Posted by: Jerry Garrett | October 25, 2009

France’s TGV Trains: A Promise Derailed


“So this is the famous TGV?” I muttered, as my shoes slid through urine on the floor of the only working toilet, for four cars on our end of the train. “Never mind.” I returned to my grimy fabric-covered seat, and watched the scenery crawl by, through dirt-streaked windows.

The high-speed TGV trains in France are often held up as examples of rail systems that should be emulated.

Many in the United States believe such systems should be built on potential high-traffic routes, like Los Angeles to San Francisco, for instance. The thinking is these speedy trains could be viable, environmentally friendly alternatives not only to automobile travel on those routes, but also to commercial aircraft.

In theory, ultra high-speed trains are a great idea. Trains such as Japan’s Shinkansen bullet trains and the TGV can streak along at hundreds of miles an hour. But, in my experience, they don’t do that as much as they could – or should. The TGV is the most egregious example of this that I have recently found.

My train, from Paris to Turin, Italy, was scheduled for more than 5½ hours. It was a trip that should have taken a TGV train no more than three.

There were numerous reasons why this train did not run at the speed of which it was capable. First, in Italy, the train is not allowed to travel at TGV speeds. (It wasn’t even allowed to stop in the main train station; we were dumped off at a tiny suburban tram stop.) Second, in long sections of France, the train is also not permitted to travel at TGV velocity, because of such things as poor maintenance, over-crowded routes, municipal jurisdictions along the route that impose speed limits, and trackage that won’t support TGV speeds.

Yes, some TGV routes are operated at higher levels of service, but on the Paris-Turin (and on to Milan and Venice) route, a train capable of over 200 m.p.h. rocks along at 20-30 m.p.h. speeds for many, many miles.

The experience is made that much more unbearable by obsolete designs (not enough bathrooms, for one, even when operable), less than state-of-the-art mechanical and safety systems, indifferent employees and shameful maintenance.

Plans are in place for billions of euros in upgrades to this route that would allow the TGV to run at open throttle most of the way.

But in addition to suitable trackage, the politicians must clear the tracks of petty local bureaucrats and their not-in-my-backyard meddling. Train system employees must perform their duties to a higher standard. And the proper amounts of money must be budgeted to keep the trains maintained, serviced and updated.

Otherwise, the vaunted TGV system ain’t a whole lot different than Amtrak.

Jerry Garrett

October 24, 2009


  1. It makes no sense to have in place the ability to offer fast, efficient public transportation for business and tourism and not make it a priority by spending the necessary funds and creating the “experience” that justifies public confidence in an alternative to driving.

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