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The TGV Story
By John McKey, Pictures by John McKey, Ilkka Siissalo, Sanna Siissalo, Richard Oed, Pekka Siiskonen and Focalplane.

Welcome to the TGV Story page! This Visions article series tells the interesting story of the most famous and numerous super high speed train family.

TGV turbine powered prototype, Strasbourg, France  Page 1 SNCF BB9003 in Paris, France
  Part 1: Pre TGV Era of the 20th Century...
  Part 2: Testing with Turbine Powered TGV...
  Part 3: First High Speed Line Paris - Lyon...
  Part 4: Great Success of the Generation 1 TGV-PSE...
SNCF TGV-PSE unit 47 at Bellegarde, France   Part 5: TGV-PSE Today and Tomorrow...
  Part 6: TGV-LaPoste - the High Speed Postal Sets...  

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   Part 7: TGV-Atlantique and LGV-Atlantique...


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Part 1: Pre TGV Era of the 20th Century
SNCF CC7107 in Munich, Germany  

Year is 1955. It is easy to sense the excitement of a big sports event in the air watching the film on SNCF high speed experiments. Very little knowledge of requirements was in use despite the long preparation. SNCF had prepared two locomotives, one Jeumont-Schneider built Bo'Bo' class BB 9000 number 4 (9004) and another Alsthom (today Alstom) built Co'Co' class CC7100 number 7 (7107) for use. These both were worn out, thoroughly overhauled and their gearing changed better suited for the research for the high speed travel. And like with any sports event, truth was occasionally one the first things to sacrifice when you could do a good story on the French media.

Let us look at the background. France like Japan after the WW2 rebuilding period was in the need to show some positive signs and progress to their people. This time it was the French who got the first word. But also in Japan this experiment must have been closely watched, learning done from the mistakes and already in 1957 their long mothballed Shinkansen project was revealed. In France near Bordeaux the preparations continued in 1955, and the locos kept working their speed up and up day and week after another. The locomotives had one or more aerodynamically improved coaches trailing them, light enough load that would not alter much the results.

The test runs started for real on March 25th. By 28th the measurements were well above 300 km/h / 186 mph for the CC7107. The BB9004 ran 290 km/h / 180 mph on 29th and the CC7107 achieved the long standing world record of 331 km/h / 206 mph the same day. There is a debate on what the actual speeds of the locomotives achieved were. One version states that both locomotives achieved the exact same speed of 331 km/h. So you can pick your favorite version...

The tests ended with almost catastrophic results: long stretches of overhead lines were destroyed and needed to be rebuilt. It was also said that both the locomotives very nearly came to derail in those speeds! Also a section of the track needed heavy repairs. Every experiment has its price...

These locomotive world records were only broken in 2006 with a Taurus (Siemens Eurosprinter U2/U4) running 357 km/h / 220 mph. Looking at the results the French despite all their efforts must have seen they were not yet ready for the high speed era and lots of development work was still needed. In the early 1960s after the Japanese had realised their Shinkansen prestige project long discussions also ensued in France. As a result the concept of the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) was put forward. But that is another long story for the next article.

  Above the SNCF now vintage Alsthom built CC7107 record locomotive visiting Munich, Germany. It is seen pretty much in original condition, except for the tail lights and some other smaller details.

  Below a BB9004 record locomotive looking similar loco. The story goes so that the original locomotive 9004 was destoryed in fire, so the unit 9003 is actually said to be here playing the 9004 now! Looks like the truth can always be altered a little in France when need be... Here the locomotive is seen at Champs-Élysées in the center of Paris during a large train fair.
SNCF BB9003 in Paris, France


  Part 2: Testing the Turbine Prototype TGV001


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  Testing with Turbine Powered TGV

TGV turbine powered prototype, Strasbourg, France
After the test drives of the two locomotives in 1955 things progressed quite slowly but steadily. The next logical step was the building of a test vehicle. The planning and perfecting of technologies and components took the whole 1960s. In 1969 the French started building the first test train of the intended two. In 1972 the prototype train was finally finished. It was named simply as TGV001.

