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25th Anniversary of France's TGV

Aired October 3, 2006 - 14:00:00   ET


JONATHAN MANN, CNN HOST: A nice, very rapid ride in the country. France marks the 25th anniversary of the TGV, high-tech so successful it makes France feel smaller.
Hello and welcome.

If you've ever been to Paris or lived there, you know it's not always a pleasant place to drive a car. If you've ever navigated the city's airports, you know that they also represent their own challenges. So treasure the TGV. The French train system is among the best in the world, and the TGV is the best thing about it.

TGV stands for "very fast train." Not much poetry in the name, and the entire population of France isn't exactly out in the streets celebrating its birthday. But some people are. And, more important, hundreds of thousands of people are doing what they do every day. They're taking the TGV.

On our program today, France's very fast train.

Jim Bitterman has this look.


JIM BITTERMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In a country in as many opinions as cheeses, consensus is rare in France. But when the National Railway System decided to throw a bash for the 25th anniversary of its high-speed train, the TGV, the public responded with love letters and poems and near unanimous praise. And if celebrating a train seems, well, odd, you have to understand how much they are convinced here that the TGV, le train a grand vitesse, has changed the country.

Ever since it went into service, first at 260, then at 270, now at 300 kilometers, or 186 miles an hour, the high-speed train brought Lyon to within two hours of Paris, brought the Atlantic coast to less than three, and made the trip to the Mediterranean exactly three.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: France became smaller, smaller and smaller, and the major towns around Paris are 500 kilometers, say 300 miles, became closer to Paris, only one, two or three hours. So this means that people left Paris and went to live in the country.

BITTERMAN: For the past 15 years, one of those people has been Stephan Adan (ph), whose home and office are 180 kilometers, about 110 miles, apart. But on the TGV, that's a 45-minute ride. So he thinks nothing of commuting into Paris on a daily basis from his home in the small town of Vendome. And there are about 400 other people from Vendome doing exactly what Adan (ph) does, even though a monthly ticket costs around $600.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): People doing this are not necessarily rich people. Most of the daily travelers are middle class managers.

BITTERMAN: In exchange for those costs of community, Adan (ph) gets a large home with a yard, overlooking a river valley, something not available in the Paris area. His children benefit from the local schools and have grown up with vineyards just across the street.

Still, everywhere the TGV goes, housing prices go up as demand increases from those who want to share Stephan Adan's (ph) way of life. In fact, Just across from his house some of those vineyards have been torn up to make way for new homes, perhaps for some commuters like himself.

But the TGV has done more than create long-distance bedroom communities. It has encouraged connections between far-flung businesses and home offices and in some cases brought new employment to rural communities. The regional director of a precision testing company depends on it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I use TGV you can say two or three days per week for different reasons, to meet my customers in Paris, because most of them are headquartered in Paris.

BITTERMAN: The ancient town of Vendome, where traffic slows to a single lane to squeeze though a medieval gate, faced tough competition from other communities for the privilege of building a TGV station. In fact, wherever the TGV travels, it's much the same story. As the high-speed corridors are mapped out, communities fight fiercely to have their own station. Mind you, no one especially wants the tracks, because the trains are frequent and noisy. But the stations, yes. They mean prestige and a boost to the local economy.

The deputy mayor says they used to call Vendome a nice, sleep place where nothing special happened. Now, she says, the town of 18,000 has been revolutionized. And while dreams of instant wealth did not materialize, the train has created new jobs and stopped others from leaving.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): Without the TGV, we would have lost jobs. The TGV allowed us to be linked to Paris and benefit from the global economy. It's great for the country. We are really proud of such a technology that allows us to cross the country quickly and in comfort.

BITTERMAN: Vendome is so proud of its train connection that in the video promoting the town, the TGV roars past just after the opening beauty shot, and there is pride, too, in part because the town figures in the high-speed train's history. It was here back in 1990 that the TGV became the fastest train on the rails, at 515 kilometers, that's 320 miles an hour. Record stands today, but the trains regularly run at only about 60 percent of their top speed.

Still, transportation specialist Olivier Constance (ph) points out that trains must travel at faster and faster speeds to compete over greater distances.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): The TGV can match a plane for three-hour long journeys. In June 2007, the new East TGV will reach a commercial speed of 320 kilometers an hour. Soon, we will have a TGV running at 370 kilometers per hour. So, for each new generation there is a technical improvement to increase the speed.

