France has pushed its pioneering TGV high-speed train to ever-more-impressive records. My memories go back to another semi-historic year in French history, 2001, when I rode a TGV that traveled 662 miles from the eastern portal of the Channel Tunnel to the Mediterranean coast in 209 minutes, setting an endurance speed mark for “off-the-shelf” passenger trains.
To place this in perspective, Napoleon enjoyed an emperor’s perks but suffered through three bone-jangling weeks in a horse-drawn carriage to cover the same distance. Many of us can remember when the trip from the ferry port of Calais to Paris, a fraction of that distance, ate up a toilsome three hours.
On my ride in 2001, a workaday TGV carrying guests of the railroad averaged just under 200 mph and sometimes attained speeds greater than 230. Trains have the built-in advantage of moving directly from city center to city center, thus saving commute and waiting time in airports when you have to add two hours of early arrival and undressing time for airport security.
As is routine on some regular TGV runs, cabin attendants on my journey were attired in regional costume. The menu also reflected regional cuisine and wines, another hallmark of the TGV. For a land-bound rocket, we suffered neither hot-rod jolts at the start nor hard-braking at the end of the line. Throughout our journey along France’s pillow-soft railbeds, it was very much as if we were conversationally seated in our own living room.
In 2017, on the balcony level the Lyon terminus of Paris, I sat in that artistic and culinary monument to the Belle Epoque, Train Bleu restaurant, and watched a battalion of TGVs come and go on the platforms below. In 1901, when the restaurant’s murals were painted to depict fanciful Mediterranean life, travel to the South of France was restricted to a privileged few.