TGV - The French High-speed Train Service Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

TGV - The French High-speed Train Service

4 Conversations

The TGV1 is France's high-speed rail network, operated by the French nationally-owned and subsidised rail company, the SNCF 2 . The TGV design enables safe rail travel at speeds of over 300km/hour (186mph).

Three major routes run from Paris: north to Lille-Calais, south-west to Nantes and Bordeaux, and south-east to Lyon and on down to Marseille. As it is electrically-powered, the TGV is arguably less harmful to the environment than other trains, although since the electricity is largely produced by nuclear power there is some room for debate on this point. The service has been consistently popular with passengers, despite being slightly more expensive than traditional rail services. It is fast, efficient, comfortable and quiet - what more could you ask from a rail service?

A table of journey times to various destinations can be found at the foot of this entry.

The Fast Track to Success

It is important to note that the TGV is not simply a very fast train. Yes, the trains are very fast, but they can only achieve those speeds safely when running on specially-designed track. Old track has to be replaced, and the new track is known as LGV3. Although the design does allow the TGV trains to use existing track, the new trains cannot travel at full speed on the old tracks. Of course, old trains can use the new LGVs. While not all main-line tracks have been completely relaid as LGVs, some have been upgraded to enable higher speeds (around 200-220km/h) without the cost of completely re-laying the track.

Shortly before the first section (Paris - Lyon) opened to the public, one of the new trains registered a speed of 380km/h (236mph), setting a new world speed record (the previous record had stood since 1955). The service opened to the public as a record-breaking 'supertrain' and reached ten million passengers in its first ten months. Since then the TGV has continued to set the standard for the past 20 years. The distinctive streamlined trains were an instant hit with customers, becoming something of a national treasure as well as an international commercial success. Average speeds on the network are now around 300km/h (186mph).


During the 1960s there had been various studies of new high-speed train concepts, many attempting to move away from the classic 'wheel-on-rail' design, considered restrictive at the time. In Japan, the Shinkansen ('Bullet') high-speed train went into service, making the 338km trip between Tokyo and Osaka in just 1hr 20 minutes, an average speed of 253km/h. The SNCF were looking at ways to increase the speeds of their conventional rolling-stock, and in 1967 became involved in a collaborative research project with various other players in the industry. By the early 1970s the Alsthom-Atlantique company had produced a prototype high-speed train for test purposes.

The TGV 001 Turbotrain was powered by gas turbines and was used in over 5000 test runs covering almost half a million kilometres. It exceeded 300km/h (186mph) on 175 runs. On 8 December, 1972, it reached a top speed of 318km/h (198mph), the world speed record for a non-electric train.

As a result of the 1974 Oil Crisis, the designers had to reconsider the possibilities of electric power, and an electrically-powered train named Zébulon (Zebedee in the French equivalent of The Magic Roundabout) was developed in April of that year.

The chief designer on the project and the man behind the TGV's distinctive and renowned streamlined nose was Jack Cooper. He began working on the design for the TGV 001 Turbotrain, inside and out, soon after joining Alsthom in 1968. His visually impressive futuristic design was adopted with little hesitation. The design phase for the TGV was complete by the mid-1970s, and the first production order was placed on 4 November, 1976.

The Network

There are three trunk lines terminating in Paris. The first line to open to the public was the TGV Sud-Est, on 27 September, 1981, running south-east and linking Paris and Lyon. It was an instant success, and domestic flights between the two cities dropped dramatically as passengers adopted the new train. It is interesting to note that the TGV became one of the few SNCF services to operate at a profit, paying for the construction costs in just ten years. Such complete success convinced the French government to invest in the high-speed rail network, and many more miles have now been added.

In 1989 the new TGV Atlantique line went into service, carrying passengers to destinations south-west of Paris. Half-way to Nantes the track forks into two; one line continues on to Nantes, while the other turns south and terminates in Bordeaux. The TGV Atlantique is incomplete, however, and neither the Nantes nor the Bordeaux branches are exclusively TGV track. The trains slow down to 200-220km/h when they reach the conventional (though slightly adapted) track.

The TGV Nord-Europe was opened in 1993, and runs due north as far as Lille before turning north-west to go through the Channel Tunnel and on to London, via the Eurostar Channel Tunnel service. Trains also go on from Lille to destinations all over Belgium, The Netherlands and northern Germany. The high-speed rail service between Paris and Brussels, called Thalys, links the French capital to the hub of Europe in 1 hr 30 min. You can almost see those Eurocrats popping down to Paris for an all-expenses working lunch!