BITTERMAN: There is also a less tangible benefit to the TGV than economic impacts or speed records. It brings parts of France closer together. And with similar trains to England, Belgium, Holland and, soon, Germany, much of Europe closer together too. And there may be still other intangible benefits.

(on camera): The director of the TGV has hopes his train is fostering a sense of community, as he puts it a TGV way of life, a way of life which now includes, for a small extra charge, of course, the possibility of what might be called TGV matchmaking, where passengers of similar interest are seated next to each other.

(voice-over): To celebrate the TGV's 25th birthday, the National Railroad Company put on sale tickets to any TGV destination for 5 euros a piece, about $6, to the first 50,000 customers. After ticket windows and Internet sites were overwhelmed, the company ended up handing out 200,000.

Just like the ticket winners, Adan (ph) still looks forward to riding the TGV despite 15 years of daily commuting.

"We're lucky to have it," he says.

A good many of the other 1.2 billion people who have ridden the TGV over the past 25 years would probably agree.

Jim Bitterman, CNN, Vendome, France.


MANN: We take a break. When we come back, a low-tech, back in time look about what we all like about trains.

Stay with us.


MANN: No train is more storied than the Orient Express, traveling various routes between Paris and Istanbul since the close of the 19th century. Two different trains carry on the tradition and the name today, from Paris to Vienna and Venice.

Welcome back.

Trains are a bridge between the centuries, from old technology to new, from the steam engine to super-conducting magnet propulsion. Their crucial to people in countries around the world, but for most of us they're a technology that isn't old enough to be all that interesting or new enough to be all that exciting. Still, they do have their aficionados.

Paul Kokowski (ph) is a transportation planner and train aficionado who has traveled the rails, correct me if I'm wrong here, on every continent except the North and South Pole.

Thanks so much for being with us.

As we're telling the story of the TGV, I'm struck by the fact that people got on the Orient Express nearly a century ago, they're still traveling on it today. That the experience of being on a train is probably faster and more pleasant, but they're basically the same. A person getting on a train has much the same kind of journey they did a century ago.

PAUL KOKOWISKI (ph), TRAIN AFICIONADO: Yes, that's correct. It's the steel wheel on steel rail technology. When you travel by train, you get to see the countryside you're going through, you get to meet people. You can eat, sleep on a train. It's still a very attractive mode of transportation.

MANN: Is that the appeal to all of us? Is that the appeal to you?

KOKOWSKI (ph): For me, the appeal is traveling and really seeing other places and I am interested in railroads as well, so I enjoy seeing the various types of technology that have been used over the years and how it has evolved.

MANN: Now, you are a transportation planner, so let me ask you a question. Are they a technology that's been dragged into the 21st century? They're still incredibly useful all over the world. Will they stay useful? Or are they basically being left behind?

KOKOWSKI (ph): I don't think there's any question they'll stay useful, because trains have the ability to carry people from downtowns to downtowns. A train can carry a thousand people, depending on the length of it, and they're very easy on the environment and with the electricity powering them, they're nonpolluting.

So I think they've got a very bright future.

MANN: You think they're easy on the environment. It's funny, because people don't want to live near train tracks, they don't think they're particularly safe to be around.

KOKOWSKI (ph): Oh, my goodness. In all the years that the TGV and the high-speed trains in Japan have been in existence, and Japan goes back to 1964, there have never been any major train wrecks. There's never been a fatality in a train accident on the Japanese rails.

The noise is a problem, to a certain extent, but that's because I think our standards are higher now. People don't like to live next to airports either.

MANN: Does technology make them more or less attractive? Obviously in the case of the TGV, technology is making it go a lot faster and giving train travel in France a real relevance to people's lives, but at the same time cars are going faster, getting more convenient, getting less expensive. Air travel is the same way.

KOKOWSKI (ph): Well, cars aren't going to go 186 miles per hour, but, yes, the air travel is certainly faster than a train, but quite often you're outside of the city by an hour or two to get between the airport and the downtown area, or wherever you live. So certainly in markets up to 200 to 300 miles, trains can be very competitive.

MANN: Is there a limit to how fast they're going to go?

