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Fastest Trains on Earth


Modern technology is now setting the stage for the prophesied union of Western Europe.

Even before the sleek machine pulls out of the station for its run to Paris, its streamlined appearance suggests motion. It is one of a new breed of French trains named the TGV, short for trains a grande vitesse — ("very fast trains").

Test runs have shown them easily capable of reaching 235 miles per hour, making them the fastest on earth. Temporarily, however, they are "reined in" at a maximum of 162 mph even when they are on their own newly laid track. When they must travel on the older tracks, they are limited to a snail's pace of 100 mph.

All this is expected to change, though, as more specially constructed track is laid. The new tracks have concrete ties instead of wood. Individual rails are welded together into one continuous, seamless rail, and there are no grade crossings — all human or animal cross-traffic passes underneath the fenced-off right of way.

As more cities are linked to Paris and to each other by the new rail system, the eventual goal is to have these trains darting from station to station at 238 mph. And not only in France! The trains already go into Geneva. It is expected to be only a matter of time before they go to Brussels, London (whenever the tunnel is finally built under the English Channel) and other European cities.

Quiet and smooth are the best words to describe the ride. Passengers lounge in reclining seats. For refreshment there is a snack bar in second class. In first class cars, hostesses serve several-course meals from airline-style carts. Each train has a sloping-nosed engine at both ends and is composed of eight coaches. The coaches are not meant to be separated, since they share one group of wheels (a bogey) wherever two coaches join. All eight cars form one single aerodynamically designed unit. With only half the number of wheels of a conventional eight-coach train, there is correspondingly less weight and friction. Adding to its streamlining, the TGV rides about two feet lower than ordinary trains.

Looking out the large tinted windows at the beautiful French countryside rolling by, we catch a glimpse from time to time of small groups of villagers or farmers as they pause to watch this orange, brown and white blur streak through the pastoral setting. Are these country folk merely shaking their heads over the necessity for human beings to be in such a rush? Or is it a sense of pride they are feeling since this fastest train in the world bears the label "Made in France"?

Any American railroad buff can draw a sad comparison with the rail passenger service in the United States. At the same time the TGV was breaking records, some fanfare was being sounded about the inauguration of a new train running between Los Angeles and Sacramento, California — a distance of about 400 miles. To make the trip, American commuters can plan on an overnight jaunt of 13½ hours.

What is more, the energy expenditure for a full TGV on such a trip would be the equivalent of less than two gallons of gasoline a passenger.

The French all-electric TGV, originally conceived of more than a decade ago, in the era of cheap gasoline, has turned out to be a case of extraordinary foresight. Not only is the TGV energy-efficient, but, at a time of worrisome unemployment, construction and operation of this new system is providing jobs in a wide range of fields. By making travel throughout France easier, the new trains are also helping to overcome the dominant role Paris has played in day-to-day French affairs for nearly 200 years. While the Socialist government cannot claim credit for the TGV, the inauguration of service fits in conveniently with the programs of the new government.