PARIS, April 3, 2007 — -- France's famous high-speed train, the TGV, broke its 17-year-old world speed record today when it hit a top speed of 357.2 mph.
"I'm delighted. It's a mixed feeling of honor and pride to have been able to reach this speed," 46-year-old train driver Eric Pieczac told French TV. "I'm relieved. I did not sleep very well last night. There was a little pressure."
The specially designed black-and-chrome train -- code name V150 for 150 meters per second (or more) -- is made up of three double-decker cars between two powerful engines totalling 25,000 horsepower. Its wheels are bigger than a normal TGV so it can reach high speeds without the engines overheating; the engine's windshield is reinforced.
Thousands of onlookers lined the stretch of track 125 miles east of Paris, clapping and cheering; some were even drinking champagne as the train sped past them.
Sparks were seen flying over the train, a cloud of dust trailing it. Millions of others watched the world record unfold in front of their TV sets.
"I'm very proud," said Lebanese-born Pierre Bou-Jabbour, 40, from Levallois.
"France is ahead when it comes to trains compared with other European countries and Japan," he told reporters.
"Watching the record being beaten on TV was very emotional. A big hooray!" said Gerard Jean, 49, of Paris.
Onboard the rocket train were journalists, officials, and 60 technicians and engineers, all wearing T-shirts with the words "French Excellence" printed on their backs.
For train manufacturer Alstom and the state-owned rail company, SNCF, today was significant.
"For Alstom, it makes sense in terms of contracts even if it's complicated because of the harsh competition. In terms of image, it shows the savoir-faire of France," François Dumont, editor in chief of La Vie du Rail, told ABC News.
Alstom is hoping to sell its high-speed trains in several countries, including China, Argentina and Brazil. The state of California is among the interested buyers. California's project would link Sacramento and San Diego by going through San Francisco and Los Angeles. The project, if approved, would cost an estimated $40 billion. It would take less than 2½ hours to reach Los Angeles from the Bay Area.
"For the national railway company, SNCF, the prestige can have some commercial spinoffs," Dumont said. "With the train soon hitting the international market, the SNCF knows that by establishing such a record it has proved itself a serious competitor."
Another French train held the previous rail train record, set in 1990, of 320.2 mph. Normal TGV trains have a cruising speed of 186 mph.
Japan holds the absolute speed record for a train, with its magnetically levitated Maglev train that floats over a guideway on a magnetic field without ever touching the track. The Maglev set a record of 361 mph in 2003.
Today's record for a train on rails may hold for a while but this may actually be the last time France sees one of its TGVs break a speed record.
"I think we've reached the limit in terms of speed. With the new Alstom technology of motorization distributed along the entire length of each train, I don't think it will be possible to go over the speed that we saw today," Dumont said.