Le choo choo

It was just so damned sophisticated that I didn’t feel like I belonged.

Riding first-class on the TGV Mediterranee, I was sipping chilled wine and nibbling on some creamy cheese and crunchy baguette. The stylish silver, red and yellow bullet was hurtling its way to Marseille at a nifty 160 mph, and the waiter in a coat and tie even smiled.

The French, it seemed, had found the answer to travel.

I have ridden many a bus and plane, and they didn’t compare to this. The TGV (train grande vitesse or “train of great speed”) whisks passengers along in smooth stability and is much more roomy than cramped airline travel.

The one drawback for tourists may be the speed. The famous French countryside goes by in a blur. But how many quaint barns and cattle does one need to see? It’s much better to ride your bike through Provence, but that’s another sort of travel story.

The state-owned railway company, SNCF, is a success because of speed, price and convenience. I originally jumped into a Paris Metro station near the East Bank and zipped over to the nearby Gare d’Orsay and got on board. The TGV almost matches airline speed because the convenient downtown railway stations cut down on overall travel time. The three hours to Marseille flew by like the farms.

Most Americans step off the TGV and ask one question: “Why the heck can’t we do this back home?” Well, it didn’t work out that way for many reasons, but things may be changing. Because of horrendous and ever-increasing traffic problems, rail is being re-examined (see “The ride of their lives,” page 16).

We have a way to go before a TGV-like experience is in our immediate travel plans in California, but if voters get a chance to ride on a bullet in France, Japan or elsewhere, the option may come faster.