It wasn’t the world’s first ultra-high-speed train—that distinction belongs to Japan’s Shinkansen. But France’s Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) was the one that rallied most of Europe around a rail system that was faster, more affordable and more energy-efficient than any other type of travel. It made that jaunt from London to Paris for a nice glass of red wine seem not so daunting. It was safe, too: Since TGV’s debut in 1981, there’s only been one fatal accident, during a test run.

A Steep Climb

Inspired by the ability of roller coasters to handle steep grades at high speeds, France’s national rail company, the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer (SNCF), began looking for ways to speed up trains. When SNCF touted the possibility of designing a faster train compatible with existing tracks and infrastructure, French government leaders scoffed at the idea, seeing more promise in building new tracks, such as magnetic levitation.
SNCF forged ahead anyway, adding gas turbines to pump up the propulsion power of existing trains, then redesigning the railcar in a more aerodynamic silhouette. And voilà: the bullet-shaped TGV.

574.8 kph

(357.1 mph)

Land-speed record that a TGV train set in 2007

Slow Zones

That early prototype became obsolete before it became reality. The gas turbine engine was jettisoned during the global oil crisis of the 1970s in favor of a fully electric model powered by overhead lines. SNCF’s two test models encountered significant problems during months of trials, resulting in more than 15,000 modifications. The team added rubber blocks under the primary suspension springs to keep the cabins from shaking at higher speeds. A final production model arrived in April 1980, and TGV service was rolled out the following year.

Within one year of its debut, TGV trains running the Paris-to-Lyon route had whisked 14 million passengers. Within three years, the share of air traffic along the route dropped from 31 percent to 7 percent, while the share of high-speed rail traffic surged from 40 percent to 72 percent.

Today, TGV has more than 110 million riders annually, running across France and into multiple countries. Extensive redesigns in the past several years have increased passenger space, reduced the trains’ carbon footprint and energy use, simplified maintenance and cut production costs—all part of SNCF’s plan to attract 15 million new high-speed train passengers by 2020.