The World’s Fastest Train
France is known for many things, but one of its better-kept secrets is that it is a world leader in rail transport technology. (Railfans know this, but most of the general public does not.) The flagship of French rail technology is the TGV or Train à Grande Vitesse (“High-Speed Train”), the world’s fastest train. TGVs regularly run at 300 km/h in normal service on some lines. And even this high speed is well below the TGV’s limits: the TGV holds the world’s record for speed on rails of 574.8 km/h (357.2 mph), or roughly half the speed of sound.
In this photograph, you see an example of the most recent TGV Duplex trainset. This trainset, which is part of the Paris Sud-Est portion of the TGV network that serves cities such as Lyons, was parked at the Gare de Lyon railway station in eastern Paris. This third-generation TGV, first built around 1998, differs from its predecessors in that it has two levels, substantially increasing capacity.
Behind the TGV Duplex, you can see a trainset of the first TGV generation, originally put into service around 1980.
Passenger train service is alive and well in Europe, and quite obviously in France. In this station and several other stations around Paris (there are six major railway stations), TGVs depart and arrive literally every few minutes, and they are often fully loaded. At Christmas, these stations are busier than many U.S. airports, with thousands of people per hour arriving and departing for family reunions.
There is nothing quite like a ride in a TGV, and every visitor to France should try to take at least a brief ride in one, if possible (and rides in TGVs tend to be brief!). This is the only train I have encountered that can accelerate so fast that you have to hold on if you aren’t seated. When leaving stations just off the main line, a departing TGV may already be flying along at 100 km/h by the time it clears the platform. This is no surprise when you consider that TGV trainsets with second sections (two complete trainsets coupled together—a common arrangement on French TGV lines) have a total of nearly 36,000 horsepower. In fact, the maximum speed of a TGV is about twice the speed of a 747 at takeoff—if the train had wings, it could fly.
TGVs are very comfortable, quiet, and smooth-running trains. At speeds below 100 km/h, it is often hard to tell that the train is moving at all from the inside, unless you look out a window. At cruising speed, scenery streaks past the windows so quickly that you cannot become bored. At points where the TGV line parallels major highways, it’s amusing to watch expensive sports cars moving at close to two hundred kilometres per hour backwards with respect to the train!
TGVs are the state of the art in rail transport, and the French are justifiably proud of them. Contrary to what you might think, getting a train to move at over 320 km/h is more than just putting in a bigger motor—the engineering problems are huge. Nevertheless, France has been doing exactly this for nearly two decades, and in fact, it first broke the 200-mph (320-km/h) barrier a half-century ago, setting a record that stood unbroken until France itself again broke the record with the TGV.
Of course, in France, TGVs are commonplace. Some people even live in Paris and commute to Lyons to work (or vice versa) each day by TGV; the distance of over 500 km can be covered in less than two hours (some people spend more time than that just driving in from the suburbs!). The TGV is faster, cheaper, and more practical than aircraft for distances of less than 1000 km (and that covers just about every destination in France). Unlike aircraft, TGVs travel from city center to city center, you can board them immediately, and they are always on time (to the second—I’ve verified this several times).
I recall arriving in a rush to board a TGV that was scheduled to depart at 5:05 PM. I had carefully set my watch, and I arrived at the platform with only about 30 seconds to spare. I scrambled aboard the train at 5:04:57 PM; exactly three seconds later, the buzzer sounded, the doors closed automatically, and the train rolled. By the time I found my seat and flopped into it, the train was already flashing past the Paris city limit (I noticed this by looking out a window—it’s hard to feel any movement inside a TGV). Try that in an airport!
I have photos of some other types of TGVs, if you’re a railfan, including the first-generation TGV Paris-Sud Est, the second-generation TGV Atlantique, the Eurostar, and the Thalys, which serves places like Brussels. I also have a wallpaper image showing a classic “nose shot” of a TGV Atlantique at the Montparnasse station, if you’d like some desktop wallpaper.
Some people have objected that China's magnetic levitation train is faster in normal service (460 kph). That's true, but it's a novelty train that goes only between city and airport, whereas the TGV has been in nationwide service over thousands of miles of right-of-way for twenty-five years. And the TGV can still top 574 kph, even though it stays below that in regular service. When I see a maglev train providing similar regular service, then I'll be impressed, but the occasional small showcase line doesn't impress me, and it's really not in the same league as a day-to-day, nationwide commercial network.
Click directly on the photo to see a larger version (twice this size). Photographed on June 20, 2000.