The mention of France used to bring to mind joie de vivre, chic, maybe a touch of hauteur. Then came the Concorde at twice the speed of sound, followed by the 165-mile-an-hour TGV, the fastest train in captivity. All of a sudden France stands for vitesse, speed.
TGV is short for Train a Grande Vitesse, and this train of undeniably great speed, which I sampled on the Macon-Paris run earlier this fall, has made lavish , unhurried rail travel but a fond memory. It is leading a new wave of fast, successful, and somewhat utilitarian intercity trains being developed in Western Europe and Japan.
When it was introduced a year ago, the TGV wrested from Japan the role of world's fastest passenger train. Japan's honorable Bullet runs on the new Tokaido line between Tokyo, Osaka, and the island of Kyushu at 135 m.p.h. maximum. In June it launched 125 m.p.h. service on the 250-mile run northeast to Morioka, and on Nov. 15 another high-speed line opened up to the Sea of Japan, cutting through deep snow country and the world's longest (13.3 miles) tunnel en route.
Japan, however, will drop to third place in the international derby if and when British Rail - already running almost a year late on the project - inaugurates its 150 m.p.h. Advanced Passenger Train from London to Glasgow in a few months. British Rail, working to clear up tilting problems on the curving route, will cut almost an hour and a half from the London-Glasgow clocking, doing the 401 miles in 4 hours, 15 minutes.
None too soon, America's own intercity special, the Metroliner, has lowered its New York-Washington time by another 10 minutes to 2:49 and cut New York-Boston by almost an hour. The Metroliner's maximum official speed is only 110 m.p.h., but a new outfit called the American High Speed Rail Corporation, studying a fast and futuristic train for southern California and possibly Florida or Texas, may yet put the United States - once the world speed leader - back near the top in a decade.
French National Railroads, the acknowledged pacesetter even before it launched the TGV, nonetheless has plenty of milk runs in its system, which I learned early one autumn morning waiting on the platform of the Burgundian village of Romanche-Thorins. Along came a clattering little red local, northbound for Macon, where I was to switch to the TGV for Paris. We made a couple of stops on the 10-minute ride, and not once did a conductor appear to take tickets.
At the nondescript Macon station I hopped a special bus and rode into the countryside to the gleaming new TGV station at Loche. Two-thirds of the Paris-Lyon TGV route runs on a private Nouvelle Ligne why, where it's free to burst its buttons at 165 m.p.h. and not have to share the tracks with conventional trains and freights. Expanding TGV lines now also run to Geneva, Lausanne, Marseille, and other points south of Paris.
I stood on Quai 2, and suddenly an orange, white, and gray serpent whispered to a halt before me. It surprised me to see a gang of teen-age Danish backpackers climb aboard. But then the TGV was not built only for business executives and wealthy travelers. It is part of the democratization of French National Railroads, a process that is narrowing the distinction between first- and second-class travel and has done away with such deluxe trains as Le Train Bleu. Although there is an 8-franc reservation charge for the TGV, ticket prices are the same as on conventional trains except during rush hours.
We were at top speed before I could wade through the backpackers to my seat. Gazing out a picture window and trying to fix on the fleeing scenery, I had the sensation I was aloft in a plane. In fact at 165 m.p.h., I might have been in a Cessna, cruising above the Burgundy countryside. The green farmland was easy enough to spot, as well as the clouds filling up the warm September sky, but I had to concentrate to make out flocks of sheep, Charolais cows, a passing stone village. Yet the ride was remarkably smooth and vibration-free - as my unwavering notes attest.
Everything around me smacked of first-class air travel, including the rows of single and double seats separated by a wide, carpeted aisle and the hostess approaching with a rolling meal cart. On the TGV there are no separate compartments with facing divans for mysterious encounters and no dining car. You order from the passing hostess (salad, entree, cheese, pastry, and beverage cost 101 francs ($14) at lunch, 112 francs at dinner) or buy a snack at a stand-up counter.
I was still trying to come to terms with the blurred scenery. As we left the countryside for a moment and whirled through a town - train yards, station, a river - I managed to spot a name on a building: La Roche. It was the name of the town, a fact I verified by checking a route map affixed to the vestibule wall.
Soon we were down to earth and running on conventional track, bumping and clacking along as normal trains do. (By next year, though, the entire Nouvelle Ligne will be in use between Paris and Lyon, cutting the time from 2:50 to 2 hours. Across the aisle the hostess, finished with the meal service, was snoozing, her feet propped on the seat opposite. When she awoke, I introduced myself.
She was clearly proud to be wearing a badge marked ''Service 260'' (260 is the TGV's maximum speed in kilometers), but she said she was also growing weary of the daily travail of pushing heavy carts, wrestling with unwieldy drawers and doors in the galley, sleeping in strange hotels far from Paris - in short, living the life of an airline hostess.
Suddenly we were slowing to a crawl and pulling into Paris. The hostesss said she would go home for a brief rest, then work the run to St.-Etienne that afternoon, spending the night in that industrial town southwest of Lyon. I wished her well and stepped off the orange, gray, and white serpent back into the noisy, teeming reality that is the Gare de Lyon.