In the 1950s and 1960s, we were going to Mars, real soon now. Communism would be beaten, General Motors would reign supreme, nuclear-powered household appliances would add excitement to the humdrum lives of tomorrow’s households. So, for that matter, would nuclear-powered automobiles. Women would wear tight aluminum foil space bikinis, salarymen would commute to their offices on the moon, and they’d be manly and muscular and drive laser rocketships around the asteroid belt, vanquishing hordes of Nazi UFOs that had escaped the happy end of the fascist menace. Plastic was the material of the future, and bachelor pads the solar system over would reverberate to the funky beats of Esquivel.
And right here on Earth, a Europe resurgent after the merciless battering of World War II would finally realize its potential and zoom about in elevated space-age express tramways. Quiet, clean, convenient, comfortable, insanely zippy.
I don’t know why, but the moment you add jets or rockets to something, it automatically becomes awesome. Fins – doubly awesome. But put it on rails, and it turns into a futuristic awesome explosion, straight out of an optimistic Buck Rogers vision of things to come.
Speaking of Nazis, they came close to the rail-bound high speed epitome of coolness:
Yes, I had one of these as an HO-scale model as a kid. Yes, it was awesome. Yes, two of the major criticisms, according to wikipedia, were “the inadvisability of reversing the train” and “operating a prop in close proximity to passengers.” And yes, they were a bunch of megalomaniacal, goose-stepping murderous warmongering thugs with insane visions. But you can’t fault them for the magnificent grandiosity of their technological ideas.
But alas, it was not to be, and it would be left to the French, those masters of the dramatic, to pick up the idea of crazy impractical superfast trains rocketing about the countryside.
Enter the Bertin Aérotrain (French wikipedia article with more detail), designed around an elevated concrete track looking like an upside-down ‘T’. Vehicles were meant to grip the center divider with horizontal rubber wheels, but ride on a cushion of air above the track.
Five prototypes were built, along with a number of test tracks; the cars were powered by turbojets, turboprops, and gas-powered linear induction motors, and included at least two full-sized passenger cars. Top speed of the fastest of these was ca. 430km/h. Some samples (disable sound, the music is obnoxious):
This gentleman did the whole thing via stop motion timelapse photography:
More 1960s images and descriptions on this site (in French).
What was that word we used? Oh right, “awesome”. This site (French) has some more information and pictures, including maps, technical diagrams, and both the I80-HV and S44 prototypes for intercity travel (80 seats) and suburban travel (44 seats), respectively.
But, alas, “awesome” has no place in the dull, pragmatic world of politics and business, and the French national train company, sensing an existential threat to its express rail business, immediately conspired to derail the thing, forming a “Comité de Surveillance de l’Aérotrain” (Aérotrain surveillance committee) dedicated to keeping an eye on progress and, if necessary, squashing it. Like many promising technologically superior forebears, The Aérotrain eventually fell victim to lobbying and scheming in 1974, with its creator passing away soon after – its role as a high-speed transport medium taken by the nascent Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV).
My associate T. and I decided to go have a peek around the longest remaining test stretch, North of Orléans. Most other test runs have been destroyed, including a portion of this one, done in by bulldozers to aid construction of the A19 highway.
There are three “stations” left – the Southern terminus, situated in a sleepy wooded bit of a suburb North of Orléans, the Northern end, on a windswept field outside a small village, and a larger platform toward the Northern end of the line. Neither of the end points are accessible, nor is there anything to see beyond a small concrete terrace supported by pillars, with the raised line ending soon after.
The central station is a bit more interesting, a large flat area accessible by a staircase, with vestiges of unidentifiable rusting machinery and vague outlines of where structures once stood. While I was researching the Aérotrain, one of my contacts mentioned that one of the stations had been burned by vandals a few years ago, but to be honest there wasn’t much that looked like it had ever been particularly flammable.
The area underneath the platform was covered in mud, and surrounded by a half-hearted fence with faded “no entry” signs (the gate was open). The trains themselves are long-gone, squirreled away into museums, and in the 30-odd years since the last one went barreling down the track, gracefully undulating across the French farmland on its hundreds of regular pillars, the whole apparatus has been taken over by trees and weeds.
Fading graffiti has been painted along large parts of the vertical center section, and farmers use the track to shelter hay and lumber. It seems like the track has now become part of the countryside. Some of the locals, driving on the road passing underneath us, waved and honked as we set up our tripods, indubitably finding it terribly funny that a bunch of geeks would want to come take pictures of the ugly grey structure bisecting their view.
The vegetation, at places, has grown into the structure itself, allowing us to subsequently make a muddy, grunting climb the five or so meters up to a section of the line hidden in the forest. T. did not bother carrying up his impressively impractical large-format camera, after seeing me struggle with my bag of crap and my massive tripod – good for feeling a bit comfortable about the presence of drug-addled squatters or wild boars, and equally excellent at catching every single branch and snag in the thick foliage.
Also, finally experiencing a break in the otherwise abysmal French July weather meant we had good light for pictures, but also a thick layer of wet fungal morass coating every horizontal surface of the track. As it were, you couldn’t see far for the leafy branches growing over the train line every few meters, and while it would be fun to spend a Sunday walking the length of the installation with a picnic basket and some drinks, it’s not something I’d want to attempt while burdened with photo gear. Nice views of the treetops, though.
Decades ago, ridiculously over-teched silver bullets rocketed their way around the area, over the vast grey snake cutting through the forest and fields. Numerous alternate uses have been proposed, including by this artist who designed a “pentacycle” for pedaling along the top of the track. Now it’s just mold, cracks, rust, and two idiots stuck in a tree.