KOKOWSKI (ph): That would really take a physicist to answer. They're getting up towards the upper limits. The maglev trains that they've been experimenting on aren't that much faster than the current speed records that are being set by the TGVs.

MANN: And the maglev train, it needs to be said, only really operates in Japan commercially, and it's with the benefit -- or I guess it's China, forgive me -- with the benefit of an enormous subsidy from the German government, which helped build it.

The amazing thing about the TGV, unlike the Concord, is it makes money, doesn't it?

KOKOWSKI (ph): Yes. Not only that, the trains like the TGV can use the existing railroads to get in and out of the downtown area. In France, they built new lines, say, between Paris and Lyon, for much less than it would cost to build an expressway, but when they get to Paris or they get to Lyon, they can use existing tracks. With maglev, you'd have to build completely new lines, say, into a New York or a London or a Paris, which would be enormously expensive.

MANN: Why doesn't everyone build TGVs?

KOKOWSKI (ph): Pardon me?

MANN: Why doesn't everyone have a TGV? Why doesn't every country embrace this technology?

KOKOWSKI (ph): In Europe and certainly in Asia, they are embracing this technology. Germany has their ICE train. In Italy, they have what they call Eurail Italia (ph). Spain is building new lines from Madrid to Barcelona. They're called the AVE. So it's really spreading around the world. Japan has it throughout the country, Korea and China are going into high-speed rail as well.

MANN: The holdout, of course, is the United States.

KOKOWSKI (ph): Yes, where are we? This is interesting, because high- speed rail started in the United States in about 1891, when we had the locomotive 999, went from New York to Buffalo in seven hours, hitting speeds of over 121 miles an hour. It was the fastest vehicle in the world at the time, manmade.

Then in 1934, the United States kicked off the Streamliner era with the Burlington Pioneer Zephyr, which went nonstop from Chicago to Denver in 13 hours, at 77 miles per hour. We sort of dropped to the back of the pack, unfortunately. The Acela (ph) didn't get started until 2000, and it's significantly slower, say, than the trains that have been developed around the world.

MANN: One last, quick question. We're going to anticipate a conversation we're about to have with our next guest, but what's your favorite train in the world to ride?

KOKOWSKI (ph): No doubt, Glacier Express, from St. Moritz to Zermatt, in Switzerland. It's narrow gauge, it's slow, it sells out and people just love the ride.

MANN: OK, not one we expected. We'll try to get some pictures of it for next time we talk.

Paul Kokowski (ph), thanks so much for talking to us.

KOKOWSKI (ph): You're welcome.

MANN: We take another break. When we come back, more on that. The very best rides on the rail, worldwide.

Stay with us.


MANN: A railway on the roof of the world. China's train to Tibet is a high-tech wonder, traveling 5,000 meters above sea level, across the Himalayas, with passenger carriages pressurized like airplanes because there is so little air outside.

Welcome back.

TGV, Orient Express, Glacier Express, does any of this inspire you to run out and buy a ticket? Well, we're not done yet. Where are the best places to take a train?

Joining us now to talk about that is Margaret Kelly, associate editor at the travel publishers "Fodor's."

Thanks so much for being with us.

We started out with extraordinary pictures of that train in Tibet. I guess we should tell people that the people of Tibet, Tibetan nationalists, were not all that happy to know that the entire population of China would find it very easy to come into their home, but it is still a heck of a ride, isn't it?

MARGARET KELLY, "FODOR'S": Yes, it sure is. Like you guys said, it's just an engineering miracle, the fact they've laid tracks over permafrost is amazing.

MANN: Do a lot of people end up doing that? Has that become a popular destination for European or North American travelers? Or is mostly the Chinese?

KELLY: I think with the Beijing Olympics coming up, I think a lot more Northern Americans and Europeans are going to be traveling to China. And by making Tibet so much more accessible, I think more and more people are going to want to travel to Tibet as well.

MANN: Very different kind of trip, not high tech -- low tech, in a way -- is the Palace on Wheels, which once again is on "Fodor's" list of the five best train trips to take. Tell us about it.

KELLY: The Palace on Wheels is amazing. It's essentially a palace on wheels. You travel around Rajistan, in India, and you're able to see these great Indian sights, such as the Taj Mahal. It's essentially a seven or eight day trip. The entire thing is planned for you. You get to hit all the highlights of that region of India without any of the real hassle of having to plan your own trip, and you're just brought from one place to another, traveling around in this palace with delicious food and really comfortable quarters, and everything is paid for.

