diamond geezer

 Tuesday, March 12, 2013

À Paris: le métro
Yes, obviously I travelled on the Metro while I was in Paris. It's hard not to, if you want to get around, given how densely packed the network is. They say you're never further than 500 metres from a Metro station in Paris, but then there are more than 300 of those, and the city proper is a fraction the size of Greater London. Into that space they've crammed 16 lines, which isn't easy given the local soil, plus five Crossrail-type lines called the RER that don't stop so often. Yes, obviously I travelled on the Metro quite a lot while I was in Paris. You'd expect nothing less.

A typical station
Unlike the Underground, where very few stations look the same as one another, an awful lot of Metro stations have a fairly identical feel. Most of the Paris subway system was constructed by the cut and cover method, and almost precisely follows main roads. That means it's rarely very far down from the street to the platforms, which are generally arched white spaces with a broad tiled roof. Tunnels are usually double tracked, rather than the single tracks we're used to in London, so the platforms face each other across the void. They're also fairly sparse. A few seats, or maybe benches, are dotted along each wall, rarely the same pattern twice. Throw in a vending machine, maybe, and a series of posters - mostly for just-released films, it seems. As for next train indicators, station layout means there isn't much to obstruct them, certainly little in the way of microphones and dangling detritus. They're also very simple, announcing how many minutes it is until the next train arrives, and the train after that. When the countdown reaches zero the digits flash, and the train rumbles in.

What takes some getting used to is that trains run on the right (like the traffic above), not on the left (as in the UK), and more than once I ended up on one platform whereas I should have been on the other. That shouldn't have been possible if I'd have been following the signs properly. All lines are designated by number, and direction by the name of the station at the end of the line. That's tricky if you don't know Paris well - I had to keep consulting a map to check which terminus was appropriate. But otherwise the signage is pretty clear. There are usually separate tunnels/stairways for entering a platform and for exiting it. This keeps the circulation moving, and can lead to a warren of intertwined passageways in some of the more complex stations. But on the whole, if you can negotiate one metro station you can negotiate them all. The uniformity of the system smacks of being designed municipally at roughly the same time, unlike the Underground which started out as very distinct commercial enterprises. That gives London a more endearing hotchpotch of peculiarities, but Paris the edge in everything actually hanging together.

Some atypical stations
• Cité (line 4): Digging beneath the Seine proved very awkward for Paris's early tunnel builders, so lines tend not to cross it unless they have to. Cité is the only station on the Île de la Cité, that's the island where Notre Dame is built, so is one of the deepest stations on the network. There are lifts, which is unusual, or you can descend a three-flight staircase down into the void - reminiscent of the shaft at Wapping. The platforms are peculiar too, encased within an arch much higher than usual, and with ornate drooping lamps.
• Arts Et Métiers (line 11): The platforms have been done up to look like you're on a submarine, complete with portholes. Blimey.
• Bastille (line 5): Things you don't expect to find on a station platform... the foundations of France's most notorious prison. But there they are on the southbound, the remains of the Bastille, jutting out from the wall. They look a bit like a stone sandwich, and are protected by a metal rail to prevent passengers using them as a bench, or worse.
• Franklin D. Roosevelt (line 9): Don't they have great names, some of these Metro stations? Riding through here feels like sliding into an electrical transformer, such is the effect of the glass 'coil' lights above the platform. And the font used for the station name has a very Fifties feel, almost Muscovite. You'd never get TfL showing such lettering variation across the network.

Some atypical lines
• Line 1: This is the oldest, and busiest line on the Metro, dating back to 1900. It's also got the most modern trains, converted from driver-controlled to fully-automated three months ago. Just like on the DLR you can sit right up at the front and watch the tracks and stations zooming towards you! Boris probably has his eye on this conversion - if it can work in Paris, why not use it to reduce the threat of industrial action in London?
• Lines 2 and 6: These two lines are roughly semi-circular, together creating a ring around the city. They're also unusual in that for much of their length they run above ground, along the central reservation of an orbital road, on a viaduct. A great way to see real Paris neighbourhoods up close, rather than only the commercial haunts in the centre.
• Line 4: London doesn't have the monopoly on engineering works. The southern end of this line was closed at the weekend, but that's because a brand new terminus station is opening at Montrouge at the end of the month. They extend and build more, those French.
• Line 14: The first new Metro line in 65 years, this opened about the same time as the Jubilee line extension. It has similar looking platform doors, but is entirely driverless, and the gaps between stations are a bit longer.

Line 3bis: la ligne la plus courte
Ever since I first saw a Paris metro map, this brief line has intrigued me. It's stuck out on the eastern edge of the city, linking two other lines. It goes nowhere special, and is only four stations long. It goes by the peculiar name of line 3bis, and (seriously?) it's less than a mile in length. And yet it has a regular service, trains every five minutes or so, such is the public spiritedness of Paris' transport board. So when I found myself in the area, courtesy of Oscar Wilde, I had to take a ride.

Gambetta station starts as a series of subways leading down from the roundabout outside the local town hall. I could tell I was in the almost-suburbs when a man at the top of the escalator thrust a double glazing leaflet into my hand like I was a proper Parisian. One passage leads to line 3, the other to line 3bis, the latter emerging above a dim tiled chamber. I can best describe it as Clapham North but on a sharper curve, ie a narrow island platform between two single tracks, and with no posters of any kind for decoration. This was the last line in Paris to get next train indicators, here announcing that I had only two minutes to wait at this curiously bleak outpost. In came the train, a bit shorter than most on the network, and less sophisticated too. These are the only carriages not to feature flip-up seats, because passenger levels never reach standing room only. Indeed there were only two of us in my carriage, this at the height of a Saturday afternoon, plus the driver clearly visible through the glass of the door ahead. He sounded the siren to warn that the doors were about to shut, then rang his bell and off we went. Go on, admit you'd like to hear what that sounded like. Here you go, this audioboo journey from one station to the next should satisfy your curiosity.

The two intermediate stations - Pelleport and Saint-Fargeau - exist solely to ensure that every part of Paris lies with 500m of the Metro. They're quite deep, accessed directly by passenger lifts open to the street above. I wish I'd had time to explore those too, but alas not. Instead we whizzed on along the line, picking up and dropping off almost nobody apart from a few residents who planned to make a connection. The terminus at Porte des Lilas arrived quickly, genuinely less than five minutes after we'd left Gambetta, as we pulled in alongside another service ready to head the other way. Honk. Our empty train then continued into the tunnels ahead... which conceal Paris's most unusual abandoned station. Another peculiarly short line (7bis) was due to link up with 3bis ahead, but the authorities changed their mind at the last minute and curtailed it in a loop. That left Haxo station unwanted inbetween, and not only did it never open, they never finished connecting it to the surface either. That might one day change, if plans to complete the link 100 years late ever come to fruition. In the meantime Haxo lies Aldwych-dead beneath the outskirts of town, and line 3bis shuttles back and forth mostly unnoticed.

» 10 photos of the metro [slideshow]


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