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  • Building a High-Speed Society:France and the Aérotrain, 1962–1974
  • Vincent Guigueno (bio)

During the 1960s, the French engineer Jean Bertin developed a mode of high-speed transport with government support. It would be known as the Aérotrain. The logo on the front of the train—an "A" suspended above a stylized track—signaled that it moved on a cushion of air. As such, it expressed the application of advanced technology much desired by France during the 1960s ( fig. 1 ). Here, I build on the work of such historians as Robert Gilpin, Gabrielle Hecht, and Michael Bess, who have stressed the role of technology in the reshaping of French national identity after World War II. 1 Hecht in particular emphasizes the "technopolicies" of Gaullist France: technical systems imbued with political virtues. To her analysis, I will add a specific spatial dimension.

The Aérotrain, although borrowing the "virtuous" technology of the airplane, never got beyond the experimental phase. Still, it can be said to have embodied an ideal of modern mobility then supported by French elites—an earthbound version of the "high-speed dream" that the Concorde [End Page 21] symbolized in the air. 2 Mobility itself—defined by Swiss sociologist Vincent Kaufmann as capital that can be acquired and managed 3 —is a concept now enriching transport history. 4 I will use it here as a resource for analyzing the competition between the ultimately abandoned Aérotrain and the ultimately successful Turbotrain à Grande Vitesse (TGV), as well as the broader question of the social consequences of high-speed transport.

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Figure 1.

Aérotrain I80, 1969. (Courtesy Société des Amis de Jean Bertin.)

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After sketching the development of the Aérotrain, I will examine it in three different contexts: regional transport planning; its economic, political, and social aspects; and the relationship of Paris to its airports. The essay concludes with a few thoughts on the larger debate about the history of high-speed ground transportation.

Jean Bertin and the Birth of the Aérotrain

Jean Bertin (1917–75) was trained at the E´cole Polytechnique before and during World War II, 5 a period of national trauma that, in the view of Marc Bloch, threatened both moral and material defeat. 6 After completing a degree in aeronautical engineering at the E´cole Nationale Supérieure de l'Aéronautique at its wartime location in Toulouse, he joined the Société Nationale d'E´tudes et de Construction de Moteurs d'Avion, where he worked on the development of reactor engines. In 1955, he and a few colleagues formed Bertin et Cie, a company built on the transfer of aeronautical technology to other industries. 7 Through 1957, they worked out of a barn owned by Gabriel Voisin, the well-known designer and engineer of planes and automobiles.

The enterprise was financially successful, its net income rising from 4 to 50 million francs between 1960 and 1968 thanks to research contracts acquired in aerospace and nuclear engineering. Its engineers and technicians—over 500 by the mid-1960s—were organized in flexible, cross-disciplinary teams configured for specific projects. Not the least of these was the application of air-cushion technology to transport; in 1962, it took out a patent on the Terraplane, a hovercraft that challenged the British lead in this area.

The Aérotrain adopted the hovercraft's air-cushion technology to a fixed-track system. Compressors created the ground effect—the air cushion—and a propeller powered by an airplane engine provided horizontal thrust ( fig. 2 ). Designed to carry eighty seat-belted passengers, the Aérotrain was in fact more like a plane than a train—a Caravelle without wings, as one of its engineers called it. 8 With its streamlined propellers, aluminum [End Page 23] "fuselage," and eventual use of aircraft reactors, it was embedded in the aerial-transport paradigm.

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Figure 2.

The first Aérotrain prototype, Gometz-la-Ville, 1965. The propeller and aluminum body arose from the aeronautical background of the designing engineers. (Courtesy Société des Amis de Jean Bertin.)

Transportation and National Planning during...