The Inauguration of the Paris Metro, Episode 326

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Category: French History

A lot was happening in Paris in 1900. But the two items I would like to focus on today were the Exposition Universelle of 1900 and the Inauguration of the Paris Metro. Paris had a lot to live-up to with the 1900 universal expo. After all the 1889 expo gave rise to the Eiffel Tower and how do you top that?

In 1900 they had a pavilion on electricity and lots of gorgeous country pavilions that boasted the best of their respective countries, but what was exciting and new in Paris? The Paris Metro, of course! While not as glamorous and visible as the Eiffel Tower, the Paris Metro transformed the city and continues to be a central part of Parisian life.

Book Recommendation: This week Annie read The Matchmaker of the Perigord by Julia Stuart. While not an earth-shattering read, it's pleasant and does not break any rules of life in France.

They started thinking about adding a large transportation system in Paris in 1871 and there were several competing ideas. They wanted to have something operational by 1889 for the Paris Word Fair. But they didn’t manage it and the first metro started service on July 19, 1900.

Ding-a-Dong by Teach In, Eurovision winner and a superbly happy song. Check out how much fun the guy with the xylophone is having!

The Inauguration of the Paris Metro

They did not inaugurate the Paris Metro to great fanfare because it was a controversial project and politicians felt it was safer to keep everything low-key. Before they got to this inauguration, they went through a lot of proposals and opposing ideas being battled out in the newspapers. But the real issue was choosing the right metro technology for Paris. There is a lot to think about and those decision will impact life in the city for decades to come! There were lots of proposals, I'll just go into two that caught my attention.

Proposals for Aerial Rail Systems

Jules Garnier proposed an aerial rail system. This Garnier is no relation to the Charles Garnier of Paris Opera fame. Jules Garnier argued that  transportation systems on ground level are messy (Paris had tramways as well as horse and buggy at the time), that underground would not be to the taste of Parisians because being under ground is not healthy, and that logically, an aerial rail system was the best solution. His big idea was to stack the rails on top of one-another and not to put them on the same platform. He argued that this would avoid possible collisions and was the safest option.

So, you’d have the rail going in one direction at 15 feet (4.5 meters) and the rail going in the other direction is above that in the open air. I must admit that it would have been cool to ride through Paris above ground, looking at the sky and the city below. BUT this project never saw the light of day.

Just think about it for a minute: two trains stacked on top of each other 15 to 30 feet into the air? I know that there are metro systems with sections like that in a lot of places, but a whole system designed to be in the air? I don’t think so! There are a lot of complications with that because your maintenance crew has to be acrobats! And would people fear the heights? I know I might. Anyway, it didn’t get built.

The Angély Suspended System

There was another aerial project designed by an engineer called Angely. That one is visually striking. He wanted to build small train cars for 18 people max, and he wanted these cars hang down from the rails with the bottom of the car hanging at 6.6 meters which is almost 22 feet. Kind of a monorail, but with the rail above the cars. Those cars could be pulled by hidden cables or an electric motor.

Imagine the Disneyland Monorail, but vintage looking with with big wheels on top of it and the cars hanging from those wheels. You’ve got to see the photo of his proposal, Paris would look so different if it had something like that! I’ll post it at the bottom of the show notes and on Instagram. I don’t think any city has a system like that today, and it didn’t get selected for Paris.

The London Metro

While they were considering this metro project for Paris, they had an obvious city to look at: London. In 1900, the London Metro was already 37 years old! Those metro cars were running under ground with steam engines to power them. By the time the Paris metro came around they could power the metro with electricity instead of steam, hence the pavilion on electricity at the 1900 world fair. London eventually converted its metro to electricity as well.

July 1900: Inauguration of the Paris Metro

The first line of the Paris Metro was inaugurated on July 19, 1900. You know it today as line ONE, which went between Château de Vincennes to the east and Porte Maillot to the west. It has since been extended to La Défense. This line more or less follows the Paris Historical Axis discussed on Episode 182 of the podcast. Only 8 stations were open on inauguration day, the others weren’t finished yet.

Nay-Sayers Coming Out in Force!

We’re slow to adopt any technology in France. The Paris metro started 37 years AFTER London! There are always nay-sayers to anything new in France, newspapers around that time had a grand old time yanking people’s chains and stoking every ridiculous fear people may have. There were lots of Parisians who were sure there would be deaths by electrocution in the metro! Because you know, that’s a lot of power running through those rails, some of it was bound to jump to the platform and kill passengers!

