French Train Hits 357 MPH Breaking World Speed Record

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A high-speed French train with a souped-up engine and wheels broke the world speed record Tuesday for conventional rail trains, reaching 357.2 mph.

The black and chrome train with three double-decker cars, named the V150, bettered the previous record of 320.2 mph, set in 1990 by the French fast train. However, it fell short of the ultimate record set by Japan's non-conventional magnetically levitated train, which sped to 361 mph in 2003.

• Click here to view photos from the high-speed trip.

The endeavor, some 125 miles east of the capital on a new track linking Paris with Strasbourg, showcased technology France is trying to sell to overseas markets like China.

Sparks flew overhead and a long tail of dust kicked up behind the train as it whizzed through the French countryside, roaring like a jet plane. People lined bridges clapping and cheering as the train zipped underneath them.

"We saw the countryside go by a little faster than we did during the tests," train driver Eric Pieczac said. "I'm proud to have fulfilled the mission."

"Everything went very well," he added.

Technicians on the train had "French excellence" emblazoned on the backs of their T-shirts.

The specially designed train was outfitted to reach at least 335.5 mph -- about the speed of a short-distance freight propeller plane.

Philippe Mellier, president of Alstom Transports, the builder, said before the test that the train would try to outdo the absolute world record held by the Japanese for their magnetically levitated Maglev train.

The French "train a grande vitesse," or TGV, was made up of three double-decker cars between two engines, and dubbed V150.

It was equipped with larger wheels than the usual TGV to cover more ground with each rotation and a stronger, 25,000-horsepower engine, said Alain Cuccaroni, in charge of the technical aspects of testing.

Adjustments also were made to the new track, which opens June 10, notably the banking on turns. Rails were also treated for perfect contact, Cuccaroni said. The electrical tension in the overhead cable was beefed up, from 25,000 volts to 31,000.

It was the first time that double-decker cars were used at such a high speed, according to officials of Alstom, which makes TGVs and which crawled back a year ago from the edge of bankruptcy.

The double-decker cars were transformed into a laboratory for the event so that technicians from the state-run rail company SNCF and Alstom can gather data during the run.

The goal of the operation, called V150, is more than "simply breaking a record," Cuccaroni said. Test data should help improve the security and comfort of passengers in the future, he said.

The new record gilds France's image in the expanding market for high-speed technology as countries like China turn to bullet trains.

France competes with neighboring Germany and with Japan for contracts. Transport Minister Dominique Perben received a California delegation hours before Tuesday's record attempt. California is studying prospects for a high-speed line running from Sacramento in the north to San Diego, in the south, via San Francisco and Los Angeles.

China, the biggest potential market, was to start building a high-speed line this year between Beijing and Shanghai to cut travel time from nine hours to five.