The letters TGV are a shortening of French Train à Grande Vitesse, the high speed train, that was used here for the first time. Earlier the TGV was found on Turbine Grance Vitesse - the previous high speed turbine test train. The vehicle already had a locomotive at each end, was shaped pretty much like the first generation TGV locomotives and had three intermediate trailers. According to the drawings one trailer was furnished for the fist class prototype seating, the middle one obviously for lab use and the trailer at the other end formed the second class. Everything was articulated together to achieve better train behavior. This articulation remains a well working feature of the TGV trailers even today.

TGV turbine powered prototype, Strasbourg, France
Looking back in the 1960s there was no need to conserve energy as energy was cheap and plentiful. So the French wished to create a relatively lightweight solution to power their high speed train. This lead to use of helicopter gas turbines at both ends locomotives. Turbines are both powerful, weigh little and small in size are actually quite easy to fit into the locomotive body. The TGV001 had plenty of power to to make its two locomotives and three intermediate cars fly: 7520 kW / 10 080 hp! The power of the other turbine equipped loco was raised to 4400 kW / 5900 hp. And the test vehicle only weighted half of the first generation electric TGVs with their 8 intermediate cars and 6450 kW / 8650 hp as a locomotives combined power. Looking at the first picture below you can actually see the TGV001 huge turbine air flow grilles on the right side of the locomotive body. Pay also attention to the structures of the test train. The production units built 6 years later looks a lot sturdier. The turbine powered TGV001 was finished with a very poor timing: just one year before the oil crisis hit the world. Without crises who knows if we could have travelled with TGV sets free of catenary wires? Or one that could run with and without wires? This was one of the plans as the turbine left a lot of empty room in the locomotives. But the inevitable crises lead to use the same energy source as in Japan: just using electricity was the second best option, with abundance of knowledge of exploiting it on rails. The era of the first generation TGVs as TGV-PSE started in 1978, when the first unit was accepted to regular use with a TGV service to be started in 1981. But that is another story and we have the high speed rail line (LGV) considerations to look at before going forward with the train sets. Pictures 1 and 2 are of the test train TGV001 (the first TGV with number 1), now located right next to the highway ramp in Strasbourg, France. Of the excellent third picture we can thank Richard Oed, who kindly provided it here so you can compare the details of the prototype and the first generation TGV-PSE, both wearing the same colors.
TGV-PSE unit 111 in Lausanne, Switzerland

Vision TGV story was created for by John McKey. Pictures by Ilkka Siissalo, Focalplane, Richard Oed and John McKey.

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  Part 3: Super high speed line considerations

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  Part 3: First High Speed Line Paris - Lyon

TGV-PSE unit 112 running at Renens, Switzerland
Starting the true high speed line building can be quite a political challenge because this stage always requires a lot of money, with no guarantee of return for investment according to opposition. The fund raising for a project this size always needs time and lots and lots of discussions. And even then years of lobbying work. Fortunately the French have always being into monumental building projects so go ahead was achieved.

And fortunately for the French they were adding a highly developed but compatible module to already existing rail system: the trains can use both high speed lines and conventional lines. The good news of this is that while the trains can dash through the high speed line, or LGV for the French, the routes beyond this part can be extended practically anywhere. For travellers any high speed section on the way means drastically reduced travel times. For travelling between Paris and Lyon, distance of over 500 kilometers, the high speed section of 409 kilometers / 254 miles meant travel times reduced from 6 hours to just over 2 hours. But for travellers on TGV from Paris to say Nice on the Mediterranean coast the savings was 4 hours too. As well as on any other station on the system.

Running on high speed Paris - Lyon LGV, France

In the late 1970s France was facing a difficult situation: the capacity of then main line south of Paris was saturating. No more trains could pass this congested line. Once there was a need for new line building why not create something clearly improved that would make the nation famous? The line was to follow much of the way Autoroute 6 south. I suppose the noise issues were well known even then. Running next to busy highway would mean that noise was limited to this corridor. And of course what a better way to advertise how inferior the cars were to super high speed trains in terms of travel speeds and comfort than to show every few minutes a train running by and overtaking the cars 150 km/h / 90 mph faster than their maximum speed! Or running the trains opposite direction so fast that it would be hard to follow them with eyes. This running next to highway however had a few challenges:

1. First, many roads curve differently from what rail lines do. The curves at railroads tend to have much larger minimum curve radius than roads. This was solved and all except seven curves are a minimum of 4000 meters / 13'000 feet.
2. Second challenge was that the road in the relatively hilly areas have a tendency to have steep inclines. Fortunately the super high speed trains are mighty powerful, so the decision was reached to allow climbs of up to 4,3%! For any normal train this would be quite a challenge, but not for the super fast super powerful TGV units.

