ON MARCH 24 SNCF President Louis Gallois opened an exhibition of its record-breaking trains at Bordeaux Saint-Jean station (right). Among the vehicles on display were locos CC7107 and BB9004 that respectively achieved 326 and 331 km/h in 1955 - although the plaques on each loco affirm that both reached 331 km/h.

At a subsequent press conference several engineers involved in the 1955 trials gave personal accounts of the spectacular events. Fascinating details emerged, not least that on the night of March 28 the contact wire was greased in an attempt to reduce friction. The unfortunate consequence on the following day was that those seeking to observe the pantograph-contact wire interaction from periscopes mounted on the coaches behind the loco could only see clouds of smoke and sheets of flame generated at the point of contact.

Tribute was paid to all those involved, who according to SNCF Research Director Philippe Renard ’explored territory that was completely unknown. Nowadays we can model and simulate, and we know what the critical phenomena are - then it all had to be done for real.’

Asked if he would have authorised the tests under similar conditions, Gallois replied ’today we probably would not have done it. Are we prepared to risk lives for the sake of technical progress? In 1955 the answer was yes. Now I’m not so sure.’

CAPTION: Sporting the new SNCF logo was a power car from TGV Set 325, which attained 515·3 km/h on May 18 1990; also on show in Bordeaux was a power car from Set 16, which reached 380·4 km/h on February 26 1981