It is easy to lose one's perspective while riding the trains of France. Several travelers, after finishing their foie gras, sampled some delicate scallops in the new dining car on the Paris-to-Strasbourg train not long ago and wondered aloud if the cuisine was really up to three-star standard.
The answer, despite advance preparation of the dinner by one of France's most celebrated chefs: probably not.
But the question reflects the expectations of travelers on the trains of France. Whether or not the food was worth three stars, it was probably better than any other on any train in the world. Yet the diners had hopes for something even better.
France is one of the few countries left where trains compete with planes and cars as a wise and convenient way to travel from one region of the country to another. French trains are comfortable, efficient and fast. Some, in fact, are the fastest in the world.
"Look at the plane," a child shouted some months ago, pointing through the window of the sleek TGV (as the Trains a Grande Vitesse or High-Speed Trains are called). The other passengers could see a small, single-engine plane high in the sky, falling behind in its vain attempt to keep up with the train, which reaches 168 miles an hour on the Paris-to-Lyon line. The plane looked as if it were flying backward.
Although French writer Marcel Proust described the raptures of rail travel in loving detail in the early years of the century, there is no historical or cultural reason why France should still maintain an extensive and modern railway system.
French trains, for example, did not help unite the territory of France the way American trains helped turn a continent into a country.
But as part of an intensive program of rushing into the age of high technology, French officials decided in the 1970s that modernization of the railways was in the public interest -- and might even be profitable. As a result, more passengers are attracted to French trains every year, and the railways have embarked on a program of significant expansion.
To be sure, there are problems with the French railway system. The railways, which are owned by the government, do not pay for themselves, though officials hope to make them break even by the end of the decade. A series of terrifying accidents killed 88 people last year, shocking France and forcing the president of the French National Railroads to resign. The accidents came after a near-perfect safety record for more than a decade.
Despite the problems, the French railways are still the object of envy and longing for any American who might like the idea of speeding in comfort from Los Angeles to San Francisco in two hours and 15 minutes, or from New York to Washington in one hour and 23 minutes -- with or without an almost-three-star meal.
Use of the sleek, bright-orange, electrically powered TGV, which began operations in 1981, is helped by the size of France, a small country when compared with the United States. On its first line, the TGV has cut in half, to two hours, the travel time for the 240 miles between Paris and Lyon, taking away 50 percent of the travelers who used to go by plane. The TGV also is one of the few operations of the French railways that makes a profit.
Although the TGV needs a special rail line for maximum speed, it can move over old lines as well. This has allowed officials to extend use of the TGV to other cities, including Marseille and Geneva.
There are plans to build TGV lines from Paris to Bordeaux on the Atlantic Coast and from Paris to Belgium and West Germany. Officials hope that once the English Channel tunnel is completed in the 1990s, the TGV can take passengers directly from Paris to London.
Although the TGV is fast, comfortable and efficient, it is not luxurious -- a gap that French Railroads seems intent on filling. Officials say that passengers, finding few advantages in first-class travel, were abandoning it in favor of second-class travel, and to stop this trend the railways inaugurated "Nouvelle Premiere" (New First Class) as an experiment on its Paris-to-Strasbourg run eight months ago.
Since no TGV runs on this line, the railways also had to worry about airline competition. "It takes at least four hours to get to Strasbourg," said Francis Boulanger of the French National Railroads information office in Paris. "If we want to keep our customers from taking the plane, we must come up with something better than regular first class."
Nouvelle Premiere travelers, after waiting for their train in a special lounge that is isolated from the frenzy of the station, go aboard first-class cars redesigned with salmon-and-black interiors and swivel chairs placed roomily apart in a variety of combinations that avoid the stereotyped rows or compartments usually found on trains. Some cars have computers programmed with games and information about hotels, restaurants and the French railways. The train also has a bar, which looks more like a hotel cocktail lounge.
Passengers can break up the long trip with dinner in a special dining car, also decorated in salmon and black. It features a menu prepared in Paris under the supervision of Joel Robuchon,regarded by several gourmets as the finest chef in France. The food is refrigerated and vacuum-packaged in a process that avoids the tastelessness of frozen airline meals.
Among the choices for the first course are salad of foie gras with hearts of artichoke, smoked salmon with caviar and herb-spiced rounds of lobster. For the main course, there are scallops with cabbage, breast of chicken with foie gras, lamb chops with fresh herbs and veal in white sauce. A dessert cart offers ice cream, sherbets, pastry, liqueur-flavored fruit salad and other dishes.
The menu lists 13 red wines, five whites and a rose', but if the order is placed 24 hours in advance, a diner can have one of three special red Bordeaux that range in price from $109 to $188 a bottle. Dinner for two on the Nouvelle Premiere restaurant car, if an inexpensive red wine is ordered, comes to about $145, including the 15 percent tip.
There seem to be some hitches in the system, perhaps stemming from its newness. Many travel agents forget to inform travelers that they must have reservations for the restaurant. On a recent evening, two travelers were turned away from a nearly empty dining car for lack of a reservation. Officials insist that the number of reservations determines how much food is taken on -- an odd explanation in view of the variety of dishes listed on the menu.
Nevertheless, French Railroads is proud of the luxury of New First Class travel. "We would like to put it on all our trains," Gaston Kuhn, a spokesman, said in a recent interview.
But although first-class travel has increased by 5 percent on the Paris-Strasbourg line, he said it was still too early to tell whether the experiment was attracting enough first-class passengers to call it successful.
The French railways have other special services to attract customers, including playground cars for children on some trains, package deals that cover not only train fare but hotel charges at various vacation sites and comfortable nights aboard sleeper cars.
The railways, which were nationalized in 1937, are regarded more as a public service than as a business. But under an agreement signed three years ago, the managers of the railways have promised that the trains will in general pay their own way by the end of the decade.
The government would still subsidize special programs, such as discounts for families traveling together, adequate services to the suburbs of Paris and small, special lines to serve isolated areas. But revenues would have to match costs for everything else.