Running on high speed Paris - Lyon LGV, France

The decision for the LGV-PSE was made in 1971 and the actual construction work on the 16 square kilometers of track area started in 1976. Besides the challenges posed by the route, there were also technical issues, like how could a train switch from one side of the line to another fast enough. I think the French developed in process the worlds first switches for running 220 km/h / 137 mph, a formidable invention considering that the passenger comfort should not be sacrificed while running through the switch and what happens if the switch does not work properly. Another "new" development were the frequent sidings for broken down trains. For a line with much traffic it was seen as important to minimize the effects of this kind of equipment failure.

Yet, the TGVs have proven to be quite reliable so little were the sidings needed. Also the conventional lines were upgraded to 200 km/h and 220 km/h (125/137 mph) running, too little for high speed but these would serve as a means to get the passengers to their destination when something occurred on the LGV-PSE. Like a thunderstorm putting out all electricity. The TVM300 train control systems must have been employed from the beginning. The fleet dashing up to 2500 kilometers/unit/day were the orange-blue-gray TGV-PSEs.

Vision TGV story was created for by John McKey. Pictures by Ilkka Siissalo, Focalplane, Richard Oed and John McKey.

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  Part 4: First Generation French Super High Speed Train, the TGV-PSE and Great Success Story...

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  Part 4: Great Success of the First Generation TGV-PSE

TGV units at Gare du Nord, Paris, France
The First two of the legendary TGV trains for production use rolled from the assembly line on July 28th 1978. Nicknamed as "Patrick" TGV-PSE unit 01 and "Sophie" TGV-PSE unit 02 the trains run a very thorough test program and it was said that over 15'000 modification were made to the units! TGV-PSE stands for "Train a Grande Vitesse - Paris Sud-Est" or "grand speed train" for area Southeast of Paris.

There is some confusion on the number of the units that were manufactured until 1986, but I would say after studying a number of sources that 109 is the most likely number. 100 units were built for the DC 1500V and 25 kV 50Hz and 9 units for the DC 1500V + 25 kV 50 Hz + 15 kV 16,7 Hz overhead electricity. The French "traditional" overhead electrified lines used and in many places still use direct current of 1500 volts. The new high speed lines were built for the now quite standard 25 kV (25'000 volts) 50 Hz (the direction of the current changes 50 times per second). 15 kV (for TGV-PSE) is used in Switzerland which started AC (alternating current) electrification earlier. Basically with higher voltages the energy can be transferred more efficiently between the source and the locomotive.

With the 25 kV to power the train they could initially run 270 km/h (168 mph), quite satisfactory flying on the ground for beginnings in the 1980s I can tell! Now the remaining units are mostly good for 300 km/h (186 mph) to be better compatible with the newer models. (A unit running slower than others the high speed lines always causes problems and delays for the faster units, so it is important to synchronize the speeds with faster units, TGV-PSE running slightly faster and many other TGVs a little bit slower than normally). Most units have been equipped both with first and second classes but initially there also were 4 units with just 1st class om board. The economical elite has always been generously supplied with the super high speed trains.

SNCF TGV-PSE unit 47 at Bellegarde, France
Most trains were refurbished around year 2000 and received the new paint of silver and blue they mostly wear today. Each TGV-PSE virtual EMU consists of two locomotives at both ends and 8 trailers, all blending together almost seamlessly. The first three (instead of the usual two for TGV) bogies are powered, 4 axles of the locomotive and the first bogies at the ends of the trailers. With the initial design and today's TGV units the designers must have had a strong emphasis on the safety:

  • The locomotive at both ends act as a very efficient ram when ever the need has rises, and it has, several times.
  • For the derailments the trailers are connected together by articulation and have been assembled so they won't zig zag. Again after real life tests, a great success story.
  • Besides for safety features the two locomotives provide some redundancy. If one of them should fail on the way, the train still can make its way ahead, albeit slower than normally with 50% power missing.
  • Also the kind of articulated bogie used (and widely copied later) runs great on any track.

