Of Tubes and Metros

[What on earth is happening to Britain’s transport systems ? British Airways seems to be perpetually hit by strikes or strike threats, and recently the British Airports Authority has joined the bandwagon too. Some of the train companies threatened strike over the Bank Holiday weekend last month and just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, comes the current London Tube strike, bringing the mega city down to its knees.

Nevertheless, I must admit that this does not in any way make me less appreciative of the London Tube, which I think is an absolute Engineering marvel. So as Londoners struggle to get through the current disruption, resorting to whatever alternate means of transport that they can manage, I guess it is a good time to look at why the Tube is so special. And what better way to do this than to contrast it with its traditional rival – the Paris Metro !]

I’ve never really been a great fan of the Paris Metro and going by the bizarre experiences I’ve had on the network, I don’t think it has been very fond of me either. As far as I’m concerned,  the Tube or the London Underground scores higher any day. Not only is it the oldest Metro system in the world [first opened in 1863 !], it is clean, convenient, easy to use and well-supervised. The Paris Metro is also pretty old – the third oldest in the world [after London and Budapest], but in contrast, is dirty, shady, confusing, less user-friendly and shockingly, a bit lawless.

Though I’ve never […atleast until now] been very vocal about my feelings for the Paris Metro, the relationship has not been entirely mutual, as the latter has always had a way of showing me exactly how it felt…..on my face ! For instance, when I visited the city with a gang of mates a couple of years ago, for some reason, my metro pass would constantly malfunction ! Not Rama’s nor Bharat’s, just mine …. …not once or twice, but every now and then over the entire 3 days that we spent shuttling around the metropolis ! Each time, I had to go over the counter and get the magnetic card sorted out, but a while later, it would fail again. Swapping my damned ticket with working ones from my mates didn’t solve the problem either, as the latter would then start malfunctioning :O

Though this may have been perfectly down to chance, albeit an inconceivable sequence of it, what really irked me was that whilst I was standing there struggling with my ticket, trying to lawfully enter the Metro system, quite a few Parisiens didn’t even seem to bother about such a formality. They would just jump across the turnstiles or crawl under them, whichever seemed to look more ‘dignified’. There never were any officials at the gates to enforce order and that came across as something quite strange to me. But not as shocking as seeing people..sometimes even kids, begging inside the metro trains :O Surely, that was the last thing that I had expected to see in a major European capital !

But don’t get me wrong, the Paris Metro is still a very reliable and efficient means of transport in the massive city. Not every station or line is filthy and in fact, some of the stations are works of art in themselves. It is said that no building in Paris is more than 500 metres away from a Metro station and that proves how extensive the network is. But that’s not to say that the system is easy to use, especially for outsiders.

Though the Paris Metro map, as with the maps of many other transport networks in the world, is modelled on the award-winning format of the London Tube, there are a few key differences.

For one, in London, the Underground lines have proper names, such as the Victoria Line, Circle Line or Bakerloo Line. In my opinion, it gives a refreshing personal touch to it…something that users can relate to. And with most lines, the nomenclature kinda makes sense – Victoria Line being the main line passing through Victoria station, Bakerloo Line through Baker Street Station, the Circle Line going in a circular track around the city and so on. However, in Paris, the lines are just numbered or lettered – as Lines 1, 2 ,3 or A, B, C….sort of like the street names of New York. Not very creative, now is it ? Some argue that it is easier to remember them that way, but then, if you ask me, it clearly takes the life and soul out of it. I wonder if any New Yorker or Parisien would be prepared to name his or her kids as kid 1, kid 2 and kid 3 😉

Secondly, at the stations in Paris, the directions of the lines are specified by their final stations. For instance, ‘Line B towards Charles de Gaulle airport’ or ‘Line B towards Robinson’. So if you wanted to travel to a station in between, you wouldn’t know which line to take unless you know the name of the last station in that direction. If you ask me, I’d rather have preferred ‘Line B West-bound’ or ‘Line B East-bound’.

In addition, I came to learn the hard way that at some of the larger stations in Paris, the platform layouts are so complicated that the two directions of a particular line are not always adjacent to each other. So you’ve got Line A towards a particular direction on one platform and then you’ve got a few other unrelated Lines in between, and then your Line A heading towards the opposite direction. The sign-boards are a bit misleading too and it had taken me quite some time to work out the correct platform whilst transiting through Gare du Nord earlier this year.

You know you're in Paris when the Exit sign points downwards and the only way out is upwards 😉

From France2008

Nevertheless, every problem brings with it an opportunity, and hence, earlier in spring, when I found myself sat next to a young Chinese lass […who I later realized was Vietnamese, not that I can tell the difference ;)] on a 2-hour non-stop train from Caen to Paris, the Paris Metro turned out to be the perfect topic of conversation. I had to get to Charles De Gaulle airport from St.Lazare station, and thanks to her broken English and by even more shattered French, it took us nearly half the journey to work out the best route 🙂 Even better was the fact that as we disembarked at St.Lazare station and I had helped with her luggage, she was kind enough to accompany me all the way to the Metro station, stand in the queue to buy the ticket for me and direct me to the right platform ! 😀

Looking back, the one Paris Metro experience that  I’m sure none of my mates nor I, could ever forget was when a couple of years ago, we were travelling from Disneyland to the airport on the metro, and having grossly underestimated the time that the journey would take, ended up at Charles de Gaulle just 20 minutes before the scheduled departure time of our flight to Bristol !!! We still did manage to catch the flight, by the way….but it was a mad rush from one end of the massive airport to the other. Thanks to some inspirational cheering from Captain Anil at  the tail-end, the whole gang, including the exhausted pair of girls, made it just in the nick of time 🙂

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