eagles. Last year, the TGV Duplex, or double-decker, was introduced on this route because demand from the public for more capacity was enormous. Though all the TGV locomotives are still made of steel, the Duplex gets weight savings from an aluminum body shell and magnesium seat frames. If you’re on the upper level, hey, it’s like flying. It’s Superman instead of Clark Kent!

The first color of the TGV Sud-Est to Lyon was an excited and excitable orange – a bold futuristic color to suit the bold and futuristic shape. Today, there are TGV locomotives (called “power cars”) at both the front and back end of each train, one pulling and the other pushing, that are blue and silver as well as yellow, and there is the special commemorative blue stripe on the TGV that set the world speed record.

But what is most distinctive about these locomotives is what has come to be called “the nose,” designed by a fellow named Jack Cooper. The nose is aerodynamic, yes, but sort of anthropomorphic too, almost as if it were sniffing out the fastest route.

In the morning at the Paris train stations, as the TGVs arrive from everywhere with passengers who work and do business in the French capital, their long noses edge in and line up across the tracks, looking unlike anything in American railroad stations. And since power cars are located at each end, and the train set is totally symmetrical and reversible, whether you catch “le look” from the front end or the back end, groups of TGVs that have discharged their passengers seem less like inert steel and glass and more like an amusing pod, or gaggle, or herd of giant anteaters, hanging out. Curiously, the “pod” must be tended after each foray by maintenance personnel who clean their noses – that is, the windshield and headlights of the power cars – of the bugs and birds that were too slow to get out of the way.

On one trip this summer, having left Paris at dawn on a TGV, we swept into Rome just before dusk, the nights still long in the heat of August. As we neared the station, we passed what was probably a depot. It looked as if the entire fleet of French TGVs and Italian Pendolino trains lived here, on the side tracks. Judging by the sheer number of tracks, all roads really do lead to Rome, and on nearly every one was a parked train with the famous nose cone.

I thought of the English painter J.M.W. Turner, whose 1844 painting, Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway, gave us the train as the monster symbol of industrial power and progress, the hiss and roar of its animal noises almost set free on the canvas in raging swirls and clouds of steam. The locomotives just outside Rome’s vast train station were not the swaggering engines of yore; those were intensely masculine – heavy metal to the dulcimer. The new breed gathered here with their long snouts looked, in the twilight, like an exaggerated zoo in which low-slung animals had been fed and watered and put to bed for the night, and I found myself smiling in such company.  

Riding the TGV Rails

So what is it like to ride on the TGV? First, be sure to have a reservation (in addition to your ticket or Railpass). There is a supplemental fee for the reservation, but it is essential and best to make it in advance, either through Rail Europe, a subsidiary now of the SNCF in the States, or from the French train stations (easy if you speak fluent French) or from travel agencies. And don’t forget the little box at the head of the train track where you must punch your ticket before you board.

For my long trip from Paris to Rome I had secured a seat on the top level of the Duplex, and even traveling light, my 24-inch suitcase had to be turned sideways to get up the nine or 10 narrow and steep steps. Some of the seating is double, some individual, some facing, with trays in between. There is a nursery area on many TGVs and a telephone area, and it is possible from first class to Paris or Marseille to call ahead and order a taxi. If you are accustomed to the Italian's, who broadcast their personal and business lives on first class Italian train cars, relax; the French who travel on first class cars tend to be soft-spoken, and besides, the TGV forbids the use of cell phones here.

This left me free to stare out the windows in peace. I can’t quite imagine the whiz-bang of landscape and rails for the engineer inside the cab compartment of the power car, but for passengers, there is no visual distortion as long as you are facing in the direction of the journey and your sight lines are not obscured.

Fifteen minutes outside Paris, the train emerged from a tunnel into the countryside – a paysage of baled hay, neatly plowed and planted hectares in a patchwork of greens and ochres, castles, outcroppings of rock, white cows gathered under the trees to instruct in the summer art of doing nothing, the occasional river or rivulet, the occasional cluster of tiled-roof houses, and fields of nodding sunflowers. The cows shifted from white to brown and white and then to black and white, suggesting the irresistible array and goodness of artisanal French cheeses.

I did a TGV day trip to Avignon and arrived in just 2 hours and 37 minutes, which gave me plenty of time for this charmer of a medieval town. Having had almost a full day to explore everything – castle, museums, summer arts festival, a lineup of outdoor restaurants, and the bridge made famous by the song – I hopped back on the TGV at sunset for Paris.  

