A brief history of the TGV
The TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) is the French high speed train. It was the first European high speed train, and the second one world wide (the first one being the Japanese Shinkansen).
The TGV project began in the 1960s. At the time air travel was beginning to take off and competition was getting increasingly tough for the SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer). In 1966, project C03 was born. It recommended the creation of high-speed rail links capable of competing effectively against air travel. In May 1968 a report defined a 3 year research program and set aside funds for it.
Initially the project was up against a rival project that suggested the use of short takeoff and landing aircraft. In the end the government chose the TGV project mainly because of its technical strength and its use of existing infrastructure: the TGV could travel (albeit at lower speeds) on existing rail lines, it reused existing stations etc... On the 25th of March, 1971 the project was approved and the TGV came into existence officially.
The SNCF held the speed record for trains since 1955 when a BB 9004 Schneider reached the speed of 331 km/h . It was however a one off performance that pushed the equipment to its limits: during the test the train's pantograph melted and the track was deformed along several hundred metres. Clearly a lot of work was needed for train to operate at these speeds on long distances and on a regular basis. It was decided that the train will run on a new line (like Shinkansen). From the start, the strongest candidate was the Paris to Lyon line as it was already saturated. The TGV line would cut the journey time to 2 hours and free up existing infrastructure for freight and shorter range journeys.
The first prototype "TGV 001", made by Alsthom, was completed on October 25th, 1971. It was powered by two Turboméca gas turbines that drove a 2250 kW alternator and a 230kW backup alternator. On the 7th of December 1972 the prototype is shown to the minister for transport and journalists and reaches the speed of 318 km/h. Later on, in the wake of the oil crises the choice was made to make the TGV electric, despite the difficulties involved in designing a pantograph capable of functioning at the high speeds the TGV was destined for. The TGV 001 was retired in 1978.
On the 5th of March 1974, the Prime Minister officially decided the construction of a high speed link between Paris and Lyon at the cost of 14 billion francs, and a year later the layout of the line was finalised. The design of the train heavily influenced this layout, for example the ability of the train to climb slopes of up to 35/1000 at full speed allowed the construction of a tunnel to be avoided. The final approval was given on the 23rd of March 1976 and work started in December of that year.
Testing continued, and on the 26 of February 1981 the TGV broke the world record with a top speed of 380 km/h.
Finished at last!
The first part of the line was finished in the summer of 1981 and by October 1983 the entire line was complete.
On the 22nd of September 1981 the line was officially opened, President Francois Mitterand travelled from Paris to Lyon at speeds of up to 260 km/h ( later 270 km/h ). 18 months later, the 10 millionth passenger climbs onboard a TGV.
The rest as they say is history, although the story doesn't end there. TGV lines to the South West were built (also known as the TGV Atlantique), to the North, and most recently the South East line was extended to Marseille (known as the TGV Méditerranée). The TGV network connects major towns in France and also abroad via the Thalys and Eurostar lines.
The SNCF has continually improved their trains, reducing vibrations and increasing speed and comfort. In 1989 they upped their speed record to 515 km/h (which is still unbeaten). The most recent carriages have two decks and improved access for handicapped people, and the maximum speed is 300 km/h. Plans were in place for the "TGV NG" (New Generation) which was supposed to operate at speeds up to 360 km/h but lack of money has forced the SNCF to reconsider its policy of building new track. The Paris-Strasbourg train will be a tilting train, to allow higher speeds on existing tracks. Current TGVs do not tilt as it isn't necessary on the TGVs dedicated lines.
New challenges also exist in the form of Maglev technology, however the need for completely new infrastructure means that existing wheel based TGVs are here to stay for quite some time.