Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fast trains

While browsing through YouTube, I came across this video of yet another rail speed record being set by the French TGV train. This record, already set two years ago, was 574.8 km/h, which is 357.2 mph. For comparison, this is about twice the take-off speed of a Boeing 747 airliner, and about 20% faster than the speed at which it climbs to cruise altitude.

While France is known mainly for wine, cheese, and other “artsy” things, it also happens to be a world leader in rail technology, and it has been for decades. The TGV is a great example of what can be done with “ordinary” steel wheels on rails. And this is not theoretical stuff: TGV trains speed all over France and nearby countries every day. In fact, for trips of less than about 1000 km (600 miles), TGVs are much more practical than airplanes.

I've been on TGVs on multiple occasions. They are a pleasure to ride in. The ride is so smooth that you cannot tell that you're moving at speeds under 80 mph unless you look out the window. At full speed it's still smoother and quieter than a luxury car, and the only time you realize that you're moving at hundreds of miles per hour is when the train enters a turn—then you get tossed to one side if you happen to be standing in the aisle (I learned the hard way to always have my hand on a seat when walking up or down the aisles in the train). If you look out the window, look away, and then look back again, the scenery has completely changed! If you happen to be riding alongside a freeway (as is often the case on some TGV routes), you find yourself watching Porsches moving backwards at 100+ mph.

Not only that, but TGVs go from city center to city center. No need for a car, or a shuttle, or a two-hour commute to or from an airport. You start the trip downtown, and you end it downtown. And there's no two-hour wait to board. I've boarded TGVs just seconds before their departure times (they always leave on time), and by the time I got from the door to my seat (with the door automatically hissing shut behind me), the train had already accelerated to some 40 mph on its way out of the station. A few minutes later, it was rolling along at 200 mph.

If you come to visit different parts of France, consider taking the TGV from one city to another, as it's much nicer than flying. It's very convenient for going between London and Paris, too, as well as between several other cities (Brussels and Paris, etc.). You can even get from Paris to the Mediterranean in under three hours (it would take at leave 4 hours by plane, door to door).

Blog Archive