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The TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) is the French high speed train. Of course, there is no such thing as the TGV; there are many significant differences among the 350-odd trainsets in service today, and the name TGV refers to much more than just the trains. Indeed, the TGV is a system which comprises train, track, and signalling technologies that when combined make high speeds (typically 300 km/h, or 186 mph) possible. The TGV system is owned and operated by SNCF, the French national railways, and is an integral part of French rail travel.
Historical Overview
The TGV program was launched in the late 1960s. In its early stages, the program was considered a technological dead end. Conventional wisdom at the time held that steel wheel on steel rail technology had been explored and understood to its fullest, and it was time to move on to more innovative technologies like magnetic levitation and jet-powered hovertrains. As a result, the project did not originally receive any government funding.
SNCF's idea for the TGV was to develop a high speed rail system that remained compatible with the existing railway infrastructure. This had the important benefit of allowing high speed trains to use existing facilities in the heart of many cities, where building any new tracks or stations would have been prohibitively expensive. Another advantage was the possibility of running TGV trains to many destinations over existing trackage, after a high speed dash on a dedicated trunk line. Clark Kent on conventional track, and Superman on special dedicated track. Finally, having a high speed rail system that fully integrates into the existing rail network makes it possible to build new high speed lines gradually, opening them section by section.
The first prototype train, the TGV 001, started an extensive testing program in the early 70's. images/proto/tgv001vsg.jpg
images/proto/tgv001vsg.jpgThe TGV 001 (photo by Jean-Paul Lescat) was powered by a gas turbine, and on 8 December 1972, it set the world speed record for a train in autonomous traction, at 318 km/h (198 mph). This record still stands, 23 years later. (The world's fastest diesel train is a Russian TEP80 locomotive, with 273 km/h (147 mph). The TGV 001 made more than 175 runs at speeds in excess of 300 km/h (186 mph) and along with other prototype trains provided valuable engineering data for the development of the production TGV. A more detailed history can be found elsewhere in these pages.
A completely new line was built beginning in the late seventies, running from Paris most of the way to Lyon. On 27 September 1981, the first section of the line was opened to revenue service by president François Mitterrand, and the streamlined, bright orange trains became instant celebrities. It helped that just a few months before, one of the new trainsets had smashed the world speed record (held since 1955 by a pair of French electric locomotives) with a run at 380 km/h (236 mph).
The new TGV was incredibly successful, and gutted the Paris-Lyon airline business. It became one of the few parts of SNCF that turned a significant profit, and completely payed for itself (including construction costs) in only a decade. The French government, faced with this success, hailed the new system and offered its backing for further development of the nascent high speed rail network. The TGV had become a technological symbol associated with France.
Since then, new TGV lines and trains have been built, and improvements made with each generation. In 1989, the TGV Atlantique made its debut, serving points west of Paris. The trains incorporated many improvements over the earlier Sud-Est generation, a sign of the continuing research and development being conducted by SNCF and its contractors. Most notably, the 1981 record was pushed to 515.3 km/h (320.3 mph) on 18 May 1990, using the newer generation equipment. This is also the subject of other documents in these pages.
Today, there are three major trunk lines radiating out of Paris, the most recent one being the Nord-Europe line, opened in 1993 and connects Paris to Lille, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Britain through the Channel tunnel. Extensions continue to be built, although budgetary constraints have slowed the momentum of the TGV expansion.
TGV technology has been a contender in many export ventures, to Spain (operating), South Korea (under construction), the United States (awarded), Taiwan (awarded), China, etc. TGV trains now visit many parts of Europe, including Germany, Britain, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.
What Makes the Train Special?
Looking at the train itself, the most striking aspect, to the newcomer, is the aerodynamic styling of the nose. But that is not where the innovation lies. Perhaps the most interesting feature of a TGV trainset is its articulation. The cars are not merely coupled togethe...

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