The TGV high-speed train is 40 years old in 2021. I’ve been travelling with it all that time. Talk about joy. And suffering. Joy first. Is there anything more exciting than sitting comfortably and speeding through the French landscape at 200mph? Of course there is, but it’s still pretty cool. And, for reasons I grasp only slightly, the countryside – whether the vineyards of Bordeaux or the Rhône valley – never blurs. It’s wonderful, and perhaps especially so for those old enough to remember rumbling through France pre-TGV. Back then, booking wasn’t compulsory, as it is on TGVs. Overcrowding was intrinsic. I spent one summer trip from Paris to Montpellier jammed onto the floor of a corridor with torso and head stretching into the toilet cubicle. This pleased neither me nor, to be frank, would-be toilet users. The TGV couldn’t come too soon. In truth, it was already well into its development phase by then, spurred by the Shinkansen – bullet train – which had been sprinting up and down Japan since 1964. Experimentation was constant. A gas turbine option was dropped only after the 1973 oil price hike. By February 1981, the SNCF, France’s nationalised rail operator, was ready with its version. The first TGV – bright orange and christened “Patrick” (after the son of the first TGV driver) – hurtled through northern Burgundy at 236mph.
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