A double-decker French train smashed the world speed record for railways yesterday, touching 574.8 kph - or 357 mph - on a gently downhill stretch of track in eastern France.
The five-car experimental train fell only just short of the speed record for all forms of train travel - 581 kph - held by a Japanese magnetic levitation (Maglev) train.
By pulverising its own speed record for conventional railways - and almost matching the Maglev - France hopes to propel itself to the forefront of a growing international market for high speed rail technology.
China, Argentina and California are planning to build substantial high-speed rail networks in the next few years. France has already sold the TGV technology to South Korea.
Eric Pieczac, 46, the driver on yesterday's record-breaking run in Lorraine, said: "Everything went well. We had no problem with birds or weather, like we did on the test-runs. I am very happy with our score." Asked why he did not go a little faster to break the Maglev record, he said: "That's not the kind of thing I can decide alone. I am just part of a team of 60 people."
The three partners in yesterday's record attempt - Alstom (which builds the TGV), SNCF (the French state railways), and RFF (the French equivalent of Network Rail) - had decided in advance not to challenge the Maglev record.
Patrick Trannoy, RFF director of the new high-speed line to eastern France where the record was broken, said: "To break 580 was too risky. We would have been entering unknown territory. Our objective was 570." Yesterday's run proves, nonetheless, that steel-on-steel railways can broadly match the expensive and untried Maglev technology for speed. France believes that the other advantages of its high-speed railways - their excellent safety record and the fact that TGVs can leave their purpose-built lines and travel on to scores of destinations using existing tracks - will make Maglev a minor competitor.
At the same time, yesterday's record was a huge propaganda coup for France in its battle for foreign orders against rival German and Japanese designs for conventional, high-speed trains. A delegation from the state of California is visiting France this week to study the possibility of building a high-speed TGV line from Sacramento to San Diego by way of San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The record also provided a welcome opportunity for national self-congratulation - at a time when the presidential election campaign has mostly focused on France's weaknesses and failures. President Jacques Chirac paid tribute to a "fantastic performance... which provides renewed evidence of the excellence of the French rail industry".
Yesterday's run beat the previous record of 515.3 kph, set by France in 1990. The much-anticipated run - broadcast live on French television - was made on a westbound, slightly downhill stretch of a new high-speed line between Paris and eastern France which will open in June.
The silver and black, record-breaking train is a prototype for a new generation of double-decker TGVs, which Alstom hopes to deliver to SNCF by 2010. These will have more comfortable seats and a Wi-Fi internet service.
Rail speed milestones
1829 The locomotive trials at Rainhill, near Liverpool, were won by George and Robert Stephenson's Rocket, which broke the 20mph barrier
1904 Great Western Railway's 4-4-0 locomotive City of Truro reached 102.3mph at Wellington bank in Somerset - the first rail speed recorded at over 100mph. The record is still disputed by many rail enthusiasts
1938 The London and North Eastern Railway A4 Pacific locomotive Mallard reached 126mph near Little Bytham in Lincolnshire. Still the highest speed ever achieved by a steam locomotive
1987 A British High Speed Train travelled at 149mph. Still a diesel train world record
2003 A Japanese magnetic levitation train on a purpose-built track reached 363mph. The world record for a manned train
2003 An unmanned rocket sled achieved mach 8.6 at Holloman Air Force Base in the US. This is the highest ever speed achieved by a rail vehicle
Yesterday A French train á grande vitesse hit 357mph