MANN: One of the interesting things about it, once again, it's not so much where you begin or where you end up, though those are both historic destinations, but the stops along the way.


MANN: Jaipur and Jaisalmer, these are amazing places to see. We're looking at pictures of the train right now, but the stops too.

KELLY: Oh, the stops are beautiful.

MANN: Another place where you stop, I guess, often, is the Trans Siberian Railway. What is it, a 9,000 kilometer trip?

KELLY: Yes. That's a big one. That became really popular in the Eighties with Europeans and North Americans, when Russia opened up. It really provided the first opportunity for people to travel through Russia and see, just see and really meet the Russian people, you know, look at the massive diversity of landscapes. And, yes, the first time to just sit down with a Russian person and talk to them and get to know them.

MANN: Get to know them well. This is the longest railway ride on earth, apparently.

KELLY: It is. It is. And so you'll definitely, if you're taking that train, you'll definitely want to get off and enjoy some of the sights along the way.

Lake Baikal is an amazing stop. It's in Siberia.

MANN: Bring a long Russian novel, maybe.

KELLY: Exactly.

MANN: Now, from a very long trip to a very short trip, there is a name on your list that I'm not even going to try and get right, and it's in South Africa. It's a very -- what, a three-hour train ride.

KELLY: Yes, it's a three-hour train ride. It's the Outeniqua Choo Choo. Actually, most South Africans just call it the Choo Choo. And that's a really neat, historic train. It's a steam engine train, and it just essentially chugs along the coast of the Indian Ocean. It's just west of Capetown, so it's a really nice daytrip if you're in South Africa and you want to take a steam train ride.

MANN: Well, that's the thing about it. I mean, how many people still travel by steam. I guess there's not much steam left pushing steams anywhere, but this is reputed, I guess, to be the last one in Africa.

I'm moving across the list here. This is one that has maybe a little bit of misnomer. It is called the Indian Pacific, railway, though it's not in India or close to India.

KELLY: No, I think it gets that name because it goes from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean or the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean. That's in Australia. And you go from Sydney to Perth. So you start in Sydney, which is the most populated region in Australia, and essentially, once again, just like the Trans Siberian, you're traveling all the way across this huge country, and you're able to experience just the sheer diversity of the landscape, going from this, you know, urban, populated area, through, for example, the Blue Mountains, and into the Outback. And then to one of the most desolate regions of Australia. It's like visiting the moon.

MANN: Two different trains did not make your list. We mentioned one of them earlier in the program, and that's the Orient Express. Was that a close call? Or is there some reason that's not really on the top five?

KELLY: Yes, just so many, so many trains and so little time. I mean, there's just so many wonderful destinations and so many great ways to see it, we had to pick and choose.

MANN: OK. Because I was also looking at another list. Everyone seems to have their favorite list of these. Crossing Canada by rail. I say that, of course, I'm Canadian, so I'm boosting for the home team, but apparently the Trans Canadian train travel is unbelievable. I've never done it.

KELLY: I've also never done it, and yes, I'd like to learn more about it the next time I go up to Canada.

MANN: If you don't have money for one of these big exotic trips, is train travel a bargain for ordinary travelers? Or are you just better off taking a cheap flight?

KELLY: No, absolutely. Train travel is such a great way to travel, just because it is much less expensive than flying, and in a lot of places that you're visiting, you might not want to rent a car. So train travel is, for example, traveling on the Tibetan railway, you can travel for under $200 to Lhasa , which is the capital of Tibet.

So it is definitely more inexpensive, and like I said, it is such a great way to travel, just because you really get to meet the people of the region, much more so than if you're in a car.

MANN: Ever been on the TGV?

KELLY: Yes, I have. I have. I love the TGV.

MANN: Well, I daresay it's so successful, it's so efficient, it's kind of dull. You get on the train and you get off where you're supposed to, very fast, and that's all there is to it, it seems.

KELLY: Yes, I just, I love train travel, though, any opportunity I get.

MANN: Margaret Kelly, of "Fodor's," thanks very much for this.

KELLY: Thank you very much. Bye bye.

MANN: And that is INSIGHT. I'm Jonathan Mann. There's more news ahead.



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