Saturday, October 25, 2008

Fear and Loathing in Châtelet - Les Halles

I made a business trip to Paris on Thursday to attend an all day meeting on Friday. I have been to Paris many times and have always relied on the excellent public transport system, unfortunately it really disappointed me this time and I think I saw some things from the other (non public transport expert) side.

The RER B train from Charles de Gaulle Airport left on-time (according to the brochure there are about 8 trains per hour to/from Paris during most of the day - an excellent level of service!). After about 20 minutes, on what should have been an approximately 35-minute trip, we slowed down and pretty much crawled along all the way to the Châtelet - Les Halles station, trip time: about one hour and ten minutes.

Feeling a bit frustrated, but glad to be off the train, we walked upstairs and were engulfed in the ocean of humanity that seems to be going in all directions. It reminded me of Kafka: halls, stairways, signs, queues of people, in sum: extremely disorienting. Here I thought - my god, how could someone with mobility difficulty or cognitive difficulty deal with this situation? As it was I had a bit of angst - all I wanted to do is to get to the surface, and it seemed like there was no way we could find the right exit without stairs, hallways, blocked passageways, etc. Eventually we found our way out, but it was an experience. It taught me to think more about keeping transport station design simple and providing very clear signage systems.

Returning to the airport on Friday evening was worse. There had been an accident in the tunnel between Châtelet - Les Halles and Gard du Nord, when we arrived on the platforms they were already packed, really packed (and they are big platforms!). I can read French so I could read from the monitors that there were big delays, so I went upstairs to try to find some information.

(Note to Paris: you are an international city, you should provide important information like major delays traveling to international airports in foreign languages! Not, of course, like any US city does that, but that's why we live in Europe.)

Most people at the information booth did not speak English (different from many other European countries I have visited!) but one did. He was quite helpful, when I asked if we should take the Metro line 4 to Gard du Nord, he said yes, it would be a good idea.

So, we (and quite a few other people who had the same good idea) navigated through the station to the platforms for M4. It was one of those occasions that drive public transport operators crazy. No place to stand on the platforms, absolutely no room in the train, lots of people wanting to get out and into the train. The train probably stayed in the station for 3 minutes, I was the last one on - it took the doors two or three times to close, ripping my shirt in the process, but at least we were moving.

Repeat the process six times (once for each station between Châtelet - Les Halles and Gard du Nord). Arriving at Gard du Nord, I asked for information, again French was the preferred language, but the person seemed to understand what I wanted. However, she had no idea that there was any problem with the RER trains to CDG (odd, since even I could read the television monitors) and no good ideas for getting there other than to wait on platform 43. She was helpful, she gave me a schedule!

So we went to platform 43. Soon a train pulled in and the metro process was repeated - it was on the edge of frightening, even more people than in the metro station. We were not able to get on the first train, but did manage to squeeze (and I mean squeeze) onto the second train about 5-minutes later. I remarked that probably even the pick-pockets could not work since even I could not get my hands in my pockets.

The train seemed to be a local and took about 45 minutes to get to the airport, we had 25-minutes to get to our flight. Luckily the train station was in the same terminal as our flight, but CDG Terminal 2 is not really easy to navigate, especially for people stressed out about missing their flights. Security, badly arranged (see my article on Copenhagen Airport), was quite slow and inefficient. We did make our plane, but were still feeling the stress as we waited for the commuter rail train into Vienna.

As a public transport professional I always try to think about ways in which the problems I have traveling could be addressed. For example, why couldn't the RER run a couple of empty trains into Gard du Nord from the North, and then back out again? How could the signs and station design be made more efficient and effective? Why can't we provide more capacity and ease of movement boarding/alighting on trains (e.g. reduce seating)?

I am sure Paris planners are thinking about these questions, the system is one of the best in the world, but we all need to do more than think, we need leaders willing to provide the money and initiative to get our ideas implemented. Ironically, Paris' Mayor Bertrand Delanoë is one of the most innovative and energetic mayors when it comes to implementing innovative planning and transport issues. Let's hope he is able to solve some of these metro and rail planning issues!

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