Train of thought

Way back in long-forgotten normal times, my favoured mode of transporting myself around the city was on foot. Clad in a pair of comfy adventure shoes, I’d whizz around the streets (no flâneur-ing for me) darting from errand to errand, leaving crowds of dawdlers in my wake. Sometimes though, time and distance would prove too much for even my athletic paws and I’d have to rely on the metro to magic me where I wanted to go instead. Under lockdown law I’ve have no choice but to rely sole-ly (ha!) on my trusty pieds and I’ve already worn out one pair of trainers as a result. A very strange thing has happened my friends, a very strange one indeed. I actually miss the metro.

Rush hour push-and-shove, unsavoury characters with wandering hands (or mouths; a friend of mine was bitten on the behind on the metro once), urine-scented platforms, or the living hell that is line 13 – what on earth is there to get so sentimental about? Well yes, excellent point, but no one’s perfect. It’s easy to be negative and point out its flaws, but even easier to take the whole thing for granted. Rendering pretty much the whole of Paris (intramuros) accessible within a 40-minute time frame for a mere pittance (er, yes it is compared to many other cities in the world) is nothing short of a luxury when you think about how long the journey would take by car. So here goes a blog-ode to the Paris metro, whose hallowed platforms I have not graced for months on end, and am unlikely to for the foreseeable future (not being essential in my case).

It’s hard to imagine the city without it, but metro-less it was back in 1845 when the first ideas of an underground transport system were being bandied around. The ultimate aim was to extend the existing (overground) rail system, though the powers-that-be fell foul of the charming French habit of endless circular talking about stuff without achieving a single thing, and it wasn’t until, incredibly, 1898 that construction began (hopefully Brexit negotiations will follow a similar pattern). Even the likes of Victor Hugo, Guy de Maupassant and members of the Eiffel Society (yes, the tower guy) weighed in with their two centimes’ worth.

Civil engineer whizz Fulgence Bienvenüe (pictured above) was given the momentous task, later known as Le Père du Metro. (Yes, the Montparnasse metro station is named after him, it doesn’t mean ‘welcome’. You can pay your respects there, or at Père Lachaise cemetery.) He had help from Jean Baptiste-Berlier, the chap responsible for Paris’ pneumatic tube postal system, and well, you can see the connection there. Intense and difficult construction of the initial 10 lines, mainly due to the challenging soils under Paris, was mostly completed by the 1920s, with the first line, line 1 obviously, opening on 19th July 1900.

Line extensions linking the inner suburbs began in the 30s, much to the distaste of true-blue intramuros Parisians (are they ever satisfied?). WWII scuppered further plans, and many stations never reopened after the conflict. Forget your images of plucky Parisians huddled together on metro platforms sheltering from the bombing above, in reality Paris was never bombed much in the first place, and most stations were far too shallow to make efficient bomb shelters anyway. Modernisation and extension began again in the 50s, and in 1977 the metro became a real somebody with its own mascot, Serge the Rabbit, who loves to tell us to ‘mind those fingers!’.

Roll into the station ‘today’ and the 215km-long system comprises of 302 stations (including one of the world’s largest at Châtelet) and 16 lines. The 2nd busiest in Europe, it shunts around 6.5 million people a day (outside of pandemics) and is due to add another 200km of track to its network by 2030(ish) with four new lines as part of the ambitious Grand Paris Express plan. The paper tickets will disappear from daily life next year, and the drivers will soon follow suit.

It might not work as well as you want it to all the time, but we must give credit where credit is due. Not only does it wonderfully spirit us from A to B, but it gave the world the word ‘metro’ (a contraction of its full name La Compagnie du chemin de fer métropolitan de Paris – phew) and exported its rubber-tyre system to build other metro systems all around the world. Plus where would the cityscape be without Guimard’s beautiful metro entrances inviting you into the city’s bowels?

Until I can descend once again, I’ll be watching Youtube videos of metro journeys on my favourite lines from the comfort of the Granny Flat (yes, very much a thing). I’ll also be preparing a post on the wonderful stories behind the metro stations themselves, but hey, it might take a while. In the meantime, remember kids M is for ‘metro’, but also for ‘mask’…

Post originally published 12/05/2020