You also had those who thought that there would be lots of stagnant water in the tunnels and that would lead to Paris pneumonia. It turns out that water is always something to worry about in metro tunnels, but they found ways to deal with it and there is no stagnant water in the Paris metro unless some terrible weather event is going on in which case the metro would be closed to the public anyway!

16 Million Metro Tickets Sold in 6 Months

Despite all the nay-sayers, the new metropolitan was a big deal. They sold 16 million tickets in the first 6 months! The 1900 world fair opened in April and continued until November. 50 million people came to the world fair that year and on Metropolitain inauguration day, July 19th, 1900, it was terribly hot in Paris. Fair goers were happy to go to into the tunnels where it wasn’t as hot as on the surface!

These visitors were witnessing the result of 3 years of gigantic disruptions all over Paris. Paris hadn't seen such an undertaking since the giant Haussmann renovations of the entire Paris landscape. And it wasn’t just visitors enjoying the new Paris metro, locals were pretty impressed with how well it went after all that gloom and doom talk!

Fulgence Bienvenüe, the Father of the Paris Metro

The father of the Paris metro was a man called Fulgence Bienvenüe. I love his name, Fulgence Marie Auguste Bienvenüe. He was born and raised in Brittany, the 13th and last child of a very Catholic family. I guess they had so many children they ran out of habitual names and decided to go really exotic with Fulgence! Bienvenüe (his last name) studied engineering in Paris then worked on railroads in Brittany.

This is where he lost his left arm in a work accident. He made jokes about being deprived of his better arm and kept on working on rail design instead of doing the construction himself. He planned the first 6 lines for the Paris metro and supervised the 2000 men who took turns night and day and evacuated 1,000 square meters of dirt every day. That’s hard work and they mostly did it with pick ax and shovels.

Complications for the Opera Metro Stop

One of the most difficult stations for Bienvenüe was the Opera station where 3 lines would eventually cross. He had to insert a giant metal frame that went to 22 meters below grade. He also had to pay attention to water infiltrations because in this area there used to be an arm of the Seine and it is prone to underground water accumulation.

That's why Garnier built a massive water reservoir under the opera house, as a place to safely drain and store excess water. Digging too close to that artificial lake could be deadly because you could flood the metro tunnel in an instant and kill all the workers. That did not happen, but it was a concern.

Montparnasse-Bienvenüe

You may have wondered why the Montparnasse metro station is called Montparnasse Bienvenüe. Now you know! Montparnasse was the name of the train station that was there already and Bienvenüe was in honor of the architect of the Paris metro.

Linking the Metro with Other Transportation Systems

They were careful from the start to link metro stations with regional and national rail, and later they linked airports to metro and rail stations as well. Paris has a really nice comprehensive transportation system that I’ll talk about more when travelers who aren’t familiar with it are able to come back to France.

The Inauguration Day of the Paris Metro Was a Great Success

On inauguration day, Metro visitors got in at Porte Maillot. They went under the new "bouches de métro" (mouths of the metro) the beautiful art deco floral curved design by Hector Guimard. Metro entrances were styled to be easily recognizable. They look great to this day, don’t they? Once under-ground visitors were greeted by a lovely floral fragrance that had been sprayed to make the occasion memorable and to alleviate any fears of bad air in the metro.

First Class and Second Class

The metro opened with a first and a second class. First class tickets were 25 centimes and second class 15 centimes. The name of the station where you entered was printed on the ticket and if you purchased a return ticket, you had to use it the same day or lose it. First class had plush seats; second class only had wooden benches. Each car could take 40 people. Metros could run as fast as every 2 minutes and an employee opened and closed doors.

The whole system was pretty slow at first. Maximum operating speed was 25 to 30 kilometers per hour, but the metro could go as fast as 40 kilometers per hour when running empty. There were accidents when metro drivers had fun pushing the machine to the max when taking it back empty to the depot for the night.

Line 1 of the Paris Metro

Line 1 was 10 kilometers long and it took these early cars half an hour to complete the trip and make the 8 stops. Today, the line is longer and has many more stops and it takes 38 minutes on average to complete one run.

Going from one end of Paris to the other in 30 minutes seemed like a miracle at the time because it took much longer to take a similar trip on the surface! And that is still the case today! As a matter of fact, by now the RER would be a better choice than the metro because it’s faster and doesn’t stop as much. But that’s a topic for another episode.