The Eurostar service is operated with TGV trains, but the track on the UK side of the tunnel is not LGV-compatible. At the date of this entry, work (due to be completed in 2003) is under way on the new high-speed track running for 108km (68 miles) between the tunnel entrance and London St Pancras Station. To reach St Pancras, which is to the north of central London, the Eurostar trains will cross the city underground. This new track will reduce the UK leg of the journey by almost half. While travelling through the Channel Tunnel the trains will slow down to about 100mph (168 km/h) before accelerating back up to TGV speed on the other side. This should bring the overall city-centre to city-centre journey time down to about 2.5 hours.

Although a relatively minor addition to the network in terms of length, the Jonction Est, opened in 1994, crucially enables trains to bypass Paris to the east. This means passengers can avoid changing trains (and inevitably crossing Paris in the process), considerably reducing journey times from the north of France to the south east.

On 10 June, 2001, French President Jacques Chirac proudly opened the TGV Méditerranée, inaugurating the line that now links the English Channel to the Mediterranean Sea. The TGV Méditerranée is effectively the last stage of the original TGV Sud-Est, taking passengers on down the Rhône valley to Marseille. From Lille in the north to Marseille in the south in an incredible 4h30! That's a distance of 1,000 kilometres (621.4 miles) at an average speed of 317km/h (197mph).

Quite an improvement on the days of the 19th Century horse-drawn diligence coaches that would take about ten days to make the same journey. It also means that a London - Marseille direct service may soon be available, probably taking about 6 hrs 30 min. This may sound like a long time, but the trains are comfortable, the journey is smooth, and in most cases is from one city centre to the other. Although TGV tickets are more expensive than conventional services, the price will probably be good value, especially for families booking well in advance.

Speed Records

In 1981, the new trains and track were used in a bid to achieve the world speed record, code-named Opération TGV 100. The objective was to achieve a speed of 100 metres per second (360 km/h), and that target was exceeded on 26 February, 1981, when Trainset 16 reached a speed of 380 km/h (236 mph) in perfect safety.

Between November 1989 and May 1990 the SNCF carried out a series of high-speed tests, pushing the TGVs to over 500 km/h. On 18 May, 1990, the last scheduled day of testing, the TGV Atlantique hit a top speed of 515.3 km/h (320.3 mph), setting a new world speed record once again.

On 26 May, 2001, TGV-Réseau set achieved a new world endurance record on the journey between Calais and Marseille, completed in just 3 hrs 29 min! In the course of this 1067 km journey a new official world speed record for a non-stop run over 1000 km by a conventional train was set at 3 hrs 9 min (average speed 317.5 km/h)

Future Developments

The TGV Est is due to open in 2006, though construction has barely begun at the time of writing. The new track will reduce the journey time between Paris and Strasbourg from 4 hrs 30 min to 2 hrs 20 min. It will also probably link up with Germany's high-speed rail routes to continue the development of a truly Europe-wide network.

There are plans to develop two more new LGVs, LGV Aquitaine and LGV Rhin-Rhône. Don't hold your breath though! Both are 'under study' but are not likely to be built before 2007. There is always a prolonged period of bargaining/squabbling over where tracks should be laid and trains should stop. Politics and industry take a long time to come to an agreement in most of these negotiation periods: the TGV Est has been 'under study' for over 15 years!

Journey Times

  TGV  Non-TGV4 
Paris - Marseille  3 hrs  N/A
Paris - Lille  1 hr N/A
Paris - Brussels  1 hr 25 min N/A
Paris - London  3 hrs N/A
Paris - Lyon  2 hrs  5 hrs 50min
Paris - Le Mans  1 hr 2 hrs 45min
Paris - Nantes  2 hrs 10min  N/A
Paris - Tours  1 hr N/A
Paris - Bordeaux  3 hrs N/A
Paris - Bayonne  4 hrs 45min  N/A
Lille - Marseille  4 hrs 30min  N/A

1Train à Grande Vitesse or High-speed Train. Although some suggest it is 'Très Grande Vitesse', that is not the official name.2Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français - French National Railways.3Ligne à Grande Vitesse - High-speed Track.4Direct service.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Written by

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more