November 26, 2002
“The Train” (November 2002)
So in the USA when you are going to work and a train gets to the crossing of a track and a road before you do you are hosed.
You shut down the engine, check your watch, try to decide if you should call whoever you are going to meet to tell them that you will be late, etc. etc. etc.
With the French TGV (Train de Grand Vitesse, or “Train of Great Speed”), though, passages takes about 5 or 10 seconds. 200 mph has a way of getting things by you pretty quick.
So I told my French host Yvves that I wanted to see a TGV while in Paris. “No problem.” He responded, “We can go to the station right now”.
“Not what I meant. The train isn’t going 200 mph in the station. We have to find a TRACK in the middle of nowhere.”
So with some queries of friends and maps we found a way to intercept a TGV track near a highway where it would be running fast. Off we went in the little Volkswagen down the highway until we came upon a TGV tressle. Now the tressles of normal trains are these metal latticework structures which are perfectly adequate if you are going 50 mph, but at TGV speeds ZERO flex is allowed, so simple metal lattices no longer work for the bridges. Instead, the TGV tressles are always solid CONCRETE, about twice as thick as the overpasses we are used to seeing over the highways. Also, the the poles that hold the power lines on normal electric trains are spaced maybe over 100 feet or so, with the cable strung seemingly-haphazardly between them. The TGV runs the poles at a tighter spacing though to maintain perfect location of the electric wire overhead from which the train draws it’s power.
Also, regular train tracks can be walked on and crossed by mere mortals like transient humans, oblivious cows, or me. The TGV designers have decided that 1,000 lb cows will not mix well with a train going 200 mph, and that a mere human walking down the tracks might not be ready for the true owner of the tracks to bear down on him at 200. Modern man has become accustomed to train lights, horns, and much huffing, puffing, and grinding as the train squeaks and rattles and lurches clumsily by, giving one plenty of time to get out of the way. At 200 mph, though, all of those rules go out the window, and it is simply a fact that if you are wandering around on the track there will come a moment where you say “what is that noise?” another moment where you say “OMIGOD-I-THINK IT’S-A” and another moment where you are really done thinking for good.
Thus, the TGV tracks have fences running down every foot of their distance, so that no man, cow, car, or other beast may enter this domain where your normal perceptions of what is coming your way are inadequate to grasp the true situation.
So the TGV tracks really stand out from the normal tracks. The heavy concrete bridges, tightly-spaced electric poles, and chain-link fence running along either side show them off clearly as TGV-bearing tracks.
So Yvves and I clattered down the road in the little VW until we found a TGV overpass and proceeded to exit the highway at a luckily-placed access road to drive up to the fence beside the tracks at a location where spectators were never expected. We were about 10 feet from the track: the distance of the protective fence from the rails. Waiting for trains in this manner is fun because it is so quiet and undisturbed, and you know that there will finally be some moment when that light appears on the horizon. Sure enough, 20 minutes later, a trio of lights appeared on the horizon (left, right, and upper light on the locomotive).
Though several miles away, you could STILL see them getting closer rapidly. This is speed to which we are NOT accustomed.
Now you could hear a THUNDER. This was the air getting out of the way of the train as it advanced. It was smooth, deep, ROAR of wind.
This grew from silence to very loud over the course of maybe 10 or 15 seconds as the train went from a point of light to right on top of you.
Then: WHA-WHA-WHA-WHA-WHA-WHA-WHA-WHA-WHA-WHA-WHOOOOoooooooooosssshhhhhhh and it was gone!
Now, perhaps I have not spelled the word “WHA” correctly, but here is my definition:
WHA: The short, sharp, loud sound that is made as the engine or a single car of a train passes by at 200 mph, caused by wind, wheels, and electric motors.
The train mentioned above is 10 cars long.
Interestingly, this train outruns almost all light airplanes, but more interestingly, there is no length of time between the moment you can see that the object approaching you is actually train and the moment it is on you. From a distance, it is only a light. By the time it is close enough to be resolved as a train and your brain has recognized it as a train, it is screaming past you. Thus, your instinct is inadequate for avoidance, and the necessity of running fences down every foot of the track to keep us 10 feet back.