SNCF TGV-PSE near Nissan in southern France

  Part 5: Today and Future of the TGV-PSE Fleet...

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  Part 5: The First Generation TGV-PSE Today and Tomorrow

The French TGV-PSE have had exceptionally long life span for the first generation high tech train. The operator SNCF celebrated two years ago 30 years mark for the units.

The picture below is showing a 25 years sticker on the nose of the TGV-PSE locomotive.

SNCF TGV-PSE unit 47 at Bellegarde, France

Now however there are signs that the operator SNCF is looking for different choices for the fleet. So far these have been:
0) Refurbish the units to slightly less crowded services
1) Abandon fleet and scrap it
2) Sell the units to secondary use
3) Use them by SNCF on slower less demanding service
4) Keep the units as spares at intermediate stations
5) Create a TGV-Parcel fleet The major milestones that have happened earlier might shed some light to the fate of the TGV-PSEs.

Around the year 2000 most of the units received refurbishing and all at least new silver-blue paint replacing the old orange-gray-dark blue. By this time the 270 km/h (168 mph) units were hopelessly slow compared with the rest of the fleet and were actually hurting SNCF TGV services image and service level. As a result most units received TVM430 train control system to replace the older TVM300. This feature has been said to be installed to the whole fleet by 2012. The change enabled the running 300 km/h (186 mph), a small change, but still significant, because the newer 320 km/h (199 Mph, occasionally even 340 km/h (211 mph)) running units like TGV-POS did not have to run 50 km/h (31 mph) slower than normally, but just 20 km/h (13 mph) slower. The 10% increase was well within tolerance levels for the TGV-PSE units kept in good running order.

SNCF TGV-PSe unit 70 in orange at La Plaine, France
But this could still not make the units match with the newer trains in some technical issues:
- no pressurization, when meeting another train there is a pressure wave, TGV-PSE are not shielding passengers from the effect of this. Many newer trains (including all other TGVs) are.
- seat capacity issues, comparing with the TGV-Réseau these show 8% increase (depending where you start) in carried number of passengers the train unit being of the same length single floor style.
- mass, between the TGV-PSE and TGV-Réseau the mass has actually decreased about 7 metric tons, again depending where you start (each rebuilding phase affects the figures).
- electricity, the TGV-PSE trivoltage units are surprisingly low powered under the 15 kV catenary wires:
-- on 25kV: 6450 kW (8646 Hp)
-- on 15kV: 2800 kW (3807 Hp)
-- on 1500V: 3100 kW (4215 Hp)

Newer generation AC locos:
-- on 25kV: 9280 KW (12617 Hp)
-- on 15kV: 6880 kW (9354 Hp)
-- on 1500V: 3680 kW (5003 Hp)

Which means the acceleration can be quite slow in Switzerland and Germany. Switzerland as destination has been on the daily schedule from almost the beginning.

SNCF TGV-PSE at Malpas tunnel near Nissan inIn 2010 the fleet renovation program for 60 TGV-PSE units was discussed and SNCF actually ordered this for 60 units. It is unclear what happened after this but this refurbishing program looks to be first postponed and then altered.

