The TGV is 25 this week. Paul Stump hails France's wonder of the modern world
In February 1995 I had just seen my girlfriend off from Tours to Paris on the train. On the next platform a young man, my age, sat on his haunches, his arm round his tiny son's shoulder, pointing at the forward driving car of a TGV, resting demurely on the rails after a 186mph sprint from the capital. Two faces were lit by expectation and pride. I was transfixed by a tableau I had never actually seen before except in publicity material in my father's old rail magazines.
If ever there came a moment when I knew myself to be a Francophile, that was it. I wanted to be a part of whatever had created this thing of beauty. It also recalled to me that on January 1, 1948, the day Attlee's government nationalised rail, my grandad took my train-nut father to their local station and, with a sweep of the arm, said (apocryphally) 'that's all ours now, son'. And the French people owned this marvellous train. The man, the boy, my girlfriend. It made me love her all the more.
This snowjobs the facts that TGVs are rather cramped to ride in, are often abominably crowded, take an age to load and unload and the catering's rubbish. And while cheap by British standards, their premium fares exclude the poorer reaches of French society. Quite why the Massif Central remains untouched - there's not even a high-speed line to the relatively accessible Clermont-Ferrand - is a mystery. And in 25 years' operation on France's notoriously Paris-centric radial network, they have made the regions even more dependent on the capital, as pointed out this week by sociologist Jean Viard. Conversely, it has helped a migratory outward flow of Lutecians bound for Languedoc and the sun belt.
TGVs, for all their langorous aesthetic beauty (not sure about that windscreen, though, and the pack-'em-in Duplex double-deckers have lost a little panache in their evolution from the British-born Jack Cooper's basic design) are functionalist workhorses. But even to those uninfected with a passionate love of railways, they are something genuinely exceptional. Based on SNCF's prototype TGV001 of 1970 - which few remember now was actually gas turbine-powered, rather than electric - they are something almost anyone in France can boast about in the surefooted belief that nobody will contradict them, because nobody can. Even those who commute daily on the things will feel a little leap of the heart when a foreigner praises them. The Spanish AVE is set to go even faster, the German ICE's interiors are infinitely better-equipped but the TGV was the first and still the greatest of high-speed concepts. Japan's Shinkansen bullet trains, for so long the mode's ne plus ultra, were simply left standing.
The French had always been different, enviable, when it came to railways. Le Mistral and Le Train Bleu were stainless-steel symphonies of speed and silver service; to jaundiced British sensibilities anaesthetised by austerity, there was something almost illicit about their luxury, as glamorously indecent as Chartreuse, Gauloises, Bardot's slipped shoulder-strap. France was license, possibility to the Britain of the 1950s and 1960s; trains were no different. The implausibly romantic and exotic Wagons-Lits sounded French (although the firm originated in Belgium, brainchild of the great Georges Nagelmackers). In 1955 not one but two SNCF electric locos, 9004 and 7107, annihilated the world rail speed record, attaining 205.6 mph on the pancake-flat straightaway through the Landes at Morcenx; the railway industry's Sputnik moment.
The TGV, when it came, was almost a historical given; if any nation were going to wire up their entire country with a specially-built network of lines permitting insane speeds, it was going to be France. The success was immediate and astronomical. The fastest schedules now approach average speeds of 160mph; Bordeaux is an hour nearer Paris than it was in 1980. 220mph maxima are a year away; a new line, the LGV (Ligne à Grande Vitesse) Est, will bring Metz, Strasbourg and the German border into the network in 2007. Barcelona should be linked with the French network, and reachable from Paris in five hours, by 2010.
Even on a crowded evening run out of Paris to Lille, it's hard not to suppress the adrenaline as the train hits the TGV track near Charles de Gaulle airport, the 10,000hp motors climb through the octaves and the g forces bite. Nobody forgets their first time on a TGV. You never get on one without a sense of anticipation; you rarely get off one without a buzz. It's possible still to believe in the illusion of the world of Tomorrow's World, of exponential space-age benefits and limitless leisure time and James Burke's sideburns. That everything is possible, that just by humankind saying 'make it so', it can be achieved. The TGV made it possible to demand, and get, a little bit of the impossible. Certainly some of the specially-built TGV stations, such as Kolhaas/SNCF's Lille Europe and Calatrava's Lyon St-Exupéry are among the most strikingly successful modernist buildings in the world. And when racing at 186mph over the giddy switchback through the ravines and gullies of Provence on the Avignon-Marseille extension, you'll believe a train can fly.
Why Mitterrand fretted so much about a legacy when his government had already overseen the implementation of the superstructure of the TGV network as we know it is anyone's guess. That Tony Blair's legacy will be Virgin Trains and FirstGroup says all you need to know about France and Britain, really.
The French are trying not to crow about the TGV although they know they want to. Hell, even I want to, and I will. If you have an ounce of curiosity or romance in you, go and celebrate this wonderful icon of modernism. There are special offers aplenty at www.sncf.fr; there's even - for a little extra - a TGV dating service, where you can bank your personal data and be paired up with a suitable travelling partner. Now there's a thought - my experience of les nanas began when a TGV brought me to Tours twelve years ago, and in the words of Chicago, it's a hard habit to break.