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What is the TGV?

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  • Written By: Jeffrey L. Callicott
  • Edited By: Angela B.
  • Last Modified Date: 14 November 2016
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The TGV is a high-speed rail service operating in France. Its name is an acronym for Train à Grande Vitesse, which translates to “Train of Great Speed.” The trains travel on special rail lines designed for high velocity, and the service's trains typically operate at speeds of at least 140 miles per hour (around 225 kilometers per hour), but regularly achieve a maximum speed of nearly 200 mph (about 320 kph). The TGV is the fastest train in Europe and, until 2009, was considered the fastest train in the world.

The concept of a high-speed train in France originated around 1960 with the main goal of reducing travel times between large cities. The higher velocities also would permit steeper grades to be utilized compared to then-existing rail lines. The advent of the Japanese Shinkansen, or “Bullet Train,” provided further impetus for development of high-speed rail in France.

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Despite the perceived antiquity of steel wheels and rails, they became the choice for the basis of the new system, winning out over ideas such as magnetic levitation. Along with the use of the standard rail gauge, this decision would allow the new trains to run on existing rail lines, if at a reduced speed. By 1972, a diesel-driven prototype train named TGV001 was performing test runs at speeds of up to 198 mph (approximately 318 kph), a record for a non-electric train. At the time of the tests, rising oil prices led to a system redesigned to use overhead electric power. After several years of testing the new electric design, TGV trains entered mainstream service in 1981.

From Paris, the TGV can reach most destinations in France within three hours. Nearly all high-velocity rail lines run through or near Paris, and service is offered to more than 200 cities throughout France. The TGV also offers access to cities in nearby countries, including Brussels, Belgium, and London, England.

Travel on the TGV is similar in many respects to air travel. Much like an airline, reservations are required for the TGV and, while tickets can be purchased up to three months in advance, it is possible to obtain them only a few days before a trip. Travelers also are advised to arrive before the scheduled departure time; the rail service’s suggested time is at least 30 minutes prior to departure. The trains usually have a first-class option with access to more comfortable seats, exclusive access to food and drink, and additional legroom. Smoking is not permitted.

France’s high-speed rail service also has numerous differences compared to air travel, and many contribute to the TGV’s continued popularity. Among the most recognized of these is the ability to disembark passengers near the center of a destination city. The TGV often makes use of destination cities’ existing rail lines, which often pass through the town centers.

The TGV also offers amenities that are rare or simply not found on airplanes. Among these are standard two-pin European power outlets on most cars. While full dining service is usually offered in the fourth car of the train, there are no restrictions on bringing outside food and drink — including beer and wine — onboard. Pets also are usually allowed to travel on the train with passengers, although larger dogs and pets kept in carriers require a separate ticket.

It is advisable to purchase tickets in advance, particularly on the high-demand Eurostar trains serving London via the Channel Tunnel. Tickets can be obtained online or by telephone, and at kiosks in many stations. Much like airline tickets, prices rise as the departure date approaches but vary depending on the length of the trip, the destination city, and the time of day. Rail passes are available for frequent travelers, allowing unlimited travel for up to eight days in a month for one flat rate. As of 2010, the rail system had carried approximately 2 billion passengers.

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