As the cleanest and most energy-efficient form of public transportation, France's ballyhooed new high-speed train (HST) is expected to revolutionize European railway systems by cutting travel times nearly in half.
With the price of gasoline in France at $3 a gallon and rising and domestic airline flights among the most expensive in the world, the French Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fers (SNCF) plans to inaugurate its first eight-carriage, orange-and-white high-speed train in October 1981 along France's most heavily traveled route, between Paris and Lyons.
By the year 2000, the national railway's authorities estimate that an average of 25 million passengers will annually ride in sleek HSTs on the so-called southeastern line. At present this route carries 40 percent of the nation's rail passenger traffic.
The French, whose railroad industry is the second largest in the world after the United States and relies on exports for one-quarter of its business, expect that the high-speed train will also attract much profitable foreign interest.
"Our present rail technology has no equivalent elsewhere in the world," said the French Minister of Transport, Joel le Theule. "This form of high-speed transport could solve all kinds of economic problems."
In view of the West's energy crisis, Jacques Pelissier, president of the railway, maintains firmly that a modern, efficient, and economical railway system is indeed "the transport of the future." Even now French railways consume only 1 percent of the country's energy needs.
The first high-speed train will go into operation along a brand new steel track connecting the Burgundy town of St. Florentin with Lyons to the south. As most of France's present railway network dates from the 19th century, new tracks are being laid. SNCF officials expect the Paris-to-St. Florentin section to be completed in 1983. It will then take 2 hours to travel from Paris to Lyons, instead of 3 hours and 45 minutes.
But with a combination of both the specially constructed HST route and conventional rails, passengers will require only 4 hours and 43 minutes to ride from Paris to Marseille, gaining two hours. It will take 3 hours and 19 minutes to go from Paris to Geneva, instead of the previous 5 hours, 40 minutes.
The almost silent high- speed train, in experimental runs between the Alsatian towns of Strasbourg and Colmar, easily attained 185 m.p.h. In service, however, it will cruise at an average of 160 m.p.h. "We have chosen this speed as a commercial compromise between high speed and energy economy," a rail official explained.
Each train will carry 240 second-class and 135 first- class passengers. But unlike the luxury first-class Trans Europ express trains that connect the Continent's major cities, there will be no surcharge for HST travel.
"The whole point of the HST is to provide a competitive, rapid rail service," an SNCF official said."If we hope to encourage people to switch from using cars or traveling by plane, then our fares have got to be financially attractive."
The introduction of high- speed trains to France's 34,522-kilometer-long (21, 440 miles), deficit-ridden railway network is a matter of economic necessity. In 1978, the railway stood 1.119 billion francs ($279 million) in the red, for which it blames France's sluggish economy and double-digit inflation. With strong competition from road, barge, and air transport, the service is being forced to modernize and improve its facilities.
Aiming at a balanced budget by 1984, it is trying to increase annually passenger business by 2.4 percent and freight traffic by 1.4 percent. It carried 684 million passengers in 1978. That was an increase of 1.6 percent over 1977's 673 million. Freight traffic remained the same as in the previous year, 214 million tons.
The state-owned SNCF has already reduced its work force from more than 440, 000 in 1949 to its present 261,540 employees.
The railway does not regard the high-speed train as a point-to-point service connecting two big cities, as does the "New Tokkaido" line in Japan. "We want it to be an 'area' passenger service for all towns along the way," an official explains.
With other European railway organizations closely watching French developments, the HST can ultimately be expected to alter radically the concept of short- and medium-distance travel.
"The Americans unfortunately neglected their railways when they thought air travel would answer all their problems," notes one US businessman, who often commutes between Europe and the United States. "I think the French are the ones to have licked the problem, and with Amtrak in such a mess, we Americans should take a look at what's happening over here."