the TEEs, Europe in fourth gear

In 1957, in the euphoria of a conquering post-war period, the president of the Dutch railways, Frans Den Hollander, proposed to his European counterparts to launch a new category of fast and prestigious trains with an international dimension which would link the major cities economic and political. He dreams of a company with a unified command that would seal the battered continent’s desire for peace and progress. Trans Europ Express. TEE… Three letters that have become mythical to translate the desire to build Europe by rail.

Den Hollander brings together around this project with high added value of speed and comfort the seven European railway companies: Dutch, West German, Belgian, Luxembourg, Swiss, Italian, French (joined later by the Austrian and the Spanish) . The routes must allow passengers to complete the outward and return journeys during the day, with an unequaled quality of service. Frequency and adjustment of schedules to ensure the flexibility of a demanding clientele were the subject of intense reflection. We were aiming for the top of the basket, the man in a hurry for the XXe century.

“A precious means of communication”

Coming from the airline KLM, Den Hollander imagined a railway company that would have the same staff, the same equipment, the same administration. To his chagrin, he will have to fall back. He will never manage to unify the network which will remain operated by each of the national companies. Under the same banner, each country will retain its prerogatives. “The leaders of the different companies do not agree on the design of the trains, the layout of the cars, and the services on board”, underlines the academic Adrien Duval, author of a memoir on the subject. However, symbols of railway excellence of the time, the TEEs will be the showcase and the laboratory of European railways, which will not skimp on investments.

“TEE trains became a valuable means of communication at a time when major international highways had not yet been completed and when air transport was just beginning to take off. They very quickly acquired a European reputation, which contributed to their success,” recalls Anthony Gouthez, doctoral student in European history, in the Railroad History Review.

The single, harmonized pricing is based, a revolution for the time and the beginnings of IT, on a centralized, efficient but laborious reservation system. It was still necessary to wait a quarter of an hour before obtaining its precious sesame. The design of the silver logo, aligned on the red and cream sides of the ovoid stainless steel cars, suggests speed, modernity, comfort and elegance. Adrien Duval underlines the general enthusiasm. “The poster artists insist on the aerodynamic profile, the futuristic spirit of the power cars and the international character of the whole. »

Legendary trains: TEEs, Europe in fourth gear

Derivative products, board games, puzzles, perfumes take up the aesthetics of these dashing fast cars which give substance to the new dream of abolishing borders. “At the dawn of the 1980s, writes Adrien Duval, the TEE brand represents a continent, an era, a lifestyle. » Customs checks are carried out on board and en route. For these trains that nothing should hinder, it was even a question, for a moment, of granting extraterritoriality status.

A train of 1re class

The TEEs, acclaimed by businessmen, captains of industry, the new nomenklatura, triumphantly chart their course. Spaces are lacking. Travel agencies abroad recommend them for visiting Europe. In 1974, TEEs connected two hundred cities, with twenty-eight international connections and fifteen domestic lines.

Nevertheless, little by little, the plane their height cruppers. Attendance is decreasing. To increase it, the idea of ​​adding second-class cars to them is mentioned. Sacrilege! Outcry! The first companies that give in to temptation immediately lose the TEE label on faulty links. It is the disastrous fate that will know, in particular, the Mistral, the Capitol and the Aquitaine which however profited from a privileged treatment. These rapids were confined to France without crossing its limits. The original condition to deserve to enter this border-jumping club had been adapted. France will end up aligning ten TEEs which circulated only in France.

The clientele, handpicked, resented the possibility of having to share their condition with the common people, even admitting that the people remained in second class, without mixing, even out of simple curiosity, with the upper class. . The TEE institution will never agree to “pervert” its original principle. The TEE was to remain a train of 1re class. And it will remain. Close the ban! Even the battering of the two oil shocks, in 1973 and 1979, will not shake the besieged citadel, the urgency of which nevertheless demanded a revision of the fundamentals. The debates are lively. The Germans plead tirelessly, but in vain, for the opening to the 2e class, arguing that it is “from the largest part of travelers and the most promising part of the market”.

Legendary trains: TEEs, Europe in fourth gear

In 1979, as Anthony Gouthez conveniently recalls, the SNCF, aware that this prestigious and envied model was losing momentum, launched a vast survey of passengers. The results speak for themselves. Second class, not pass ! “TEE train customers have a high self-image and demand recognition of their high status, summarizes Anthony Gouthez. Passengers on TEE trains consider themselves to be “people from the same world” and have difficulty accepting “intruders” in their world, namely children or people from other social classes who can talk loudly and disturb the tranquility of the journey. » The SNCF discovers that it is faced with a “social segregation” claimed. Adrien Duval insists: “The TEE allows you to see your social status recognized and to evolve in an adapted social environment. » And no question, either, for these happy passengers, of borrowing “ordinary trains”.

rear guard fight

Why does this rearguard fight recruit so many followers? Even if the ticket price is high, most passengers on business trips do not pay for it themselves. Then, the quality of the service would inevitably suffer, they think, from an extension to all comers. Finally, nothing can equal the delight of breakfast on board a TEE, nor, at the end of a trying day, the pleasure of an excellent dinner whose flavors can only be appreciated by preserving this interpersonality. The passage of the Corail, new generation cars that smell of the popular, upsets their hearts and spoils their digestion.

Hurry to enjoy it, gentlemen! We will be closing soon. Needless to say that the male gent fills cars almost exclusively. On September 28, 1980, the SNCF launched the last TEE in railway history, the Jules Verne, between Paris and Nantes, with a stop in Angers. It’s the swan song. The epic ends in 1987.

Legendary trains: TEEs, Europe in fourth gear

There are countless artistic variations around these futuristic trains, loaded with mystery. In 1977, Kraftwerk, a German electronic music group, made a splash with a haunting piece. A robot voice repeats, « Trans Europa Express », hallucinogenic mantra. And a watchword: “Rendezvous at the Champs-Élysées”. Robbe-Grillet, filmmaker, uses this mythical train as the frame and decor of a vaporous film, Trans-Europ-Express, forgotten as soon as passed. The singer Marie-Paule Belle composes with Michel Grisolia a light and melancholic ritornello, which the radios love, which will float in the air of that time. “I dreamed of the Blue Train/The Trans Europ Express/Love and speed/Fabulous mornings/Squeaky wheels/On their axles/Other provinces/Under other skies. »

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