Trains of the Future Is France's Energy-Guzzling TGV Prototype the Right Answer?

As Tuesday's record-breaking TGV run in France illustrates, trains are traveling faster than ever before. But at what point will ever-increasing speeds make high-speed rail unsafe and environmentally unfriendly?


The record-breaking TGV V150: Frivolously advanced train technology

The record-breaking TGV V150: Frivolously advanced train technology

Trains will never travel as fast as commercial air planes -- that's a certainty. But certainty can be challenged -- as French train company SNCF has consistently demonstrated.

On Tuesday, SNCF set a new world speed record on rail when a special TGV train barrelled down new tracks east of Paris, reaching a top speed of 574.8 kilomters (357 miles) per hour. The previous record of 515.3 kilometers per hour had also been set by a French TGV train.

The aim of the record high-speed train trip on Tuesday, according to an official statement by French TGV manufacturer Alstom, was to demonstrate the "highly promising future in the domain of very high-speed rail transport." But more than anything else, the lightning-fast race down the tracks merely illustrated just how frivolously advanced train technology can be put to use. No railway company in the world is seriously considering putting trains that travel at such high speeds into regular passenger service.

The French spent no small amount of money on the spectacle. The electricity required to operate the train strained the rail line's power grid almost to the breaking point. The overhead electrical lines and a large part of the train's propulsion system "can for all intents and purposes be junked" after a trip like Tuesday's, an engineer at the German train manufacturer Siemens claims.

A costly joyride

All told, the conspicuous high-speed trip is believed to have cost Alstom, SNCF and train track owner RFF about €30 million ($40 million). For the trip, the French built a customized TGV with strengthened end cars and extra power that came from underfloor engines in the middle wagon. The total output of about 20 megawatts is more than twice that of the most powerful trains currently in use. Of course, there's a basic law of physics at play here: When speed doubles, drag quadruples -- and energy consumption rises accordingly.

The energy-devouring high-speed train is symptomatic of France's relationship to railway technology, which is shaped less by an ecological conscience than by sheer faith in technological progress.

When SNCF introduced the first high-speed trains back in 1981, it had a head start on German national railway Deutsche Bahn -- which only started service on its ICE trains a decade later. The introduction last month of new tracks connecting Paris with Strasbourg in eastern France has extended the French high-speed rail network to a total length of almost 2,000 kilometers. By comparison, Germany -- where numerous low mountain ranges and the bureaucratic jungle that comes with the country's federalist system obstruct railroad planning -- has only about 1,000 kilometers of high-speed tracks, leaving the country with a network that is far from complete.

This often makes Deutsche Bahn and train-builders Siemens and Bombardier look a bit shabby compared to Germany's western neighbor. Indeed, many in the German industry looked to Tuesday's record-breaking trip with a corresponding degree of displeasure. Ansgar Brockmeyer, who is responsible for trainsets at Siemens, takes snipes at the project, noting that "only protoypes or specially equipped test vehicles" were used.

The transportation division of German-based engineering and electrical engineering giant Siemens does at least hold its own world record -- in the area of serially produced trains. The Velaro E, an updated version of the most recent Intercity Express (ICE) train, achieved a top speed of 403.7 kilometers per hour about six months ago. When it goes into service, it will travel between Madrid and Barcelona at maximum speeds of 350 kilometers an hour -- a world record for scheduled passenger service.

The Velaro is equipped with 8.8 megawatts of propulsive capacity, 10 percent more than the sister model ICE3, which is in use in Germany. This propulsive capacity allows the Velaro to travel the 625 kilometer distance between Madrid and Barcelona in two-and-a-half hours. Air travel will likely end soon on this route as has happened when travel times have been massively reduced between other major cities by high-speed rail, like Berlin and Hamburg -- to the benefit of both the environment and the climate.

Siemens estimates that the train, assuming it is carrying an average load of passegners, will emit only 30 kilograms of carbon dioxide per passenger. The figure for air travel along the same route is 85 kilograms per passenger.

But how much faster can trains travel before they lose their benefits for the environment? Aerodynamics experts at the German Aerospace Center (DLR), the country's space agency, believe the acceptable limits of technical viability are reached at a speed of about 400 kilometers per hour.


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