Some happenings and considerations:
-- In 2011 two carmillion colored TGV-PSEs appeared, from two separate SNCF own maintenance plants. One of these had at the time received also internal refurbishing (the current curvy SNCF style seats) etc. while the other unit was just technically maintained, painted and waited for the internal changes. Two others were on the list to be started soon.
-- In 2012 I spotted carmillion colored TGV-Réseau (similar (=same concept) generic single level TGV, only newer) and of course the thought is that _maybe_ the SNCF wanted to use its resources on refurbishing these newer trains instead. TGV-Réseau new "Carmillion" livery, Nice, France
-- A number of parked TGV-PSEs has been spotted around French station in 2013, most likely acting as backup in case of an unit failure. SNCF often has some "spare" units sitting at the bigger stations just in case. Like Nice seems to have one TGV-Duplex parked at freight terminal just outside the station. And there might be other vacant units from time to time too at the passenger station service tracks. The TGV traffic is so dense it is hard to tell which units are being stored until needed and which are just being serviced.
-- There was a demonstration run from continental European cities to London for one TGV-LaPoste unit in 2012. The current TGV-PSE fleet could easily and probably inexpensively be converted to freight hauling. But: what are the costs of super high speed freight hauling, even with train sets readily available. Could the costs be justified by replacing some of the airliner fleet by these trains? The discussion has been going on for over a decade now with no conclusions, I suppose no one wishes to take the risk to be the first and either to make a great success, modest success or some economical losses. Visibility is guaranteed on this kind of enterprise and this can be also improved by large adds on the train.
-- since the SNCF has now a big fleet of double decked TGVs available, the costs per seat/kilometer much lower than on single story units, they are inclined to use these instead. Also, like pointed out on discussion about the LGV-PSE (Southwest of Paris, Paris - Lyon) when the line is saturating, there is no room for single story units any more, except outside the busy hours.
-- The TGV-PSE as first generation trains must have higher servicing costs than later production units.
-- There has now been a suggestion about mowing some of the TGV-PSE to replace the loco hauled trains on slower 200/220 km/h (125/137 mph) lines outside the crowded areas.
SNCF TGV-PSE unit 45 stopping at Nice Ville, France

We will see some changes in the TGV-PSE fleet within a year or two, as soon as the European economy catches some momentum again. Below a study of the battered trivoltage unit 114. It is carrying the signs of SBB AG of Switzerland on its sides.

SBB TGV-PSE unit 114 seen at Paris Gare de Lyon, France

SBB TGV-PSE unit 114 seen at Paris Gare de Lyon, France

SBB TGV-PSE unit 114 seen at Paris Gare de Lyon, France

  Part 6: TGV-LaPoste Fleet for the French Postal Services...

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  Part 6: TGV-LaPoste - the High Speed Postal Sets

Postal TGV locomotive number 2 in front of a passenger TGV, Geneve, Switzerland
When you have a highly popular and successful service, everyone around you wants to take part of it. Countries around France started to consider their high speed plans more seriously after the French success. And within France a concept of Postal TGV unit was born.

This unit was based on TGV-PSE but lacked passenger windows and was organized as half train sets. The half train usage was for the time a new innovation, if not enough mail delivery items were regularly on board the French could actually use a half units equipped with a TGV trailer bogie like structure at the end. And half sets meant too that there could be more destinations than with using the whole trains. Unfortunately there are no pictures of this contraption here to publish. But fortunately there are two excellent pictures of the early LaPoste unit in Geneve, Switzerland.
Postal TGV locomotive number 2 in front of a passenger TGV, Geneve, Switzerland The fleet originally consisted of five half units that could be assembled to 2 whole trains plus a half unit to use as such. Another 2 x 0,5 units were added in 1991 of the wrecked TGV unit 38 plus probably some left overs from other accidents / spares. All of these units still run mail and parcels at 270 km/h (168 mph) though some sources quote 300 km/h (186 mph). At night this slightly lower top speed does not cause much problems like it would during the day, but since many parts of French high speed lines are said to close for maintenance at night this is more of concern during the night operations.

The main directions where TGV-LaPoste normally run are from Paris to Macon and Cavaillon, both Southeast of Paris. The SNCF is operating these trains. The TGV-LaPoste sets are and have always been very easy to spot because their bright yellow postal color. Just the postal brand marks have changed during the years but not the color.

Looking a little further to the future of this type of units can be seen as a very interesting way of delivering post and parcels. There has been some doubts about this kind of activity earlier, but not recently. Quite contrary, there is even more interest withing the parcel community who would like to see this as a device to move parcels fast between the European bigger cities. A demonstration run was made in 2012 from continental cities to London to market the concept. But since it has been again quiet again. If many the older TGV-PSE sets soon end up to the aftermarkets, these might well be suitable for this kind of use, just like the older airliners are often recycled to parcel use. Who knows, maybe this is a start for the era of the super high speed parcel trains?
TGV LaPoste somewhere on the way, south of Paris, France

  Part 7: Next Phase: the TGV-Atlantique...

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TGV story continues on page 2...

© Railroad Reference 2004 - 2013   -   Created 5.2.2013 John McKey, Updated 27.7.2013