ON BOARD TRAIN V150, France (Reuters) - A French TGV train broke a world speed record on Tuesday when it hurtled down a newly built track at 574.8 kilometres per hour (357 mph) in the northern Champagne region.
Both the president and the prime minister saluted the achievement, a morale-booster for a nation that prides itself on its technological know-how but is grappling with high unemployment and a trade deficit.
The special train called V150, an enhanced version of trains that will run on the Paris-Strasbourg line from June 10, has been preparing for the record run for weeks and carried journalists and other guests for the official attempt.
From about 380 kph, vibrations in the train became more and more noticeable. At 490 kph passengers became slightly dizzy. At 540 kph it became difficult to remain standing despite the stability of the train.
At 570 kph, the driver — filmed on camera — wore a very big smile. “We had no worries — no birds, good weather, none of the troubles we had during the tests,” said driver Eric Pieczak.
Live television images showed bystanders on overhead bridges cheering as the chromium and black coloured train roared past, followed by an aircraft filming the record-breaking run.
The absolute speed record for trains, 581 kph (361 mph), was set in 2003 by a ‘maglev’ (magnetic levitation) train in Japan. Such trains do not run on rails but glide on a magnetic field.
The previous speed record for a train running on rails was 515.3 kph, set in France in 1990.
Engineering firm Alstom, state rail group SNCF and track operator RFF had teamed up to show off French engineering and boost export prospects for French trains to new markets in South America, the Middle East and the United States.
“This record is a magnificent demonstration of France’s great abilities in research and development and is further proof of the excellence of the French rail industry,” President Jacques Chirac said in a statement.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, presidential candidate for the right-wing Front National, said the record was a national victory. “It is not Europe that is world champion, it is France,” he said.
Philippe Mellier, the head of Alstom’s transport division, said the commercial speed of TGV trains could reach 350-360 kph in the next five to six years. The latest TGVs run at 320 kph.
Apart from France’s Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV) and Japan’s Shinkansen, high-speed trains are made by Germany’s Siemens and Canada’s Bombardier.
The V150 was made up of two normal cars that will run on the eastern TGV track, three double-decker carriages and two sets of motorised wheels. It can develop over 25,000 horsepower, twice that of a conventional TGV, and had larger than normal wheels.
The record was set at Le Chemin between Preny, near Metz in the east of France, and Bezannes near Reims at 1116 GMT.
High-speed trains running within France and on links to London, Brussels, Cologne and Amsterdam are competing with air travel and several French regional airlines have gone out of business since the TGV started in 1981.
“It’s a proud achievement that shows how modern rail travel remains even in the 21st century and how it still makes the heart beat faster,” Hartmut Mehdorn, chief executive of German rail operator Deutsche Bahn, said on Tuesday.
Deutsche Bahn uses Siemens’ ICE high speed trains.