FEAR gripped the nerves of at least two newspaper correspondents on board trainset V150 as it streaked at over 500 km/h along France's yet to open TGV Est Européen line on April 3. The tension grew until speed peaked at the staggering figure of 574·8 km/h, with fear turning swiftly to elation as the train began to decelerate.
Whatever emotions may have been felt by the engineering teams on board the V150 trainset as it tore towards its triumphant moment, fear was not among them. What distinguished this remarkable exploit from the previous speed record of 515·3 km/h achieved by TGV Set 325 on May 18 1990 was the immense confidence that the engineers had in their own creation. Not only were they prepared to let 105 people ride the train on its record-breaking attempt, but they sanctioned live TV coverage of the entire adventure.
The risks may have been high, but they were calculated and fully controlled. As Alstom Transport President Philippe Mellier said after the record-breaker had arrived to a tumultuous reception at Champagne-Ardenne station, 'we knew we could do it - I was absolutely convinced'.
Indeed, it seems that the train could have gone even faster. One engineer on board the record-breaker insisted that no technical limits had been approached, and Mellier told journalists that it was 'certainly possible to cross the 600 km/h barrier' - the difficulty was that such a speed would be close to the limit where the train 'catches up with the wave in the catenary, which is like breaking the sound barrier'.
The official objective of reaching a speed of 150 m/s (540 km/h) was comfortably exceeded, and a notional limit of 575 km/h proved to be easily within reach. François Lacôte, Technical Director of Alstom Transport, confirmed that there was no intention to go beyond 575 km/h in an attempt to equal or exceed the 581 km/h twice attained by a maglev vehicle in Japan in December 2003. In his view, this could have led to a pointless speed contest. The 574·8 km/h sufficed to ensure that France was top of the league in terms of trains running on steel wheels.
The day had commenced with TGV set 533 leaving Paris Est at 10.00. On board were VIPs and selected media who were to ride the record breaker. Rendezvous was duly made with V150 at Prény near Metz, start of the high speed test section on TGV Est Européen, and final preparations began for the record attempt scheduled to start at 13.01 the time was chosen specifically to permit live TV coverage on lunchtime news bulletins.
Meanwhile, a second TGV had left Paris Est at 10.51, conveying more guests and journalists to Champagne-Ardenne station where a media centre and reception area had been set up in a temporary structure overlooking the platform where V150 was due to arrive at 13.30 after its record dash.
At Km 264 near Prény the countdown was starting for V150's record attempt. Taking their seats on board were SNCF President Anne-Marie Idrac and Chief Executive Guillaume Pépy, RFF President Hubert du Mesnil, Philippe Mellier, François Lacôte and European Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot.
Live TV transmission began at 12.22 - a battery of cameras was in place to ensure maximum coverage with 10 small and three large cameras on board the train, five trackside cameras in the zone where the record was expected, one camera in an Aérospatiale Corvette jet aircraft following the train, and two more cameras at the points of arrival and departure. SNCF press officer Philippe Mirville excitedly interviewed key personnel and engineers on board before the cameras turned on Daniel Beylot, Head of the V150 project at SNCF's Rolling Stock division.
With final checks completed, at 13.00 Beylot orders the departure of working no 093.002. Acknowledgement follows from the cab where driver Eric Pieczak is at the controls at his side are Traction Inspector Georges Pinquié and Claude Maro, Head of SNCF's Traction department.
The train eases away from Prény and those on board quickly appreciate that the rapid acceleration means that this is no ordinary train. Yet one more manoeuvre needs to be completed before the record spurt can begin. The pantograph has to be lowered at Km 255 where a neutral section separates the 25 kV catenary from the main test zone, which is fed at 31 kV from the substation at Trois Domaines.
By 13.05 the pantograph is raised again and the speed display shows acceleration akin to an aircraft taking off. I note down the location where 200 km/h is reached: Km 252. At Km 246 the train has reached 300 km/h and by Km 241 the 400 km/h barrier is passed. Still V150 gathers speed, with 500 km/h attained at Km 220.
Shots from the camera on the roof show a continuous arc at the pantograph on the contact wire, while another camera placed next to a wheel confirms that the ride is rock steady. Applause breaks out as 515 km/h is passed at Km 218.
Meuse TGV station appears, and V150 roars through the pointwork at around 535 km/h. It is 13.10. The airborne camera captures the train rocketing through the countryside with hundreds of spectators at the lineside and on bridges. Behind the arcing pantograph a dust storm rises in the wake of the streaking missile.
There is more applause as speed shoots past the official objective of 540 km/h. Excitement mounts at 550 km/h and there is more clapping. In a blur of figures 574·6 km/h flashes on to the screens - and this, by common consent, appears to be the record for the history books.
Around 13.30 V150 draws on schedule into the platform at Champagne-Ardenne where, inevitably, champagne is already flowing. Idrac, du Mesnil, Mellier and other guests disembark for photographs and interviews in front of the train. A press conference follows at which Idrac emphasises the human dimension of a remarkable technical exploit. I-télé TV presenter Nathalie Ianetta talks to Barrot - whom she describes as the fastest Commissioner on Earth' - and he assures her that there was no more movement on board V150 than in his office. At 14.20 comes the official announcement - the record speed is declared to be 574·8 km/h.
In due course V150 glides out of the platform and is replaced by another TGV. Guests returning to Paris are ushered aboard.
As the train hums towards Paris, the V150 team offers one final French flourish to end the day. Slowly trainset V150 draws alongside, and the pair run parallel at the future line speed of 320 km/h. The triumphant finale draws to a close as V150 slows to return to its home at the Technicentre Est Européen.
Reactions round the world
NO-ONE would deny that the event was a huge publicity stunt for SNCF, Alstom and French industry generally.
With exports clearly in mind, guests and media had been invited from North America, Argentina and Brazil, and headlines duly appeared in newspapers across the world.
Messages of congratulation were received from French President Jacques Chirac and Transport Minister Dominique Perben. And a magnaminous congratulatory statement was put out by Deutsche Bahn in which Chairman Hartmut Mehdorn referred to 'a majestic achievement for railways that makes our hearts beat faster'.