AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France — Ever since the celebrated French TGV high-speed train system opened its first line between Paris and Lyon nine years ago, it has been expanding full-throttle, clear-track ahead through the French countryside.
The Paris-Lyon route was an instant success that cut the 290-mile travel time between the cities to two hours. Counting airport transportation and waiting times, even airlines could not compete with the new pride of French engineering.
Last year, an even faster Atlantic TGV connecting Paris and Rennes opened in the west, setting an international speed record of 313 m.p.h. along the way. A southwest line to Bordeaux opened last month, cutting the travel time from Paris to the wine region to under three hours. Work is expected to be completed in 1993 on a North Europe line of the TGV system that will connect Paris to the rail tunnel being built under the English Channel.
After Spain ordered TGV trains for its railroad system and other countries, including Australia and South Korea, showed strong interest, the train a grande vitesse seemed destined to join Champagne and perfume as one of those French items the rest of the world covets. The TGV fueled the passionate dream of many French, including President Francois Mitterrand, that their country would become the rail transportation hub of the new "borderless" Europe envisioned for the end of 1992.
Until a serious anti-TGV environmental movement erupted here last summer, in fact, French railroad officials felt they were on a fast track to realize their futuristic dream of building a train system that will ultimately connect Paris and London in 2 hours 10 minutes; Paris to Frankfurt in 3 hours; Paris to Barcelona in 4 hours 45 minutes, and Paris to Turin, Italy, in 4 hours 50 minutes.
But here in sunny Provence, the rugged Mediterranean land lovingly captured in the rustic writings of Marcel Pagnol and on the canvasses of Impressionist artist Paul Cezanne, the TGV has suffered its first derailment.
Throughout Provence and the neighboring lower Rhone River Valley, the TGV recently has faced serious resistance from agricultural, environmental and community organizations. The TGV opponents contend that the trains are too noisy, require too much land for their specially designed roadbeds and that they would disrupt the delicate agricultural economy of the region, particularly in densely populated and ecologically sensitive Provence.
Several key lines, including routes to Barcelona and the French Riviera, are in limbo as a result of the movement. And the unexpected opposition has suddenly thrown into question the applicability of the fast-train concept, as developed by the French, for other regions of Western Europe.
"Could it be," asked Le Monde journalist Marc Ambroise-Rendu in a recent article that followed a wave of anti-TGV protests here, "that France's TGV, which is dreaming of conquering foreign markets, is a transport system designed for vast characterless tracts of land, but quite unsuitable to the picturesque and vulnerable settings of rural areas?"
Part of the problem involves basic physics. To operate at full-speed, the TGV trains require their own tracks. Because of speeds averaging near 200 m.p.h., they require much gentler bends than other trains, and are unable to follow the contours of the land as did the old trains.
This engineering handicap was not such a problem in the relatively flat farmlands of northern and western France where the initial lines were constructed. But in the densely farmed lower Rhone Valley and in Provence, where natural landmarks abound, it posed more difficult challenges.
The most controversial spur of the proposed TGV Mediterranean route would cut through the rugged countryside east of the Roman city of Aix-en-Provence, traverse a forest that is home to a rare European eagle and skirt the northern edge of Montagne Sainte Victoire, the humped-back white mountain that was painted so often by Cezanne that it became the very symbol of Provence. Picking up on the Cezanne theme, TGV opponents produced posters depicting streamlined TGV trains crashing through a Cezanne canvas.
The objective of the French railroad management in constructing this route is to cut the train trip from Paris to the Riviera resort city of Nice to four hours from the current seven.
Residents of Provence who oppose the project contend that the three-hour saving for the convenience of Paris tourists is not worth the damage the new line would cause to the environment.
"I am revolted by the idea of such an absurd project," said Gerard Perrier, 43, leader of CARDE, an umbrella group of 35 organizations opposed to the proposed TGV project here. "So much waste just to save a little bit of time!"