A tale of two cities, or how transport misery crossed the Channel

Perhaps it is just as well Paris didn’t win the bid for the 2012 Olympics, if the current state of its public transport is anything to go by. The French capital used to be a dream for getting around, with metro trains every few minutes and the RER regional express train network linking far suburbs on each side of the city in unbeatable times. But like the hare and the tortoise, London seems to have caught up while Paris took its eye off the ball.

Perhaps it is just as well Paris didn’t win the bid for the 2012 Olympics, if the current state of its public transport is anything to go by. The French capital used to be a dream for getting around, with metro trains every few minutes and the RER regional express train network linking far suburbs on each side of the city in unbeatable times. But like the hare and the tortoise, London seems to have caught up while Paris took its eye off the ball.

This reflection was prompted by a recent visit to London, which beat Paris to the finishing line to host the Olympics this year. I love Paris and have lived here ever since leaving London in 1990, at which point I had had enough of suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune on London’s Tubes and buses. So I am not naturally inclined to praise London for its transport.

London used to have a nightmarish, Heath Robinson-esque public transport system. Commuters endured hours on unreliable trains, Londoners waited for ages for unreliable buses and the Underground was so crowed in rush-hour it was nearly impossible to even get inside the busiest Tube stations.

I lived in an inner suburb without a Tube line. On a rainy Monday morning in the rush hour, I would regularly wait at least 20 minutes for any bus to arrive at a stop serviced by four bus routes. The return journey was just as trying, as the buses all but faded away after 5 p.m.

In desperation I turned to a 50cc scooter, but when it rained, water would seep into its carburettor and its engine would sputter to a halt. So it would be left somewhere in the City of London to dry out overnight and I would once again be at the mercy of the barely existent buses.

I tried driving to a Tube station where I could park, or even into town to a cavernous car park at the old Smithfield meat market which had a reasonable flat-rate charge after midday – useful for journalists working late shifts.I tried trains that crawled the few miles to Liverpool Street Station. All in all it was tiresome, tiring and stressful – and damp – and Paris was refreshing by comparison.

But it seems the boot is now on the other foot. For the past decade or so Paris City Hall has been working on a worthy plan to create bus and cycle lanes and build a tramway around the city centre in a bid to reduce car use. This has caused roadworks and traffic jams, but many see such  inconvenience as the price to pay for progress.

The premise was that the city’s public transport would take up the slack. The only trouble is, even before that, public transport in Paris had started to become as exasperating as London’s once was.

In my inner suburb, with two RER lines and the option of metro plus bus, delays or train cancellations on our local lines have become so commonplace, I am reminded of British Rail in its heyday of being a public joke.

But catching a bus to the nearest metro station is a risky exercise, as buses get snarled up in traffic during rush-hour and outside rush-hour they run only every 20 or 25 minutes. The east-west RER is standing room only at almost any time of day, and in the rush-hour it is often only possible to get on one train in three because of overcrowding.

In the evening, even the renowned Paris metro becomes much less frequent before the rush-hour has decanted. Suburbanites prefer to take their cars for an evening out because the RER, long envied by London, becomes infrequent at night and is seen as not very safe. And our local buses run only every half hour after 10 p.m., which falls to only one bus an hour after 11 p.m.

Meanwhile in London, buses and Tubes now function fully throughout the day and the evening, and the formerly doddery local trains have been integrated with the Underground and have morphed into the Overground, a service worth using.

In recent years I have begun to be surprised and impressed by the ease of getting around London, but always put it down to being a tourist with time on my hands rather than a worker bee. On my last trip, just before the Olympics, I was finally convinced – by the ease of travelling at night.

Returning from Hyde Park Corner to Walthamstow Central at 10.30 p.m., a Tube came almost immediately. I had a wait of eight minutes for a second Tube when changing lines. At the end of the line, in an outer suburb, a bus arrived almost immediately for the last stretch. 

It took an hour, as long as it takes me to get home to my much closer inner Paris suburb at night. And in Paris, half that time would be spent waiting for connections.

A culture-vulture friend who frequently returns to an even further-flung outer London suburb from events in central London at night has the choice of taking a train that runs four times an hour until past midnight, or a Tube and then a bus that still runs every 10 minutes throughout the evening.

In its favour, it must be said that transport in Paris is still far cheaper than in London. But even so, the city has yet to introduce the kind of pay-as-you-go pass commonplace in other major cities, so beloved not only of tourists but also locals who do not need to travel five days a week.

And Paris’s transport planners have grand plans to relieve the system’s congestion, the main one being for an ambitious new ring metro linking outer suburbs. But these will take years to come to fruition. 

Why has Paris’s public transport stagnated while London has forged ahead? The regional authority behind the grand plans for a new outer ring metro has been embroiled for years in an internal dispute over zoning and tariffs, which has probably not helped.

Perhaps there is also a clue in the renaming of London’s transport authority. From being called London Transport, it is now called Transport for London, a gentle reminder of whom the service is supposed to be serving.

In Paris, on the other hand, different organisations run different parts of the system and more than one local authority oversees it. That produces absurdities like paying more to go into the centre of Paris from the RER line at one end of my suburb, run by SNCF railways, than from the RER at the other end, run by the RATP Paris metro and bus authority.

So perhaps it is just as well that Paris is not seeing an influx of visitors for the Olympic Games this summer. I’m sure it will be hard enough getting around London. In Paris it would have been pandemonium and gridlock.

 

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