TGV MéDITERRANéE forms the longest construction site in France. Joining end-on at Saint-Marcel-les-Valence with the Lyon bypass - itself an extension of the TGV Sud-Est line - it runs for 225 km south to the outskirts of Marseille. A 25 km spur will leave the principal route at a triangular junction near Avignon at a location known as Triangle des Angles. From here the spur will run towards Nímes, where TGVs will join the existing network to serve towns along the Mediterranean coast such as Montpellier, Béziers and Perpignan. One day, they will continue on another TGV route across the frontier to Barcelona in Spain.

In September 2000, when the whole of TGV Méditerranée is in service, TGVs will be able to run from Paris to Marseille at 300 km/h. For the moment the line speed from Paris to Lyon is limited to 270 km/h, but this will be raised to 300 km/h once a major programme of upgrading has been completed. This will put Marseille just 3h away from Paris, while the trip from Lyon to Marseille will take a mere 85min.

Staged opening

TGV Méditerranée will open in two stages. TGVs will begin running over the section between Saint-Marcel-les-Valence and Lapalud (in Vaucluse) in January 2000, shaving 30min from the 4h 10min timing to Marseille. Eight months later, they will continue over the new line all the way to Marseille.

SNCF decided to open the line in two stages following a government decision last year to cut the Fr25bn construction cost by Fr1·3bn. The total includes the cost of land purchase between Nímes and Montpellier, although work has yet to begin on this part of the project.

TGV Méditerranée passes through a geographically tortured landscape that is quite different from that between Paris and Lyon. Construction is a huge task that has generated the equivalent of 10000 jobs over five years. Crossing hills, vineyards and rivers, the line includes some spectacular viaducts.

The longest of these is the Ventabren viaduct, which is 1730m long and has a 100m central span. Hardly less spectacular is the 1500m Cavaillon viaduct which is costing Fr171m. Other notable structures are the 994m Cheval Blanc viaduct, the 943m Orgon viaduct, a 1500m double viaduct at Avignon, and another of 1210m at Vernègues.

Most of these viaducts are built on high piers as the streams or rivers which they cross turn rapidly to raging torrents when the snow melts each April in the surrounding mountains. Some of the structures are 60m high.

In January 1996, before work began on the Avignon double viaduct, the bed of the Rh