Here are seven things you need to know about using the Paris Métro

Abesses station. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

For a panicked Briton thrown into the Parisian underground, the Paris Métro can be intimidating, confusing, and often simply infuriating. Here are the seven things you need to know – and not freak out about – if you’re planning on crossing the channel anytime soon.

1. Handles

Oh god the trains have handles. Literal handles. That you have to use in order for the doors to open, lifting the small piece of metal up slowly as you’re unsure if you’re going to break the train or lose your arm, only for the doors to snap open rapidly and viciously. You’re left standing confused and bemused, buffeted by the heavy station air – all while being furiously judged by Parisians.

Now don’t get me wrong, most Parisians are lovely. But when you see seasoned Métro veterans lifting the handle well ahead of time as the train coasts into the station, waiting impatiently for the hiss of the unlocking mechanism, it’s hard not to feel intimidated. Your average Briton, on the other hand, (read: me) can be relied upon to stare at the door, willing it to open automatically, only to miss their stop as the train rolls away.

It’s also worth noting that the doors open before the train has stopped moving. TfL officials would have kittens.

2. Double deckers

Some of the trains in Paris are double deckers and, here, that’s completely normal. Picturing such trains overground might be an easier imaginative leap for Tube-dwellers, but when you see one underground for the first time it’s a truly disarming experience.

These double-deckers are reserved for the busiest lines, running on the RER network, separate to (but overlapping with) the 16 normal single-decker Métro lines. Taking your seat on the upper deck is a disconcerting feeling at first, but when you’re almost guaranteed a seat and get a novelty experience in the bargain, it’s hard to complain.

3. Numbers and names

Part of the quaintness of the Tube is the line names, and the weird, almost-nationalism attached to whichever one you call home. But in Paris, the lines are just numbers. Boring, coloured numbers.

Station names, however, are amazing. Sure, there’s standard fare that you’d expect from tube stops around a capital city, with Bastille, République, Europe and Nation reflecting the squares from which they take their name. But Paris has a delightful little idiosyncrasy that London doesn’t have at all: the Parisians who mapped out the metro lines obviously had a real penchant for naming stations after famous figures.

You’ve got legendary authors, like Victor Hugo (Les Misérables) and Alexandre Dumas (The Three Musketeers). You’ve got a station named after Pablo Picasso. You’ve got political figures, like Robespierre and, somewhat oddly, Franklin D. Roosevelt. (You can already see Macron rubbing his hands at the thought of having a station named after him in 50 years’ time.)

My stop, Parmentier, is named after the guy who discovered potatoes and brought them to France, saving thousands of Parisians' lives during a time of famine. There’s even a little statue of him giving a potato to an impoverished man. Inspiring stuff.


4. The Navigo

There’s no beating around the bush: the Parisian equivalent of the Oyster is a mess. For a start, there are two of them, with confusing and barely-existent differences between them. There’s the carte Navigo, for which you have to fill in a form and need to be a Parisian, and the carte Navigo Découverte (“discovery”), which costs €5 up front.

After navigating that little minefield, you then have to put credit on it. Whereas you might expect to charge it as you go like an Oyster card, reality is not that simple. You can only charge it for a week, or a month, constricted by the very narrowest calendar sense of each. For example, if it's Wednesday, buying a week pass doesn’t grant you seven days' worth of credit: it gives you until midnight on Sunday, at which point your credit is gone, ready for a new blue Monday. The same applies for a month – that credit drops off at midnight on the final day of the month. It’s a confusing system which needlessly complicates navigating the Métro – and no, you can’t pay with a contactless bank card as you pass through the gates.

5. Manual gates

Speaking of which, we need to talk about Paris’ metro gates. Many of them are manual, making you feel less like you’re travelling underground in a major European city, but rather like you’re passing through the turnstiles at an old football ground.

You have to push through the turnstile, and then push through the weird flappy door-gate thing just behind it. No, I’ve never incorrectly presumed that it was automatic and that my Navigo hadn’t worked before turning around and walking away. Why do you ask?

6. Advertising

We’re all used to seeing movie posters and “this amazingly well produced photo was shot on an iPhone that you can’t afford” ads lining Tube tunnels, but Paris has taken capitalism to a new level. This is Opéra station:

The entire station is one massive Destiny 2 advert. I mean, seriously, look at the light-up logo! Talk about maximising advertising revenue per square inch.

