The train approaching the Champs-Elysées ...

John Lichfield
Friday 10 January 2014 04:17
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This week, part of the Avenue des Champs-Elysées will be converted into a railway station. Tracks are already being laid in its lower section and the first trains – including a British-designed 160 year-old steam locomotive – will be shunted into place tomorrow.

From 17 May, for one month, the French national railway company, the SNCF, is staging the largest railway exhibition ever to be mounted on a road.

On one day only – 1 June – almost the entire length of the avenue will be transformed into the world's grandest, and most ephemeral, branch line. Cars will be banned and a diesel train will give free rides along rails laid temporarily for almost a mile from the Place de la Concorde to the Avenue George V.

The Train-Capitale exhibition is intended as a statement of France's faith in the future of railways and has been designed by Gad Weil. In addition to the exhibits, there will also be model railways, free showings of classic movies with railway themes and trade stands on developments in railway technology.

One of the stars of the show will be the Buddicom St Pierre, built in 1844, the oldest surviving French railway locomotive. The locomotive, designed by a British engineer, William Barber Buddicom, once hauled expresses from Paris Gare St Lazare to Rouen and Le Havre at the startling speed of 40mph.

Other exhibits include the SNCF electric locomotive BB9004, which took the world speed record for rail to over 200mph in 1953, and new generations of the trains à grande vitesse (TGV), which have transformed French railways with cruising speeds of around 180mph in the last 22 years.

Louis Gallois, president of the SNCF, said that the exhibition was an "expression of confidence in the future of the train... and its capacity to re-invent itself". It is also a useful political statement. The centre-right government in France has made clear its preference for road schemes and called into question plans for further TGV lines to the south-west, to Brittany and under the Alps into Italy.

The autonomous French state planning body called last week for future transport spending to be concentrated on railways and waterways.

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