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image image image Date published: 28/08/02
  image High-speed Europe
RTD info 34
  The high-speed train has certainly changed the image of rail transport and brought Europe’s major centres closer together. Judging by its success, the TGV is the most suitable mode of transport for linking densely populated areas over distances of up to 900 km.

The Japanese were the pioneers. In 1964, the Tokyo Olympic Games were the starting of the high-speed train with the launch of the Tokkaido, a conventional train linking Tokyo and Osaka at a speed of 210 km/hr. Three years later, the Capitole, linking Paris and Toulouse, reached a comparable speed following technical changes to the line. In 1970, Italy started building the Rome-Florence Direttissima designed for trains travelling at 250 km/hr. But it was not until 1981, after a new world record of 380 km/hr had been set, that the TGV first made the Paris to Lyons run in 2h40 (down to two hours now), knocking an hour and ten minutes off the previous time.

Competing for records

Since then, France has continued to concentrate on expanding its TGV network, achieving ever better performances. On 18 May 1990, TGV Atlantique's 325 clocked up a speed of 515.3 km/hr, setting a new world speed record for rail. Today, Paris is just 55 minutes from Le Mans (TGV Atlantique), 1h25 from Brussels (TGV Nord) and 2h55 from Marseilles (TGV Mediterranean).

Other countries have joined the race. In Italy, the new generation of ETR 500s, able to carry 590 passengers at speeds of 300 km/hr, replaced the famous Pendolino, a tilting train running at 250 km/hr on specially adapted lines between Rome and Naples, and Bologna and Florence, Milan, Turin and Lyons. In Germany, the ICE 3 trains reach speeds of 330 km/hr on the Hanover-Waurzburg, Hanover-Berlin, and Mannheim-Stuttgart lines. The high-speed rail link between Madrid (AVE) and Seville, inaugurated on the occasion of the 1992 international exhibition, uses rolling stock which resembles the French TGV and which is made at the Alstom workshops in Belfort, but is designed for a different track width (1 688 mm).

The major European project for the future is to further expand this high-speed rail grid by connecting up more and more networks. More than 2 000 km of line are currently under construction or at the planning stage, most notably between Brussels and Liège, Cologne and Frankfurt, Madrid and Barcelona, Rome and Naples, Nyland and Umeå (Sweden), and between the exit to the Channel Tunnel and London. A growing number of new cross-border links are beginning to weave the fabric of a genuine continental rail area.

The tilting train

The tilting train ( able to run on conventional lines ( is also attracting interest in many countries. The technology is based on hydraulic suspension systems which enable the train to take bends at speeds of up to 30% higher, without any discomfort to passengers. This results in time-savings of between 10% and 20% on inter-regional and inter-city networks, at one-fifth of the cost of building the new infrastructure necessary for high-speed trains.

The Pendolino in Italy and the ICE T in Germany both use this system, while in the United Kingdom Virgin is using this technology to modernise its fleet, on the London-Glasgow line for example. A similar solution has been adopted on the Helsinki to Turku line in Finland and between Lisbon and Porto in Portugal.

France is trying to adapt tilting technology to its TGV, but this is not easy as TGV carriages form a fixed set, with no more than one degree difference in the tilt between them. 'To allow the carriages to tilt one after the other as the train takes the bend, this angle must be increased, which involves adapting the intercirculation ring that couples them,' says the SNCF. 'The bogies also have to be fitted with a crosspiece and pistons able to tilt the train body.' Despite these obstacles, the first tilting TGV is expected to be running on the Paris-Orléans-Limoges-Toulouse line by 2005.

Service, environment, safety

Although there are, no doubt, some who dream of trains achieving even higher speeds, this is not a realistic prospect. Noise, vibration, the cost of maintaining the track and rolling stock, and energy consumption (up by 50% for an increase in train speed from 300 km/hr to 360 km/hr) would all increase excessively for just a marginal time-saving.

'The high-speed train system has itself arrived at a certain technical balance,' explains Phlippe Renard, head of the SNCF's Research and Technology Department. 'But we are continuing to work on optimising energy consumption, power collection, passenger comfort, on-board services and noise reduction.'

Research on noise pollution is concentrating on the penetration of the train's nose through the air to reduce the aerodynamic noise which becomes particularly problematic at speeds of over 300 km/hr. It is possible to streamline the zones of turbulence ( the bogies supporting the wheels ( but care is needed not to interfere with the ventilation to avoid overheating. Considerable progress has been made as the latest TGVs are no noisier than a conventional train travelling at 160km/hr. At a distance of 25 metres, the noise from a TGV line does not exceed 65 decibels (dB), or the equivalent of the raise level from a road with light traffic.

'I am convinced that with the high-speed train Europe has invented a suitable transport system,' concludes Philippe Renard. 'The system is appropriate for the size of the continent, its population density and transport needs between urban areas lying a few hundred or at most a thousand kilometres apart.'


High speed in figures

2 500 km of dedicated lines, in France (1 147km), Germany (510 km), Spain (377), Italy (259), and Belgium (74). (Figures for 2000)

147.4 million (1999) ( compared with 277.4 million in Japan. 58.7 billion passengers per km (2000)

€1.5 billion, of which the SNCF accounts for two-thirds.

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More than just a train

The technological feats of the TGV involve more than just speed. Extending the French network to Brussels and London, for example, meant designing a new kind of pantograph (the arm in contact with the electric lines) able to capture currents at voltage levels which change every time the train crosses a border. The Eurostar pantographs capture a 25 000-volt monophase current between Paris and the Channel Tunnel exit, a 3 000-volt continuous current in Belgium, and a 750-volt current by means of side friction blocks in contact with a third rail in the United Kingdom. The 16 sensors fitted beneath the train also enable it to use four (or six on some lines) different signalling and speed control systems. Finally, the rolling stock had to be 'slimmed down' to lock into the British track, designed for narrower trains than in France.

Unlike other trains, the TGV also operates according to the carriage set principle: each train consists of fixed carriage sets of the same number of coaches (eight or ten), always coupled in the same order, and with a railcar at each end allowing it to travel in either direction. This system saves considerable time when manoeuvring or 'building' a train. With 18 carriages, the Eurostar is able to divide into two in the event of an incident in the Channel Tunnel, to evacuate passengers along the undamaged section of line.

Another special feature is that the TGV is the sole user of the high-speed lines. The track is for its exclusive use and no freight or express train can cause it to slow from its 300 km/hr. Every day, 770 TGVs travel on this dedicated network. The timing is calculated down to the nearest second, and there is always at least four minutes between the passage of two TGVs at any given point to guarantee passenger safety and train punctuality.

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Passenger's side © SNCF - CAV - MICHEL URTADO

Passenger’s side
© SNCF – CAV –


Driver’s side
© SNCF – CAV –

Eurostar - The Beussingue section © SNCF - CAV - Jean-Jacques D'ANGELO

Eurostar – The Beussingue
© SNCF – CAV –
Jean-Jacques D'ANGELO

Testing the tilting TGV between Melun and Montereau (France) © SNCF - CAV - Jean-Marc FABRO

Testing the tilting TGV between Melun and Montereau (France)
© SNCF – CAV – Jean-Marc FABRO

The ETR 460, an Italian tilting train, coming out of a bend. © SNCF - CAV - Fiat Ferroviaria

The ETR 460, an Italian
tilting train, coming
out of a bend.
© SNCF – CAV –
Fiat Ferroviaria


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