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France's Train a Grande Vitesse was a major leap forward for European rail infrastructure. It has enabled long distance train travel to offer the first serious competition to short haul flights, inspiring Italy, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and even Britain to build their own versions.

When the first TGV plans were announced in the early 1960s, they were considered to be a technological dead end. High speed rail was not a new concept, as the Shinkansen bullet train - capable of reaching speeds of 200km/h - was to open in Japan in 1964.

At the time it was held that rail technology had advanced as far as it could and air travel was the future for high speed, long distance transport. However, France had been determined to update its rail network since it was wrecked during the Second World War.

In 1976, construction of the TGV Sud Est line began. Soon after it opened in 1981 it became clear that the system had taken rail travel to a new level. With rolling stock capable of reaching record speeds of 260 km/h, passengers were able to travel the 425km from Paris to Lyon in two hours, smashing the previous travel time of three hours 50 minutes. Travellers were now able to journey from city centre to city centre without the hassles of checking in and changing transport modes involved in air travel. Travel by TGV was also more reliable as trains are able to run in bad weather when flights are often cancelled.

Construction of TGV lines was comparatively cheap. Trains were powerful enough to climb relatively steep gradients without losing speed, so cuttings, tunnels and bridge construction were kept to a minimum. High speeds were also assured by running trains on dedicated track with high radius corners.

The TGV Sud Est was a major success and 1989 saw the opening of the second high speed line, the TGV Atlantique, offering fast travel from Paris to Bordeaux. It attracted 11M passengers in the first twelve months of its operation and it was clear that the TGV was a resounding success. By the late 1990s the network was beginning to spread across borders to Belgium and Spain, where it will soon connect with the high speed Spanish AVE system. Britain too is now connected to the TGV network via the Channel Tunnel.

The groundbreaking rail system has made such an impact that it has become something of a civil engineering icon. Train enthusiasts can buy model TGV trains, and there is even a website - www.mercurio.iet. - which has diagrams for cardboard cutout scale models.

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