ABOARD THE TGV, France -- The lights of villages flash by at unaccustomed speed as France's Train a Grande Vitesse streaks through the Burgundy countryside at 156 miles an hour with a full load of passengers on the swift evening run to Paris.
The sleek orange train, the world's fastest, makes the nearly 300-mile trip from Lyon in two hours, 52 minutes, more than an hour faster than the elegant Mistral Trans-Europe Express, whose swank and fine dining car made this route a pleasure for a generation. The time will shrink to two hours flat next year when new roadbeds will permit high speeds along more of the route.
But already the TGV's speed has made it a commercial as well as technical success in record time. Since it was inaugurated Sept. 27, the TGV has been carrying 14,000 passengers on about 35 trains a day, a third more than the run's previous average and sharply higher than official predictions.
The TGV's cars are tubular and low, specially built for speed. At each end of the train crouches a sloop-nosed electric locomotive that generates 4,000 horsepower on reinforced roadbeds with welded tracks and concrete ties. Inside is a seating arrangement patterned after airplanes, with flip-down plastic trays for eating and overhead reading lights.
As the Mistral pulled out of the Gare de Lyon earlier in Paris, two elderly ladies stood on the platform waving goodbye to friends and a voice came over the intercom announcing that the first lunch service was about to begin.
At a stately pace, the sparsely populated train clanked toward the suburbs, seeming boxy and topheavy compared to the TGV resting in the station between sprints. A dark-haired young woman wearing a brown fur coat and a matching Russian-style fur hat paced down the corridor, looking into the upholstered wool compartments, evoking the romantic Lara and her theme.
A little later, as the waiter in his starched white tunic served quenelles au crabe and mignon de veau aux bolets with a respectable cotes de beaune wine, he lamented the drop from three dining cars to one but explained that some people still snub the TGV to take the Mistral.
"There is no service on the TGV," he sneered, "and no variety. They only have one plate and it's not the same atmosphere as in a dining car."
By the time the pont l'eveque on a bed of straw and the frozen strawberries made way for coffee, the waiter was preparing empty tables for 4 o'clock tea and three middleaged women fiddled with marmalade jars waiting to be served.
"We will just wait," said one as Burgundy farms flowed by outside the curtained window. "We have all the time we need."
The high-speed TGV, which has had only a few technical problems since it began service, is one part of France's success with trains. The nationalized rail system, the Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais (SNCF), reports that in all it carried 695 million passengers last year, up 2.8 percent from 1980. That represents a traffic of 54.5 billion passenger-kilometers, Europe's highest rate, well ahead of West Germany with 47.8 billion or Italy with 39.3 billion, according to Jean Ravel, commercial chief for SNCF's passenger department.
Although the TGV cost French taxpayers an estimated $1.6 billion to develop and build, rail officials say its success will save the nation money in the long run because most passengers otherwise would be driving their cars and using imported petroleum. The French internal airline, Air Inter, reports its load level also has dropped by about a third on the Paris-Lyon route.
Transport minister Charles Fiterman, one of the cabinet's four Communists, recently ordered the SNCF to prepare studies for other TGV lines. Routes to Brittany and Bordeaux are highest on the priority list.
In addition, the state rail authority reports it has submitted a study for possible construction of a TGV line linking Los Angeles gamblers to Las Vegas casinos. Other possible export projects are reported in South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Brazil.
As the TGV hurtled toward Paris the other night, a French businessman complained to his first-class seat partner that the airline-style meal was the same as he had eaten on the way down from the capital earlier in the day.
The salad was served under cellophane but the steak and fish were served individually and the plates were china. Unimpressed, the businessman looked at the airline trappings around him, sipped on his rose wine, and talked of how much nicer the atmosphere used to be in oldfashioned trains.
"They're going to make compartments in the TGV soon," he predicted confidently.