France hopes to set world speed record of 342mph with new TGV

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The Independent Online

The French railways will attempt to raise the world speed record for a conventional train to at least 342mph in the new year - smashing their own 16-year-old record.

Tests with a new generation high-speed train, or train à grande vitesse (TGV), will attempt to push the speed record for steel wheels on steel rails to at least 550kph (342 mph) and possibly 570kph (354mph).

The tests will try out a new line to the east, from Paris to Metz, which is due to open to the public at a maximum speed of 320kph (200mph) in June. The record attempt will also make a strong statement that France is ready to take on competition from Japan and Germany in the multibillion-pound market for high-speed trains.

The record for conventional trains is 515.3kph (320mph), which was set by the French railways, SNCF, in 1990. Monorail or magnetic levitation trains have reached higher speeds on experimental tracks. The tests will form part of a "programme of French high-speed excellence" launched yesterday by the Transport Minister, Dominique Perben. A new, more powerful type of double-decker TGV - to be unveiled in the next couple of days by Alstom, the French transport engineering company - will make runs east of Paris from February.

Philippe Mellier, the president of Alstom's transport division, said yesterday that a shortened train of two power cars and two carriages would attempt to reach 570kph. M. Mellier denied reports that SNCF and Alstom would try to smash the 600kph barrier. The tests will nonetheless take rail travel almost up to commercial aircraft speeds. In the medium term, SNCF hopes to upgrade all its high-speed lines to 320kph, possibly 360kph (224mph), for ordinary service trains.

The top speed of service trains on Britain's railways is 140mph on the east coast main line and 125mph on the west coast. The exception is the French-style, purpose-built, high-speed line from the Channel tunnel, which is due to open its second stage to St Pancras in London next year, with a top speed of 300kph (186mph).

M. Perben said that the programme of rail excellence would also explore improvements to track and signalling, and study any environmental effects of service trains with even higher speeds. The aim was to "define railways of the future and allow France to keep its world leadership in high-speed trains".

Alstom and SNCF are competing with Siemens of Germany and Kawasaki-Mitsubishi of Japan to supply high-speed trains to China, South Korea, Spain and Argentina. France has won orders for Spain and South Korea but the first Chinese orders have gone to Siemens.

The domestic high-speed trains to Kent, which will share the Channel tunnel rail link with Eurostar from next year, will be supplied by Japan, but will be operated by Keolis, a subsidiary of SNCF.