Season 2 / (Very, very) high-speed trains

Episode 1 -  Two centuries in pursuit of speed

Unable to find the right economic model, hampered by regulation and wrongly supported by automobile manufacturers, the flying car really does seem like a distant reality. Above all because it looks like it’s fundamentally incompatible with our era.

Have you already read an article on a new record plane speed? Probably not, or if you have, it may have been about the test of a new supersonic model that’s supposed to replace the Concorde between Paris and New York, burning tonnes and tonnes and tonnes of CO2. By contrast, it’s not unusual to read about new record speeds for trains on front pages around the world. Wondering why this might be? Quite simply because the pursuit of speed is an essential component of the railway identity.

Unlike cars and planes, held back by safety and economic concerns respectively, trains have never slowed down. “The railways and the pursuit of speed have been intertwined since the train was first invented”, Clive Lamming tells Midnight Trains. The author of more than 200 books on the subject, including Larousse des Trains, explains further: “You’ve got to understand that it was speed that attracted an incredible number of passengers to trains when it largely served to carry coal.” And you can see why: the amount of time saved by taking trains was not to be sniffed at. “A journey between Paris and Marseille was suddenly cut down from 20 days to 20 hours. No other means of transport had offered such a stark drop in travel times”, adds Lamming. Gradually, faced with growing demand, railway firms accepted more and more passengers. And that was in spite of the reticence of the Englishman George Stephenson, widely considered as the inventor of the modern railway, and a man who wanted to give priority to freight. “They’ll travel at the speed of coal!”, he declared at the time.

The pursuit of speed never stopped: to carry more coal and more passengers, more trains were needed, and to allow more trains to circulate, they had to go faster. And this all happened very fast indeed. “Freight and omnibus passenger trains went from 20 km/h to 60 km/h between 1830 and 1900, and some conventional passenger trains even reached a decent 100 km/h in the 1890s, and this was true of many trains by the start of World War I,” Lamming explains on his blog. He continues: “From the end of the nineteenth century, 100km/h was the general European standard for most superior passenger trains.” Having hit an average speed of between 120 km/h between the two wars, the trains soon got even faster: “Between the 1960s and 1980s, you were talking speeds of between 160 km/h and 200 km/h. The TGV of the 1980s to 2000s took things to 260/270 km/h, then 300km/h, and very recently, new heights were reached with the 320km/h TGV Est, inaugurated in 2007.

Such ridiculous speeds allow today’s trains to end up quicker than the plane (when you take into account journeys to and from the airport, security checks, waiting times and so on) over distances of less than 1,000 kilometres. Lamming says this relates to the idea of the ‘Vitesse Optimale Economique’, or ‘Optimal Economic Speed’. “It was Jean-Marc Dupuy, former director of SNCF, who promoted this idea. It consists of saying that trains should go fast enough to draw people away from planes, but no faster than that”, he adds. This Optimal Economic Speed could still evolve, especially in a world where the environmental crisis has encouraged many passengers to give up on the plane, especially over shorter distances. After all, if trains were to travel at 1,000 km/h, we would probably more readily take them to travel to Eastern Europe or the Middle East. Better still, if night trains were to travel at such a speed, we could perhaps travel from EUrope to China without even taking to the skies.

To reach such speeds, there are several technological routes you could go down. The first is simply speeding up our good old TGVS further and further, because as Lamming reminds us, tests of up to 574.8 km/h have been carried out successfully since 2007. “It seems that the limits of the wheel/rail system haven’t been reached”, he says, before adding that it would require more solid train structures and carriages with only driving wheels. The second that immediately springs to mind is that of the Maglev, or Magnetic Levitation Trains. At once very old and almost non-existent on the global railway network, this technology showed its incredible potential when it carried passengers at 607 km/h in 2015 with the SCMaglev, with a commercial rollout confirmed for 2027. The third is none other than Elon Musk’s Hyperloop: capsules propelled in tubes at more than 1,200 km/h. With no successful tests having been carried out so far, the project has even been dubbed a “massive techno-industrial swindle” by François Lacôte, the former CTO of Alstom and a big personality in the railway world.

In the midst of this frenetic technological race, there is one further alternative, something that’s a little less showy and much more discreet: expanding high-speed infrastructure across a much larger network. In fact, wouldn’t a European or even Eurasian network allowing trains to travel between 300 and 500 km/h be enough to kill off competition from the flight sector? Above all, because why not, if sleeper trains could travel at this speed too? Wouldn’t it be wiser to expand what we have and know already rather than start building a brand-new network of far-fetched tubes or Maglevs? Wouldn’t it be more environmentally friendly and simply more practical? Because while all the technologies mentioned above may seem quite different, they still have one issue in common: it wouldn’t be possible for any of them to run on our current railways. Rolling them out at a large scale would therefore involve building a heck of a lot of new infrastructure too. Would that even be possible? And how long would it take if so? We’ll be exploring the subject further next week.

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