At 6.30am on Sunday 27 September 1981, an unusually large crowd streamed into Paris’ Gare de Lyon, converging on the platform next to the first commercially operated train à grande vitesse (TGV). At 7.15am train number 807 departed ceremoniously for Lyon’s Perrache station: along the way, its 300 passengers would travel at 260km/h for the first time.
French rail operator SNCF’s first advertising campaign — “Gagnez du temps sur le temps” or “Steal time from time” - went straight to the point: a TGV can get there faster than a aeroplane, and much faster than a car. Train 807 launched a global surge for high speed rail that continues today.
France continued to lead the way. To serve the second line, the TGV Atlantique to south west France, SNCF ordered a series of 105 highspeed trainsets, which were delivered between 1988 and 1992. Sporting a new blue and silver livery, these nextgeneration TGVs offered better performance, more comfort, and increased profitability.
Designed to run at 300km/h, the trains had a more powerful braking system and new pantographs specially designed for their higher top speed. Cab signalling also reflected the change in technology, and many of the instruments on board were computerised.
On 18 May 1990, TGV number 325 reached 515.3km/h as it neared Vendôme station, south west of Paris, shattering the previous world speed record for trains. Only nine years after the first TGVs had begun running between Paris and Lyon, SNCF had established itself as a master of high-speed rail technology.
That technology finally made it to Britain in 1994 when high speed Eurostar trains began using the Channel Tunnel to whisk passengers between Paris and London, although high speed travel on the UK rail network had to wait until 2003 when the first section of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link opened.
It was not until 2007 before high speed was possible along the route all the way to St Pancras.
By then France already had an established high speed network that continues to grow today; it began 2012 with 2,037 km of lignes à grande vitesse, with three more under construction.
And it is genuine grand vitesse: at 1.13pm on 3 April 2007, TGV number V150 set yet another world record for France’s TGV, reaching the incredible speed of 574.8 km/h as it blazed through the town of Éclaires, on the Est-Européene line.
And it all began on this day in 1981.