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Très Global Warming
TGV's Limits (And America's Wants)

Future perfect

France’s TGV trains (très grande vitesse, as in ultra-high speed) are marvels of engineering and aesthetic appeal, at least to American eyes and bodies used to the clunkers on rails that pass for trains in this country—when there are rails at all. The TGV gets you from point A to point B almost as rapidly as a plane, once you take out the hassles of getting to the airport, navigating the hysterics of security checks, checking in, sustaining the delays of the day, and then, airborne, sustaining everything from bad weather to oversexed passengers to hijackers too damn inconvenient to wait for the next plane. If a train can take you from downtown Paris to downtown Brussels in three hours—not that anyone should inflict on you the pain of having to go to Brussels, where even the fries and the beer don’t taste the same since Brel’s death—you’ll damn well choose the train. This week France’s TGV broke another speed record. On Tuesday, a special TGV train barreled down new tracks east of Paris, Der Spiegel reports, “reaching a top speed of 574.8 kilomters (357 miles) per hour. The previous record of 515.3 kilometers per hour had also been set by a French TGV train.”

Better, faster trains mean fewer planes and fewer cars, right? And less pollution, less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The Valero E, a German-built train, just topped 400 kilometers an hour. When it goes into service, its cruising speed will be 350 kilometers an hour, still a world record for scheduled passenger service, with a propulsive capacity of 8.8 megawatts and emissions of 30 kilograms of carbon dioxide per passenger on a 625 kilometer trip, compared with emissions of 85 kilograms by air for the same route (did you ever think you were responsible for that much gunk in the atmosphere?) “But how much faster can trains travel before they lose their benefits for the environment? Aerodynamics experts at the German Aerospace Center (DLR), the country's space agency, believe the acceptable limits of technical viability are reached at a speed of about 400 kilometers per hour,” Der Spiegel writes. Weather, too, is a factor, even in trains, especially in the highest-speed trains:

A complete ICE train weighs more than 800 tons. It's not likely to be knocked over by wind blasts -- at least not while standing still. But things change when a train is traveling at 350 kilometers per hour. At those speeds, the head of the train is exposed to considerably less gravitational pull and could actually topple if hit by an abrupt crosswind. Aerodynamics experts have already calculated this effect in models: It could lead to a train disaster of a similar magnitude to the 1998 ICE crash in Eschede, Germany that killed 101 and injured 105.

France’s experiment with its 500 kilometers an hour train with a propulsion capacity of 20 megawatts may be just a flash on the tracks—unless Der Spiegel’s downer is just so much Germanic jealousy. (A quarter century after the introduction of the first TGV, also a French affair, France has 2,000 kilometers of high-speed rails, Germany just 1,000).

Meanwhile, back in the United States, we're still in the stone age of rail travel, waging a low-grade civil war against Amtrack, the once-government supported national railway. Locally getting a miserable little commuter rail line (between, say, Orlando and the Atlantic coast) is like asking taxpayers to front the money for a mission to Mars. Actually, most American taxpayers are more willing to front that much waste than they are to front minor investments in mega future savings, to the environment and to their pocketbooks, by way of new rail lines. It continues to be a wonder of modern engineering that the United States, allegedly the greatest technological wonder on the face of the earth, can't build a train more advanced than something the Flintstones might have devised. Necessity may be the mother of all inventions. Nevertheless, there's a point when a sort of philosophical stupidity plays a role in a country's technologically arrested development. That's where the United States appears to be with its trains. Oh, for some French influence on that count... They could even call America's TGV the Lafayette. Its arrival would save the country all over again, if not quite from the British this time as much as from itself.

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