7. Older trains and fewer peoples

Some of the trains running are old. Creakingly, achingly old. If you look in the corner of a carriage, you can see disused screens from the past with manually-operated lights telling you which stop you’re approaching, like those on the front of old buses.

Combined with the handles and some suspiciously flickering lights, you’re one steam engine away from a strangely antiquated experience. It’s cute – if a little inefficient. You can’t help but suspect that the Métro has had far less money pumped into it than the Tube over the years.

****

The Paris Métro certainly takes some getting used to. Yet for all its strangeness, the experience is a positive one – it’s still a fantastic way around the city.

It’s also a reassuringly universal one. In London and Paris alike, there are cramped rush hours, efficient trains and – yes – incessant reminders to mind the bloody gap.

All images courtesy of the author.

 
 
 
 

Barnet council has decided a name for its new mainline station. Exciting!

Artist's impression of the new Brent Cross. Image: Hammerson.

I’ve ranted before about the horror of naming stations after the lines that they’re served by (screw you, City Thameslink). So, keeping things in perspective as ever, I’ve been quietly dreading the opening of the proposed new station in north London which has been going by the name of Brent Cross Thameslink.

I’ve been cheered, then, by the news that station wouldn’t be called that at all, but will instead go by the much better name Brent Cross West. It’s hardly the cancellation of Brexit, I’ll grant, but in 2017 I’ll take my relief wherever I can find it.

Some background on this. When the Brent Cross shopping centre opened besides the A406 North Circular Road in 1976, it was only the third large shopping mall to arrive in Britain, and the first in London. (The Elephant & Castle one was earlier, but smaller.) Four decades later, though, it’s decidedly titchy compared to newer, shinier malls such as those thrown up by Westfield – so for some years now, its owners, Hammerson, have wanted to extend the place.

That, through the vagaries of the planning process, got folded into a much bigger regeneration scheme, known as Brent Cross Cricklewood (because, basically, it extends that far). A new bigger shopping centre will be connected, via a green bridge over the A406, to another site to the south. There you’ll find a whole new town centre, 200 more shops, four parks, 4m square feet of offices space and 7,500 homes.

This is all obviously tremendously exciting, if you’re into shops and homes and offices and not into depressing, car-based industrial wastelands, which is what the area largely consists of at the moment.

The Brent Cross site. Image: Google.

One element of the new development is the new station, which’ll sit between Hendon and Cricklewood on the Thameslink route. New stations are almost as exciting as new shops/homes/offices, so on balance I'm pro.

What I’ve not been pro is the name. For a long time, the proposed station has been colloquially referred to as Brent Cross Thameslink, which annoys me for two reasons:

1) Route names make rubbish modifiers because what if the route name changes? And:

2) It’s confusing, because it’s nearly a mile from Brent Cross tube station. West Hampstead Thameslink (euch), by contrast, is right next to West Hampstead tube.

Various other names have been proposed for the station. In one newsletter, it was Brent Cross Parkway; on Wikipedia, it’s currently Brent Cross South, apparently through confusion about the name of the new town centre development.

This week, though, Barnet council quietly confirmed it’d be Brent Cross West:

Whilst the marketing and branding of BXS needs to be developed further, all parties agree that the station name should build upon the Brent Cross identity already established. Given the station is located to the west of Brent Cross, it is considered that the station should be named Brent Cross West. Network Rail have confirmed that this name is acceptable for operational purposes. Consequently, the Committee is asked to approve that the new station be named Brent Cross West.

Where the new station will appear on the map, marked by a silly red arrow. Image: TfL.

That will introduce another irritating anomaly to the map, giving the impression that the existing Brent Cross station is somehow more central than the new one, when in fact they’re either side of the development. And so:

Consideration has also been given as to whether to pursue a name change for the tube station from “Brent Cross” to “Brent Cross East”.

Which would sort of make sense, wouldn’t it? But alas:

However owing to the very high cost of changing maps and signage London-wide this is not currently being pursued.

This is probably for the best. Only a handful of tube stations have been renamed since 1950: the last was Shepherd’s Bush Market, which was until 2008 was simply Shepherd's Bush, despite being quite a long way from the Shepherd's Bush station on the Central line. That, to me, suggests that one of the two Bethnal Green stations might be a more plausible candidate for an early rename.


At any rate: it seems unlikely that TfL will be renaming its Brent Cross station to encourage more people to use the new national rail one any time soon. But at least it won’t be Brent Cross Thameslink.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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