The Automotrice à Grande Vitesse, or AGV for short, showed its long, silver-and-black nose to the public for the first time on Tuesday. With French President Nicolas Sarkozy in attendance, Alstom unveiled its new, fourth-generation high-speed train at its headquarters in La Rochelle.
The train-maker spent 10 years and €100 million ($147 million) to develop the AGV, which it compares with the Airbus's giant A380 jetliner in terms of innovation and its impact on the world of transportation.
The AGV is the new "miracle weapon" from a company that has built more than 70 percent of all the trains worldwide capable of traveling faster than 300 kilometers per hour (186 mph). Like the ICE3, built by Germany's Siemens conglomerate, the AGV is not driven by end cars, but has engines uniformly distributed under the individual coaches. This creates more space for passengers and enhances the train's performance. As a result, the AGV can carry up to 900 passengers at a speed of 360 km/h (224 mph), which is 40 km/h (25 mph) faster than the double-decker TGV trains that today carry 400 fewer passengers on the main French high-speed line between Paris and Lyon. The TGV is still driven by locomotives at the front and rear of the train. According to Alstom, the AGV is more energy-efficient, more robust and requires less maintenance than its predecessor generation.
In the spring of 2007, a test train employing AGV technology set a speed record for rail vehicles of 574.8 km/h (357.2 mph), putting it only six km/h (3.7 mph) behind the record set by Japan's magnetic levitation (maglev) train. The German ICE Velaro, which holds the speed record for series-production trains, already offers service between Madrid and Barcelona at 350 km/h (218 mph). Canadian aircraft and railcar manufacturer Bombardier also expects to achieve constant speeds of 350 km/h with its Zefiro project. The TGV, the French predecessor of the AGV, reaches speeds of 320 km/h (199 mph) during ordinary operation in the Champagne region.
Alstom Hoping for Global Orders
Unlike the TGV trains, Alstom developed the AGV without the participation of the French railroad company SNCF. "We developed this train with our own funds," says CEO Patrick Kron, adding that the AGV is intended for a wide range of export markets. In addition to the growing interest in fast rail connections in Europe, Alstom is betting on rising demand in countries like China, India, Brazil, the United States and Vietnam.
Even before it unveiled the AGV's prototype, Alstom signed a first export agreement for 25 trains, at a price of €650 million (in a deal worth €1.5 billion, including the maintenance contracts), with privately held Italian railway operator NTV, which plans to offer 300 km/h (186 mph) service between Milan and Naples beginning in 2011.
At home in France, Alstom is competing with Siemens and Bombardier for a giant €7-10 billion contract with SNCF, which wants to replace the old TGV, in service since 1981. Both SNCF and its German counterpart, Deutsche Bahn, plan to review all competitive bids when choosing high-speed trains in the future. On Monday, the Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper reported that Deutsche Bahn is considering bids from both Siemens and Alstom for an upcoming order of up to 15 high-speed trainsets.
Sarkozy stands by Alstom
President Sarkozy on Tuesday also defended the government bailout of Alstom he spearheaded in 2004, during his tenure as the country's economics minister. "The revival of Alstom is also the result of an important industrial policy decision," Sarkozy said. "It is a decision between a strong industry and a particular concept of competitive policy." Sarkozy believes that France should keep certain branches of industry in the country.
By providing Alstom with billions in government assistance in 2004, Sarkozy also prevented Siemens from acquiring parts of the company. This would have led to serious tensions between Paris and Berlin.