France celebrates 25 years of very fast trains

21st September 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Sept 21, 2006 (AFP) - Ultra-cheap train tickets, new rail speed tests and final work on a new line are all being rolled out this week in France as part of anniversary celebrations marking 25 years of the country's super-fast TGV trains.

PARIS, Sept 21, 2006 (AFP) - Ultra-cheap train tickets, new rail speed tests and final work on a new line are all being rolled out this week in France as part of anniversary celebrations marking 25 years of the country's super-fast TGV trains.

The event, which is formally feted on Friday, is being cast as a self-congratulatory birthday in a country that sees the "train à grande vitesse" network as an engineering marvel that ranks foremost among France's modern achievements.

The network is the most developed in the world, with only Japan's Shinkansen train system coming close.

Every year, some 80 million passengers hurtle around France at speeds of around 300 kilometres per hour in carriages that are being updated to include Wi-Fi.

The same technology underpins the Eurostar and Thalys services linking Paris to London and Brussels, and is being looked at by China and other countries contemplating their own high-speed train lines.

The late president François Mitterrand inaugurated the first TGV, which linked Paris and Lyon, on September 22, 1981, and it was opened to the public five days later.

Since then, more lines and trains have been put on to cover much of France, shrinking travel times between far-flung cities to just a few hours. The 780 kilometres between northern Paris to southern Marseille, for instance, is covered in just three hours.

The latest line, between Paris and Strasbourg, the eastern city near the German border that is also home to the EU parliament, is to open in June next year after five years of work. The final rail was welded into place Wednesday in the presence of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.

The new link will be compatible with Germany's similar ICE (InterCityExpress) service, meaning a Paris to Frankfurt hop will take less than four hours.

As of this week, tests are underway to boost further the velocity with which the trains whizz through country areas.

Currently, average speeds are around 300 kilometres per hour, but, if the tests work out, France's state rail company SNCF hopes to raise that to 360 kilometres per hour.

That speed is well within safety parameters, given that the top tested speed of a TGV stands at 515 kilometres per hour — or quite literally as fast as a speeding bullet.

The company has also organised a Thursday launch of a five-euro-a-ticket promotional offer for 50,000 passengers to go wherever they like in France on a TGV over the next couple of months — a deal that was certain to spark a rush to ticket windows and its website.

SNCF unions, though, complained that they would be overwhelmed by the rush.

One, SUD Rail, issued a statement saying it feared "chaos" when the tickets went on sale, noting that "during this period, nine million people use the TGVs and there will be only 50,000 'winners'."

Such initiatives are the fruit of SNCF's battle to wrest market share from proliferating low-cost airlines that have been muscling in on national routes.

The company's research indicates that on trips of four hours or less, passengers prefer trains to planes, in part because they can avoid hassles in terms of check-in lines, baggage restrictions and security slowdowns.

The infrastructure to propel trains along at speeds achieved by Formula One racers doesn't come cheap: France has spent nearly EUR 23 billion over the past quarter-century to put the TGV on the rails.

In terms of passenger transportation, it's proved a major profit centre for the SNCF, bringing in more than EUR 4 billion a year.

Cities and towns benefitting from a TGV station have seen property prices rise as commuters from Paris and other urban centres move farther away from their places of work to enjoy the French countryside.

Vacationers in France have also taken to the network, with visitors from other advanced countries, such as Britain and the United States, wondering why their own trains are so sluggish in comparison.

But there are some downsides. Using the high-speed lines to ferry freight has proved a loss-maker unable to compete with road haulage, for example.

And the prestige of the service means it is also a tempting target for terrorists and criminals.

In early 2004, a group calling itself AZF planted two professionally rigged bombs on railway lines — though not TGV ones — as part of a bid to extort millions of euros from the government. It renounced its plot in the wake of the Madrid train bombings that year, but its members remain unidentified and at large.

In April this year another bomb — through different to and more amateur than the AZF ones — was found on the Paris-Nantes TGV line in western France during a routine track inspection. No group claimed responsibility for the device, whose timer had malfunctioned.

TGV Facts and Figures:

  • The trains normally run at up to 300 kilometres (185 miles) per hour. The top recorded speed in a test of a TGV is 515 kilometres per hour, reached in 1990.
  • Some 100 million passengers per year are transported on TGV trains in Europe, 80 million of them in France.
  • An average 650 TGV trains travel on France's rail network each day.
  • There are a total of 410 TGV locomotives, including the ones used on the Paris-London Eurostar and Paris-Brussels-Amsterdam Thalys services.
  • Each TGV train travels an average 46,000 kilometres per month, or four times the circumference of the planet.
  • Around five percent of France's 30,500 kilometres of train tracks are specially designed high-speed lines for TGVs: a total of 1,547 kilometres.
  • The lines link most of the main cities in France, with the Paris-Strasbourg line due to open in June next year.
  • There are only two women among the 1,500 TGV drivers.
  • The SNCF, France's state rail company, first planned the high-speed trains in 1968. Late president Georges Pompidou greenlit construction in 1974, a month before his death.
  • Late president François Mitterrand inaugurated the first TGV line — between Paris and Lyon — on September 22, 1981. It was opened to the public five days later, with the trains operating at 270 kilometres per hour.
  • The Eurostar service began in 1994, followed two years later by the Thalys.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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