Saturday, June 09, 2007

Train-train...


Last April, Europe’s fastest train – the French TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) – beat a world record in speed. I would have loved to have been riding in it or even standing on one of the bridges as it streaked beneath, like a silver bullet - but I had to be content with watching the video. As the train reached 356 mph it was just a blur on the landscape…the French have a right to be proud.

It wasn’t always so. The French railway system developed slowly and chugged behind the rest of Europe. The first railway in France was opened in 1828 - three years after the English one - between St Etienne and Andrézieux. There was just 21 kilometres of track and the line had been built to transport coal in wagons pulled by horses. In 1832, it began to take passengers who sat in opened-topped wagons, like the coal. It wasn’t an immediate hit….






Nothing much happened for the next decade. France was still rebuilding the country in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars and this hindered the building of railways. They were not as industrialised as Britain either and their iron production was limited so they had to import many of their rails, which was expensive. But probably the greatest problem lay in the fact that France possessed an efficient network of waterways and the railway system was seen as competition.


In 1842, the government finally agreed to invest in the building of a national rail network. The first lines connected the major cities to Paris but unfortunately, the major cities weren’t connected to each other. This meant, for example, that a train travelling from Lyon to Clermont-Ferrand (a mere hundred and twenty kilometres apart) had to go via Paris, turning the journey into a seven-hundred-kilometre marathon. More lines were built at the end of the nineteenth century and by 1914, the French railway system had become one of the most highly-developed in the world, with thirty-five thousand miles of rails, a third of which comprised narrow gauge lines. One of the first films made by the Frères Lumière was of a steam train coming into the station at La Ciotat in the south of France.


Of course, there were accidents – just as there are today. The first accident in France was in 1842, on the Paris-Versailles line when the train came off the rails and caught fire. Fifty-five people died. A French bishop declared that God was pouring out his wrath on the railway and the arrogance of Man that it represented. Unfortunately, that same month, Pope Gregory XVI commissioned a special train for the Vatican, which must have rattled the bishop’s mitre a tad. In 1920, the French President, Paul Deschanel, fell out of the window of a train and, wandering about in his pyjamas and a bit worse for wear, he came across a railway worker. “I am the President of France and I’ve just fallen out of a train window” he explained. The man thought he was a drunk but nevertheless took him to the level-crossing keeper’s house where his wounds were treated. After his identity was established, the keeper’s wife told journalists “I could tell he was a gentleman because he had clean feet”. Quite.


In 1938, the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer (SNCF) was created and in 1967, research began into constructing faster, sleeker trains. In 1981, the first TGV made its maiden run on the Paris-Lyon line and today TGVs run all over France, although they can only travel at very high speeds on special tracks (LGV) which account for about thirty percent of the network. The TGV is safe and there have never been any fatalities in France due to high speeds, at least, not human ones. Animals sometimes pose problems. Recently, a goat wandered on to the track at Aix-en-Provence and was hit by a TGV – bringing traffic to a halt for over two hours.





Travelling in a TGV is a relaxing experience. The seats are deep and comfortable and you hardly notice the movement of the train. If you sit on the upper deck of a double-decker TGV, it feels like you’re flying. It is my favourite way to travel. There is something romantic and exciting about railway stations and the trains themselves as they gather up the milling crowds of voyagers and thunder off to distant destinations. Even the smaller trains are thrilling in their own way. Le Train des Alpes, for example, runs from Grenoble to Gap. Along the route it passes through twenty-seven tunnels, over fifteen viaducts and under five bridges amid breathtaking Alpine scenery. Or there is Le Chemin de Fer de la Mure, which once brought coal down from the Matheysin Plateau to Grenoble. Echoing the train in 1832 that transported passengers in coal wagons, this one also ferries people. But they are tourists and they travel in relative comfort, trundling upwards through lush landscapes on a small and shiny bright red train…

9 comments:

Mlle Smith said...

I have to go from Toulouse to Montpellier when I arrive and I have to do it by train...any suggestion? I'm too afraid to drive such a long distance by myself. :0l

Gigi said...

It's easy - there's a direct train from Toulouse to Montpellier - check on www.sncf.fr...I love the atmosphere of railway stations...

By the way, I used to be terrified of driving anywhere - even to the local Carrefour - but then I found myself in a situation where I had to drive and now I love driving here. The motorways are great.

Mlle Smith said...

Oh, thank you so much for that info, Gigi! I'm going to their website RIGHT NOW to look it up! :0)

Roads said...

The TGV is marvellous, as is Eurostar. The ICE in Germany is excellent, too.

For city to city transport, you just can't beat them.

My only criticism is the poor level of catering on those trains. The food and drinks on Eurostar are just appalling.

Which is a shame, since the train would be the perfect place to have a meal. Great views from every table.

Except for under La Manche, of course.

Obviously.

CJ said...

First time I encountered train travel as an adult was in London a few years ago. Travels around the city are not so nice...crowds and delays tend to mar the exercise but outside of the cities and there is nothing to beat sitting back and watching the world go by. I would love to experience the European trains though!

Sarah said...

I'm really excited about travelling SNCF and Eurostar to get to the UK this summer. A huge improvement on dreading a flight on Ryanair.

Airports are totally dire.

Tinsie said...

Another brilliant post, Gigi!

I love flying but I prefer trains to planes, esp. the high-end ones such as the Eurostar, TGV and ICE. So much more civilised than crowded airports and cramped planes, and they're just no comparison to coach travel [shudder].

Gigi said...

Can't say I've ever eaten anything on a TGV, Roads. Easyjet, yes. It was...indescribable. In fact, I still don't know what it was we ate but it was a sort of toasted sandwich purportedly...

Yes cj - do try and travel on the TGV...the local trains aren't quite as comfy, however...

To be honest, Sarah, I'd rather go that way - it's just cheaper by air (Grenoble-Gatwick is ridulously cheap).

Tinsie - I do enjoy flying too but I still think railway stations are more interesting than airports, don't you?

Paco Bell said...

You write well. I can imagine myself on holiday inFrance, tho I've never been.

Went to Spain in '03 and Ireland in '96.

Rented a car in both, and found that enjoyable- until it was time to find a parking space for the night in Spain. Criminy!

Nothing free is ever availble.

I believe the rail system in France to be netter than Spain, as I've always thought that i would smply rely on that mode of tavel as much as possible.

Of course, to have a 2CV or DS to tool around in while I'm in the countryside would be heavenly. Like being in a 60's flick An Now My Love or Breathless.

But I'd settle for a bicycle or a Vespa.