When the French Skytrain Was the Epitome of Highspeed Commuter Travel
As hyperloops or vacuum tube travel – currently highspeed travel geek buzzwords – move to usurp TGVs and similar trains, a certain nostalgia haunts a corner of central France — home of the aérotrain or Skytrain, an early form of highspeed land travel, pioneered by Jean Bertin, a French engineering genius.
Find more pictures of the Hyperloop here
While scientists accelerate the pace of bringing Elon Musk’s Hyperloop — the speed of sound travel tube — to fruition, spare a thought for Jean Bertin, the French inventor whose 1960s bullet trains started it all. That train or what’s left of it, now languishes in a shed at Chevilly some 15 kms north of Orléans but the railway testbed and other bits and pieces can still be seen marching across the countryside by travellers on the A19 road where it crosses the Orléans to Paris A10.
Wired magazine reported on the hyperloop last August describing it as “a transportation network of above-ground tubes that could span hundreds of miles. With extremely low air pressure inside those tubes, capsules filled with people would zip through them at near supersonic speeds. (Inventor) Elon Musk’s pipe dream to leapfrog high speed rail and go right to packing us into capsules that fling us across the country in hours using what are, essentially, pneumatic tubes, sounds like science fiction”.
But investors and scientists are working hard on transforming the concept in to reality. “A startup plans to start construction on a full-scale, passenger-ready Hyperloop in 2016between San Francisco and Los Angeles.” (See also The race to build the Hyperloop).
For those who’ve never heard of it, the Aréotrain could be styled the hyperloop’s predecessor certainly in terms of the search for greater and greater land speeds in travel. While every train buff in Europe knows of the TGV — the pride of the French high speed rail fleet and which, like the Toulouse-based Airbus, is successfully exported worldwide — fewer perhaps have heard of its ill-fated Aréotrain predecessor. This futuristic bullet train was built in 1965, designed to ride on an air cushion and offer high-speed travel between main centres. Back in 1967 its maximum speed, boosted by a jet plane reactor, was a commendable 345 km/h.
Travel down towards Orléans through the Beauce and keep an eye out for the remains of this technological masterpiece. Eighteen kilometres long, the elevated concrete rail track now laced with anti-abortion graffiti and partially cut through to make way for the A19 motorway, bestrides part of the Beauce region (a protected natural habitat) as a truncated but proud monument to the demise of the futuristic Skytrain.
(The text below by French journalist Stéphane Bastien and written in 1987 was translated and adapted by M. Jacques Laframboise. It is published at this website which provides a mine of information in French and English for those interested this forerunner to the TGV. A number of video clips showing test runs and development work can be found here.)
“The first aérotrain or Skytrain was 10 metres long, weighed 2.6 tonnes and carried four passengers and two drivers. Its top speed was 200 km/h on a short 6.7 km stretch of concrete rail specially built for it that ran between Gometz-la-Ville and Limours 94 kms north east of Orléans. Jean Bertin a French engineer designed the first air cushion vehicle which he called aérotrain and in 1967, he added a jet plane reactor to it to boost its speed to a record 345 km/h. The video below is of the 1969 aérotrain setting a new speed record at 422 km/h thanks to the use of a Pratt & Witney reactor with 1250 kg thrust. As a result of these good results, Bertin’s engineering company won government help to build a larger concrete rail track and a bigger aérotrain. On July 1969, a 20 km railway built in northern Orléans was opened. It was designed so that it could eventually be extended as the future Paris-Orléans line. The aérotrain I-80, had 80 seats and travelled at 250 km/h. It was further modified with a jet reactor to achieve a top speed of 400 km/hr. Some 3000 train buffs used the prototype during its test runs.
“Based on some these impressive testbed results, a government contract was signed June 21, 1974 with Bertin and Cie to build a number of aérotrain links: Paris-Orléans, Paris-Lyon, Orly-Etoile, Bruxelles-Genève through Luxembourg and Basel, Calais-Fourmies via Dunkerque and Maubeuge, Aix en Provence-Marseille, Orly-Roissy, La Défense-Cergy Pontoise bringing commercial operation very close to implementation. But on July 17 1974 the government under recently-elected French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing let it be known that it no longer intended to pursue the contract … All those years of research, tests and successes were annulled. Other attempts to implement aérotrain lines were made, but the announcement, September 1975, of a TGV (High Speed Train) line between Paris and Lyon was the deathblow to the project. Jean Bertin, exhausted by his years of hard work, died of cancer in late 1975. Today, the aérotrain still retains the world speed record for an air cushion vehicle.”
Watch this video made by the company explaining its project:
Why did a project with such obvious potential die before it properly got off the ground?
Stories differ but one account says the French national railway utility the SNCF was unhappy about the development as it threatened its monopoly and so set about developing its own high speed train the TGV. However the technology it used was less adventurous because SNCF thought the costs of development and deployment would be lower than the revolutionary air cushion Bertin proposed.
Another more intriguing account is provided by Michel Guérin the communist mayor of Saran (Loiret) and a former railwayman whose memoirs, published in October 2015, state baldy: “This industrial shipwreck was due to favouritism by the (then president Valéry) Giscard (d’Estaing) couple: In our country private relationships can result in a bending of issues that are in the public interest. That is what happened with the Aérotrain. […] A vehicle that was not designed to use Michelin tyres, nor Total petroleum and certainly not the engine developed by Jeumont-Schneider, was intolerable, particularly given that Mme Giscard (d’Estaing) came from the Schneider family…”
President Georges Pompidou had been a supporter of the Skytrain but it was his successor, President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who signed the sky train’s death warrant.
Jean Bertin was born September 5, 1917 in Druyes-les-Belles-Fontaines (Yonne)and studied at the Polytechnique and National School of Aeronautics. After joining Snecma S.A. a French multinational aircraft and rocket engine manufacturer, he became its Deputy Director in charge of Technical Special Studies on engines and propulsion. He was the father of many remarkable inventions, such as the thrust reverser that today is found in almost all jet aircraft engines.
On 1 October 1955 he set up his own company Bertin & CIE. Its first achievement was to rediscover by chance, the ground effect phenomenon or “air cushion” in 1957. This discovery, combined with flexible rubber skirts opened the door to a new means of transport, where an air cushion enabled a load to move without friction and thus doing away with the wheel!
Further research on the air cushion led to the development and manufacture of Terraplanes (terrestrial hovercraft), Naviplanes (marine hovercraft), and especially the SkyTrain, whose initial prototype came on stream at the end of 1965.
The gallery below shows a range of photos taken from the aérotrain website mentioned above:
The video below is a clip of the national TV report on the fire which destroyed the remaining examples of the aérotrain in the hangar where they had been moved for preservation by enthusiasts of the train and its technology. The fire was thought to have been of a criminal nature:
Story: Ken Pottinger