Paris's mayor wants to go down under to give the city a new lease of life

WATO, a clandestine party agency that has been secretly colonising Paris's underground spaces for years. Image: Agence WATO

Paris’s history has always been as much underground as above ground. 

The city’s catacombs, an underground labyrinth stacked floor to ceiling with the bones of six million Parisians, is a key attraction. Half a million tourists visit every year. The Paris metro has one of the densest networks of underground stations of any city in the world.

And excavation of limestone, chalk, and gypsum in what were then the mostly rural areas of Montmartre and Montparnasse gave the city’s aesthetic its soft cream colour – the texture of the buildings of Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s era, from the Opéra Garnier to the Arc de Triomphe, as well as the Louvre. The excavation also left behind a vast network of underground tunnels and former quarries, stretching for nearly 200 miles.

But for decades, even centuries, much of this underground space has gone unused, unloved, and neglected – until now.

Anne Hidalgo, the socialist mayor of Paris, has launched the second phase of her ‘Reinvent Paris’ initiative. Where the first round from 2014 onwards invited architects to tackle derelict 16th century mansions, vacant plots of land, and electrical sub-stations – in what Hidalgo modestly called an “urban experiment of unprecedented magnitude” – the second round turns its gaze downward, to the city’s underbelly.

Croix-Rouge abandoned metro station. Image: RATP.

‘Reinvent Paris 2’ covers 34 sites, with a total area of almost 150,000 sq metres, and is now open to proposals from architects and developers.

Three of the city’s 16 abandoned Paris Métro stations – known as the ‘ghost stations’, since they closed around 70 years ago – are up for offer as part of the plan.

Croix-Rouge, on the city’s more bohemian Left Bank, still has the Paris Metro’s distinctive tiles covering the wide barrel of the station’s ceiling. And while much of the surface area of the walls is plastered in boisterous Parisian graffiti, the space still has a certain magic to it:

Saint-Martin abandoned metro station. Image: RATP.

Saint-Martin, by contrast, near the Bastille, is a more boxy, urban affair. Strong perpendicular lines of concrete cut across the ceiling of the surprisingly wide platform, as the tunnel snakes off under Paris.

The third station, Champ de Mars, is just a few steps from the Eiffel Tower, but has urbane grit that is world’s away from the sleek silhouette of Gustave Eiffel’s creation.

Also up for grabs are five tunnels, a former Renault garage, and three underground car parks, all of which have a potential charm somewhere in the midst of their current gloomy, abandoned aesthetic.

The former Renault garage, which is part of the programme. Image: ©Mairie de Paris.

These lost underground spaces have always had an attraction, and campaigners have long sought to transform them into a bizarre assortment of swimming pools, nightclubs, or bars.

In more recent years, a trend has emerged for secret elite parties at clandestine underground locations. A group called We Are the Oracle (known as WATO) has colonised catacombs, derelict chateaus, and empty railway tracks for candlelit dinner soirées and masquerade balls.

Though half the mystique of such events is inevitably the secrecy – and the salacious possibility of the police invading what is, often, an illegal gathering – the appeal of such alternative venues is beyond doubt.

An underground inner party, hosted by WATO. Image: Agence WATO.

“It’s a smart way to party,” a 40-year-old Parisian lawyer told the New York Times in 2016. “A pub or a disco is very boring, and so is going to a show where you stay in your seat.” The appeal of WATO parties, he says, is that “you are the show”.

In spite of a flirtatious relationship with the other side of legality, WATO has enjoyed some public support. Frédéric Hocquart, a counsellor for the Paris Town Hall believes Paris needs “an interesting offer in night life, not just restaurants and clubs, but atypical night life. It will make Paris more attractive to Parisians, but also abroad.”

And, befitting of Anne Hidalgo’s image as the ‘to boldy go’ reforming force in Parisian politics, she’s open to the options as to how these underground spaces can give Paris a boost.

“These unused and untypical spaces are incredibly rich, and we cannot neglect them,” she said. “Paris will never be a finished city. I no longer hear doom-mongers who write off Paris as a museum city that is falling asleep. Paris is a city that is able to imagine its future without denying its history.”

A space beneath a viaduct in the 6e, part of the programme. Image: © Mairie de Paris. 

That being said, there are understandable limitations on the possibilities of these spaces. “Not everything is possible,” admits deputy mayor Jean-Louis Missika, in charge of economic and aesthetic development, architecture, and projects in the Greater Paris region. “There are underground spaces necessary for the functioning of Paris via the transport, drainage and heating systems as well as car parks and cellars, but they are often hidden and underused.

“We want to bring some verticality and depth to the city.”

Gare des Gobelins, a strange car park with train tracks, it seems. Image: © Mairie de Paris. 

RATP, the Parisian transport authority that is responsible for many of the spaces, will be closely involved, and is supportive of the project. “How could we refuse city hall’s initiative, especially as these places cause such a lot of excitement,” the company’s director Frank Avice said.


“We’re putting the stations and their platforms at the disposal of people’s imaginations to see what new uses they can be put to.”

Once architects and developers have submitted plans by November, a shortlist will be drawn up before a final selection to be unveiled in November next year.

And then we can all go down under for a good glass of French wine. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.