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Jean Bertin's Aérotrain: The Story of a French Genius and His Failure

Jean Bertin's Aérotrain: The Story of a French Genius and His Failure
photo: Wikimedia Commons/Jean Bertin's Aérotrain: The Story of a French Genius and His Failure
21 / 06 / 2023

The idea for Aérotrain was born in the 1950s in the mind of Jean Bertin, who was then running Bertin & Cie. One of his employees, working on engine exhaust silencers, came up with a way for their vehicles to float a few centimetres off the ground.

After much research, Bertin considered giving up the whole process because he realised that the vehicles would have to be huge to work. But he later found out that a group of English researchers were planning to launch a hovercraft, a vehicle based on similar technology to his. Following this, he again embarked on the research process while seeking further funding. He first began work on a military vehicle called the Terraplane BC4. Although it never went beyond a prototype, Jean Bertin considered the patent for his vehicle to be the birth of the Aérotrain.

The designer thought that his technology had great potential, so he went on to try to develop a vehicle that would rely on a kind of "air cushion" and would be used to transport people. RATP was initially in favour but eventually backed down because they would have had to rebuild the entire metro network. Unlike conventional railways, the Aérotrain would run on a single concrete track in the shape of an inverted T.

However, the volume of work did not deter SNCF, which was the next company to express an interest in the project. France was desperate for high-speed trains, and Bertin's project immediately tempted the operator. An official committee, Aérotrain, was formed, and the project was given the code name C02, while C03 was nothing more than the familiar TGV. A test track was thus soon built north of Orleans. It reached 18 kilometres in length and consisted of 120-metre-long sections resting on 900 ten-metre poles.

Thanks to the second prototype, Aérotrain could reach a speed of 422 km/h in 1969 and 430.2 km/h in 1974. It wasn't until 1981 that the TGV surpassed 382 km/h, and in 1989 that the Aérotrain broke the record for all air-cushioned vehicles, which still holds today - it was these that were responsible for the vehicle being able to travel so fast. One of the main factors that slow down all ground vehicles is friction.

In 1974, however, the situation took a turn for the worse. 1973 brought a shock to the financial world when the first petrol crisis occurred. It forced Aérotrain and TGV to rethink the way they were propelled. High-speed trains could rely on electricity, but Aérotrain did not have that option in the form of trolleys. However, this did not prevent Aérotrain from signing a contract to build lines from Cergy-Pontoise to La Défense in Paris.

Georges Pompidou died in 1974 and handed over the keys to the Elysée Palace to the young Valéry Giscard-d'Estaing. The latter was not as keen on the idea as his predecessor and, under pressure from the SNCF, Cergy-La Défense only got the standard train that is now one of the main branches of the RER A. Jean Bertin realised that his invention would never be implemented and died of cancer in 1975. The Aérotrain outlived him by only a few years, its last ride taking place in 1977.

Source of information:; Mustard na;