Wed Jun 27th, 2007 at 10:08:35 AM EST
Whilst driving down the A1 road to the Paris meeting I was pleased, as a railway buff, to see that the main TGV route to the north ran alongside the road for long stretches. At one point I was astonished to note that, as I was approaching a steep hill, the track climbed at the same gradient as the road. Any previous railway would have approached the hill with a long gradually rising embankment and then entered a cutting, redung the incline but costing more money. Not the TGV.
Fortuitously at that moment a train came along and, with no noticeable reduction in speed, merely streaked uphill like on a jump-jet take-off ramp before disappearing in a blur down the other side. I was left marvelling at the power of the motive units on the trains and the ease with which a truly staggering railway feat was achieved.
The more I thought about it, the more I realised that it was that, without Andre Chapelon, the TGV may never have happened. Now we've had mention of Andre Chapelon's genius before in Dodo's excellent series on railways. But his greatest triumph was in the immediate post war period when it was essential that the express locos on the heavily used lines from Paris to Clermont Ferrand be made more powerful. These climbed the northern face of the Massif Central and needed to maintain express speeds on the long haul out of the Parisian basin. Chapelon's answer was the 242 A1 class of locomotive, an engine capable of 5300 HP (twice as powerful as the most powerful UK locomotive).
In a parallel deveopment, the designers of the SNCF electric locomotives were tackling the same problem and in order to beat Chapelon, had to completely re-design their proposed power unit. This loco, once completed, gave the French a lead in electric railway traction that they never really lost. By 1955 they'd taken the world speed record up to 330 kph and although others, such as Japan, might hold the record on specially constructed track, the recent spectacular grab by SNCF on the new Paris-Strasbourg line was simply a reassertion of an inevetable status.
And yet, without Chapelon embarrassing those first electric loco designers, it is hard to believe any of it would have happened.