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 The TGV World Speed Record

TGVweb > World Speed Record

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Operations TGV 117 and TGV 140 (the numbers refer to target speeds in meters per second) were carried out by SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français, the French National Railways) from November of 1989 to May of 1990. They came as a followup to the previous round of testing, operation TGV 100, which had left off in 1981 with an earlier speed record of 380 km/h (236 mph) set by TGV Sud-Est trainset number 16. The culmination of these test programs was a new world speed record of 515.3 km/h (320.3 mph), set on 18 May 1990.


Photo credit: unknown
TGV Atlantique trainset 325, making its fastest run on 18 May 1990

Track Preparations
... on preparations made to the stretch of track on which the record runs were carried out.

Trainset Modifications
... on modifications made to TGV Atlantique trainset 325 to make it capable of reaching very high speeds.

Chronology of the Record Runs
... a day-by-day chronology of the 1989 and 1990 high speed test campaigns, which resulted in the new world speed record on 18 May 1990.


Photo credit: B. Vignal
The previous record: TGV PSE trainset 16, running at 380 km/h (236 mph) on 26 February 1981.

A new world speed record was only a secondary objective of the test program. The test runs were primarily intended to generate a wealth of high speed data, to be applied toward the further development of high speed rail. TGV Atlantique trainset number 325, "hot-rodded" for a few months of testing, was pushed to its limits, of course within stringent safety tolerances imposed at the outset. The testing was also intended as a strong proof of concept, to establish that the limits of steel wheel on steel rail technology were far from being reached.

Running at over 500 km/h (311 mph) with a specially prepared trainset on brand new track is an accomplishment, but one should not expect such speeds to be possible in commercial service anytime soon. François Lacôte, the head of TGV research and development, remarks: "It is one thing to know the limits of brand new equipment, but quite another to make it last 35 years with acceptable maintenance costs." It is however forseeable that future TGV designs could run in revenue service at speeds of 360 km/h (224 mph)... "on the condition that it be economically viable, and that a braking system be developped to bypass wheel-rail contact," says Roger Gérin, joint TGV production director. High speed rail technology is quickly evolving, and will soon provide the ingredients for yet faster trains. These developments are due in large part to pushing the envelope on existing equipment, as was done in the high speed runs described hereafter.

In short, the record was not a one-shot publicity stunt. Publicity was only a secondary objective, which took the back seat to serious engineering research over a several month period of high speed runs. 325 was returned to its normal state after the test campaign, and its only distinguishing features today are comemorative plaques (as shown at the top of this page) and a blue stripe across the nose.

Note: Most of the information in these files is taken more or less directly from a special issue of the French weekly La Vie du Rail (see bibliography). I paraphrased the articles in English, and tried to tone down the dramatic and sometimes a bit patriotic slant of the writing. The pictures were scanned from various issues of LVDR, and are duly credited to the original photographer. The scans are of relatively poor quality, which does nicely to protect LVDR's copyright.

Title photo by Didier Egiole

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