History of TGV

TGV high speed railway section sign France July 1984 , the TGV on its way from Paris towards Dijon - © joost ijmuide TGV Atlantique - © Enzo JIANG
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Roger Tallon

The TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse, French for 'high-speed train') is France's high-speed rail service, currently operated by SNCF, the French national rail operator. It was developed during the 1970s by GEC-Alsthom (now Alstom) and SNCF.

Following the inaugural TGV service between Paris and Lyon in 1981, the TGV network, centered on Paris, has expanded to connect cities across France and in adjacent countries like Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands (Thalys network), Switzerland (Lyria network)and the United Kingdom (Eurostar network).

The idea of the TGV was first proposed in the 1960s, after Japan had begun construction of the Shinkansen in 1959. At the time the French government favored new technologies, exploring the production of hovercraft and Maglev trains such as Aérotrain. Simultaneously, SNCF began researching high speed trains that would operate on conventional track.

It was originally planned that the TGV, then standing for Très Grande Vitesse (very high speed) or Turbine Grande Vitesse (high speed turbine), would be propelled by gas turbine-electric locomotives. The first prototype, TGV 001, was the only TGV constructed with this engine: following the increase in the price of oil during the 1973 energy crisis, gas turbines were deemed uneconomic and the project turned to electricity from overhead lines. However, TGV 001 was not a wasted prototype: it reached 318 km/h (198 mph), which remains the world speed record for a non-electric train.

The first electric prototype, nicknamed Zébulon, was completed in 1974. In 1976 the French government funded the TGV project, and construction of the LGV Sud-Est, the first high-speed line (ligne à grande vitesse), began shortly afterward.

The TGV opened to the public between Paris and Lyon on 27 September 1981. Contrary to its earlier fast services, SNCF intended the TGV service for all types of passengers, with the same ticket price as for trains running on the parallel conventional line. To counteract the popular misconception that the TGV would be another premium service for business travelers, SNCF started a major publicity campaign focusing on the speed, frequency, reservation policy, normal price, and broad accessibility of the service. This commitment to a democratized TGV service was further enhanced in the Mitterrand socialist era with the promotional slogan "Progress means nothing unless it is shared by all". The trains became widely popular, the public welcoming fast and practical travel.

Further LGVs have opened later. The Eurostar service began operation in 1994, connecting continental Europe to London via the Channel Tunnel with a version of the TGV designed for use in the tunnel and in the United Kingdom.

Technology: what makes the TGV so special?

Looking at the train itself, the most striking aspect is the aerodynamic styling of the nose. But that is not where the innovation lies. Perhaps the most interesting feature of a TGVs train-set is its articulation: the cars are not merely coupled together; they are semi-permanently attached to each other. This articulated design has proven advantageous during a derailment, as the passenger carriages are more likely to stay upright and in line with the track. Normal trains, by contrast, may split at couplings and jack-knife. That technology also reduces the weight of the train, as well as noise level and it improves aerodynamics and suspension.

TGVs train-sets are essentially symmetric and reversible, with a locomotive, also called power units or power cars, coupled at each end. Trains can be lengthened by coupling two TGVs together, using couplers hidden in the noses of the power cars.

Another innovation in the TGV system is the exclusive use of in-cab signaling for high speed running. TGV lines do not have line side signals: they are too difficult to read at speed. All signaling information is transmitted to the train through the rails, and appears to the engineer in the cab. In general, TGV train-sets are heavily computerized, and many important functions are controlled digitally.

TGV’s world records

First world speed record with the TGV 001 on 8 December 1972: 318 km/h.

World record of 380,4 km/h on 26 February 1981.

World record of 515.3 km/h (320.2 mph) on 18 May 1990.

Latest world record on 3 April 2007: 574.8 km/h (357 mph).

The TGV is in 2007 the world's fastest conventional scheduled train: one journey's average start-to-stop speed from Lorraine-TGV to Champagne-Ardenne-TGV is 279.3 km/h (173.5 mph).

A Eurostar train broke the record for the longest non-stop high speed journey in the world on 17 May 2006 carrying the cast and filmmakers of The Da Vinci Code from London to Cannes for the Cannes Film Festival. The 1421 km (883.0 miles) journey took 7 hours 25 minutes (191.6 km/h or 119 mph).

The record for the fastest long distance run was set by a TGV traveling from Calais-Frethun to Marseille (1067.2 km, 663 mi) in 3 hours 29 minutes (306 km/h or 190 mph) for the inauguration of the LGV Méditerranée on 26 May 2001.

In August 2007, Dutch students Hildebrand van Kuyeren and Mart Hopman used the TGV, mainly the Paris-Marseille line, to set the world record for train traveling within one week at 24,428.2 km (15,179.0 mi).