WORLD

Life in the fast train

MARCI MCDONALD October 5 1981
WORLD

Life in the fast train

MARCI MCDONALD October 5 1981

Life in the fast train

France

In an eight-page spread, Le Monde saluted it as the “train of the century.” At an inaugural whistle-stop banquet, President François Mitterrand hailed it as a “sign that France intends to remain an innovative nation.” Propelled by such heated rhetoric, and an 8,500-horsepower electric motor, the shark-snouted Train de Grande Vitesse (TGV), slid from beneath the storied glass vaults of the Gare de Lyon last week, laden with cabinet ministers, journalists and the hopes of the railway industry.

Later, just outside St. Florentin, in Burgundy, passengers felt a sudden jolt. At the same time, the pastoral landscape beyond their smoked windows turned to a blur and the TGV signalled

that it had not only hit its 260 km/h stride, it had achieved its allotted place in rail history. The TGV is actually capable of hitting 380 km/h, a record set on a test track last February. It leaves such rivals as Japan’s Tokyo-Hakata Bullet train (210 km/h) and Canada’s Montreal-Toronto Turbo (150 km/h) far behind. By whittling the four-hour, 387km Paris-Lyons run to two hours and 40 minutes, the train is setting the pace for a series of other national rail hookups which could shrink the entire country into a suburb of Paris.

Since that vision coincides nicely with the Socialists’ blueprint for decentralization, the government has been only too glad to climb aboard the TGV bandwagon. But the official hoopla does not obscure the fact that the train of the century was once the train nobody wanted—least of all the Socialists themselves. As opposition critics are joyfully recalling, the social democrats failed to vote a single centime for it in the national budget. When first bruited,

in the time of Charles de Gaulle, the project was denounced as “unrealizable and ruinous.” And in 1968, when the chief of the Société Nationale de Chemin de Fer tried to interest the transport ministry in the first, impressive test studies, his letter went unacknowledged for a year. The government bowed instead to pressure for additional funds from the freshly built Lyons airport and the state-owned internal airline, Air Inter.

The 1974 oil crisis caused an abrupt change in official thinking. As fuel prices skyrocketed, the government gave the go-ahead to TGV, which beats Air Inter’s Paris-Lyons flying time and is $25 cheaper. But the train, whose 6,300-kilowatt electric motor is rated the most energy efficient of any other current transport power unit, is nevertheless an economy that comes at a considerable price. So far, the world’s fastest train has cost an estimated $1.6 billion—$1 billion to acquire the 10,000 land parcels needed for the track, $635 million for the 8710-car trains. Moreover, engineers had to plot the new widecurve, tunnel-free route around some unusual detours: a historical Roman road, a classy Burgundian château and the prized Chablis vineyards.

The final ecological hurdle was surmounted when a 1976 High Court ruling gave the all clear signal. Now, the government is counting on TGV to pull the nation’s ailing rail industry out of the red—and perhaps be exported eventually to Brazil and the United States. Last week Mitterrand announced a second TGV to bring alienated Brittany within two hours and Bordeaux within

three of Paris. He also waxed rhapsodical over its eventual dispatch northeastward to Brussels and, should the long-chewed-over Channel Tunnel materialize, north to London.

Still, triumphant technology alone may not be enough to guarantee the TGV’s success. Production of the fasterthan-sound Concorde—whose enormous losses have caused the British and French to cease production—has proven that. To turn a profit on the Paris-Lyons run, the train will have to lure an additional six million new passengers a year. To that end, the government has launched a glossy $2-million advertising campaign and installed hostesses, decked out in blazer suits by the couturier Carven, to dole out the plastic meat trays in the narrow, air cabin-like cars. Still, even at 260 km/h, the TGV wasn’t fast enough for at least one passenger last week. To get to the inauguration outside Lyons on time, Mitterrand, the son of a onetime stationmaster, took the plane from Paris.

MARCI MCDONALD