Railpass and Rail Europe

This past summer, I used the TGV several times because I was wise enough to know that a France Railpass or a France Saverpass (when two or more people travel together) or a France ‘n Italy Pass purchased ahead of time in the United States from Rail Europe would save me both time and money, and even more so as the dollar declined steadily all summer. There’s also a France Rail ‘n Drive Pass that permits four days of train travel and two days of rental car, starting at $215 per person for two or more traveling together. It’s ideal for taking a fast train from Tours to Paris, spending time in Paris, and then taking the rental car through the chateaux country of the Loire Valley. Or for taking the TGV from Paris to Avignon and then driving for two days around lavender-scented Provence.

What’s the difference between first and second class travel? Unlike airplane distinctions, there’s a very, very small difference in price – only $30 on the France Rail ‘n Drive Pass and on the Railpass, but a world of difference on the train itself.  

The Social Side

A sense of the possible pervades these trains. European trains, unlike American trains, used to be and still are a social environment. Though the numbers are diminishing, there are still cars which seat six in a roomy private compartment with overhead racks for luggage and food. These cars have a side aisle for traversing, looking out the window, or chatting with others, and the romance of meeting other Europeans is one that a rental car cannot match.

Sometimes it’s an opportunity to speak another language or for a European to practice English. Sometimes, it’s about the food or drink of the place you are going. And sometimes it’s a six-degrees-of-separation moment, such as my daughter, who works in a university museum, had on the TGV this summer when she found that the man sitting across from us was the father of the Italian conservateur she had just corresponded with in preparing for an Etruscan symposium.

The Economic Side

The TGV is making a difference and not only in SNCF revenue. It has lessened travel time dramatically and goes city center to city center. The on-time record shows more than 90% of the TGVs operated last year within 10 minutes of schedule, gaining market share from airlines serving the route. On the roads leading south, the availability of TGV travel has lowered pollution, eased national levels of congestion, and eased social irritability of car and truck drivers.

With all this easing, especially on the Paris to Marseille route, the south of France is seeing a drift of population in that direction, and a boost in the economic development of cities and towns on the lines. Young couples from Paris are choosing to buy homes in Avignon and Aix-en-Provence and to commute to work in Paris. They are getting excellent value in their homes and are embracing the simpler life style for themselves and their children. And in Marseille, the hope is that the elimination of one hour and twenty minutes off the 2001 rail travel time will increase tourism and help to regenerate the city, once a seedy, post-colonial dockyard, into a high-tech Mediterranean business center and touristic port town with great restaurants.

Along with the big changes, there are often little ones, hardly noticed, but there. The man in the seat opposite me as I rode to Avignon told me he got a call that morning from his daughter. She had locked her keys in her car while on vacation, leaving her and her two small children on the outside, looking rather pathetically in. The father had her extra set of keys and was taking the TGV to deliver them, then grab a return TGV and be back in Paris by afternoon. I asked if he’d have done this favor before the TGV? No way.

Musings

I keep a postcard of a flying yellow TGV on my desk to remind me how much I love traveling through la belle France on a train. I loved it back in 1962 when it took 28 hours and two shifts of track and train to get from Paris to Rome, and I love it that much more today, when everything is fast and easy, and the lightweight TGV trains whip across the landscape without noise or visual distortion, with opportunity for privacy as well as social interaction, with good food and services, environmental sensitivity, an outstanding safety record, and on-time ratings that make the railmen clocking it swell with old-fashioned pride for this technical, commercial, and human success.  

I’m actually thinking about adding a French TGV model train to the American locomotives of the 1940s already on my desk. Maybe in HO and maybe in N scale. They come in their orange livery, in blue and silver, in yellow, in red and silver, in a model with the commemorative ribbon on the nose, and even in a fantasy white livery. Because the TGV is a European train still connected to class distinctions, you can get first or second class cars, and, bien sûr, a bar trailer. There are the French SNCF Sud-Est, Thalys, Spanish, or Italian models. There’s a TGV tilting prototype with special bogies reproduced on the model, and if you’re really serious, there’s a store in Paris called Clarel (Metro stop: Bastille) that makes dry transfer sheets of TGV markings.

Clearly, the train does not give up its hold on the imagination, so kudos to the French, who not only demand perfection at the table, but keep the rail alignment to 1 millimeter (3/64 of an inch) tolerance for their TGV. Now that’s a train!
 

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