In 2007 they automated Line 1 which means it runs without a driver and there are access gates in many stations. It turns out they were worried about all the wrong things initially. Electricity doesn’t jump to the platform to kill passengers and water in the tunnels is a rare occurrence. But people do jump on the rails either out of desperation or seeking a thrill or after pushed.

This gate system put an end to all of that. But it also introduces technical difficulties because the train doors have to line up perfectly with the gates. All modern metro stations being built today have this sort of gate system from the get-go. Anyway, the first iteration of Line 1 was an immediate success as attested by the 16 million tickets sold in 6 months. People were blow away by the convenience of the metro.

And it helps that inauguration day went great. No part of the tunnel caved in, nobody died for lack of fresh air, no houses were rattled to the point of collapse on the surface. Yes, there were people worried about that and the newspapers gave them plenty of space to express those fears because fear sells papers!

Metropolitan or Necropolitan?

Opponent of the metro found a great slogan. They said the metropolitain would become a necropolitain. Even some medical doctors who should have known better joined in the chorus of nay-sayers. Maybe by riding the metro you'd put yourself in close proximity to the sewer system and that might lead to disease? Oh, please! Religion has not been a major part of French life since the Revolution, but priests and devout Catholics worried they might be digging around human remains such as the Catacombs. That didn’t happen either.

Tunnels, Quarries and the Seine River

This doesn’t mean there weren’t challenges. As you probably know, there are a lot of tunnels and old quarries under Paris. When they needed stones to build houses, lots of people dug them right from underneath their feet! Many of these quarries were unofficial and never got marked, so there were always surprises. As they were digging the metro they ran into a lot of underground cavities they weren’t expecting.

The Seine River also used to have arms all over that basin. They were drained but many areas still had large deposits of humid sand. That’s not ideal terrain for a metro because it’s not structurally sound and you need to build up strong tunnels to hold up all that wet sand. If you’re digging into hard rock it’s a tough job to begin with, but it’s not likely to cave in. If you’re digging into soft sandy dirt, cave-ins are always a possibility. Line 1 of the Paris metro does not go under the river, but it goes right along it, hence all the surprises.

I remember how when they built the first line of the metro in Toulouse in the late 80s they had to freeze the ground in order to safely go under the Canal du Midi. We could see the giant refrigerators on the surface that pumped cold air while they were building a metal structure strong enough to keep the soggy dirt away from the tunnel. They had no such technologies in 1900 but eventually they managed to go under the Seine and under the Canal Saint Martin, both were soggy propositions. They used pumps and strong steel, and it works.

Paris Metro: a Game Changer

On the other hand, there were also overly optimistic predictions for how this metro could transform lives and bring about a great beautiful future. The advantages of quick and inexpensive transportation were clear. Everyone could easily get around Paris and move away from the city center. Lots of people chose to move out of tiny apartments in the central arrondissements and go a little further where they could afford a bigger place.

Did that really improve their daily lives? Maybe. Indeed, you can go great distances on the metro cheaply and quickly, but are people really enjoying the process? I’m not so sure, but that’s my personal bias. I was raised in downtown Toulouse and I can see the lure of large cities, but I’m a country girl at heart. I love a village not too far from the city!

The Paris Metro Since the Pandemic

The Paris metro never stopped completely with the pandemic, but service was drastically reduced. By now metro service in Paris is just about back to normal whereas TGV and flight are NOT back to normal. Metro cars aren’t as full because there are no visitors, but they are still packed at different times during the day. Companies are supposed to make it possible for people to work from home, but that’s not happening in many places. Masks are mandated on any form of public transportation in France, but you always have the people who (I suppose) don’t understand how breathing works and keep it under their nose. But, they haven’t been able to trace a single cluster to the Paris metro, so that’s good news.

Overall, the Paris metro has been a huge success. As I mentioned earlier, the Paris transportation system includes the metro, the RER that goes further and faster, trams, a funicular to go up the Montmartre hill, a whole bus system, transportation to the airports, TGV trains to take you to various destinations at high speeds, and good old trains that go at normal train speed. We also have lots of regional buses. I’ll plan on an episode so you can understand the method to the madness because it works pretty well once you understand it.

Angela Merkel on a possible digital vaccination passport and Macron on a "pass sanitaire".

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If you enjoyed this episode, you should also listen to related episode(s):

The Angely suspended metro: Inauguration of the Paris metro episode
The Angely proposal for a suspended rail system.

Category: French History