WHO, WHAT, WHY?
The Magazine answers...
A French TGV has smashed the world speed record for a train on conventional rails, hitting 356mph. But it cost a packet and required months of precision track work, so why bother?
French rail chiefs hailed it a triumph, while President Jacques Chirac said it was "new proof of the excellence of the French rail industry". The driver, Eric Pieczac, said it made him feel "very happy".
When the TGV train hit 356mph on track between Paris and Strasbourg on Tuesday, it shattered a 17-year-old record and was almost as fast as a World War II Spitfire at top speed.
It's very impressive, but 30m euros (£20m) had been spent specially modifying the 120-mile section of track. The train was powered by two engines, needed special wheels and went twice the maximum speed of a TGV on any passenger route. So what are the point of speed records?
While some are a bit of fun or a matter of personal achievement, others - like the TGV - are often the eye-catching highlight of long, expensive projects to explore the technical limits of a mode of transport.
According to rail company SNCF and the train's makers, Alstom, the record attempt represents a test on the infrastructure in extreme conditions, which is impossible to carry out in the laboratory.
"There was a lot of boffin work behind the TGV speed record but the public just see the exciting climax," says Chris Jackson, editor of the Railway Gazette International.
"The record attempt is part of a major project to explore the capabilities of this train, which in turn is part of a general move to get all trains to run faster.
"While work was done on the line, it is still a commercial line which will carry passengers from June and all the technology involved will be available for your average train."
WHO, WHAT, WHY?
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The rail industry wants to reduce journey times between the major European cities to within the three-hour bracket, says Mr Jackson. It's at that point that rail becomes more efficient than short-stop air services and can challenge them.
"As well as offering more choice to customers, it has huge environmental implications," he says. A passenger travelling by Eurostar produces a tenth of the carbon of an airline passenger making a journey of the same distance.
There are also commercial benefits. Alstom hopes the record will boost TGV sales abroad, where it is competing with the Japanese Shinkansen and the German Inter-City Express high-speed trains.
For some, speed records are more personal. Steve Cunningham has been blind since the age of 12 and has broken records for the fastest blind man on land and water.
"It's all about challenging your own inadequacies, working through them and leaving them behind as you go onto the next task," he said in a BBC interview.
"Losing my sight at the age of 12 was not fun. I had to change but I can prove that change can be healthy. I am far more successful now than I would have been."
Below is a selection of your comments.
If we didn't strive to overcome barriers (like speed records), we'd still be hunter-gatherers.
Robert Illing, Oldham, England
What is the point of speed records?
If nobody challenged the unknown (including speed records) we would still be living in caves.
Progress is only made (in everything) by people pushing the boundries.
Mike Harrington, Newark UK
Well done! much better than flying that distance - compare actual travelling time Oxford - Glasgow by air takes at least four hours, train five and a half. Paris to Avignon, similar distance - 2 hours 40 mins.
Ian , Oxford
Point taken. What progress is speed alone if a simple, relatively quick yet reliable network is all we are after.
kevin tilley, Acworth, Georgia, USA
What is the point of Formula 1? what is the point of advertisement? there is no "need" for speed record, just the need to show how good you are at something, whatever your clients are. And yes, knowing that the technology can sustain 574.8 km/h, I feel quite comfortable at 320 km/h. And I really wish there were a TGV going from Edinburgh to paris, So I could avoid flying when I'm going back to France to see my family
Remy pascal, Edinburgh
Can we have it on the Salisbury to London Waterloo line please.
James Bradley, Andover
It makes me feel more frustrated as it serves to highlight once again the crappy British rail system, for such a tiny country we should be whizzing everywhere on a clean fast efficient system, and the govt. could have afforded it with the billions spent on ruining Iraqi lives.
Julie, Peterborough, Canada
Improvement to modes of travel brought about the jet industry and made international travel possible. The United States should be ashamed at their treatment of the rail system here! The US Gov has given subsidies to the trucking industry so long they've let the rail system deteriorate to the point of extinction! Job well done -- let's stand up for the progressive French Government
BConnally, Sammamish, WA
It's worth pointing out that this train reached nearly half the speed of sound at sea-level. When thought of in these terms it's eye-poppingly fast!
Edward Grace, London
What is the point of speed records? Sounds like the Brits are jealous. France has a excellent train infilstructure while Britain's is decrepit, dirty and unsafe to travel on. The point of the speed record was to show how far France has come in technology terms. Britain's rail infrastructure is 35+ years behind France and will never move forward. What has Britain got to match this? Nothing
Sean Handley, Milton Keynes UK
What's the point? The point is that we are human beings, and we are fascinated with pushing the boundaries of what we can achieve. I wish us Brits still had the spirit of our ancestors and did things like this. If we had the get up and go to do this kind of thing now, we could do London-Edinburgh in not much beyond an hour.
Richard Mills, Milton Keynes
The TGV has been with us for over thirty years and is still grabbing headlines and setting benchmarks - a sad reminder of the overpriced, trundling, chronically unreliable and yet inexplicably profitable fragmented British rail system.
Adam Taylor, Florence, Italy
I bet you the sandwiches are still overpriced...