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Puncturing Parisians metropolitan pride

On 10th March, Paris ground to a halt.  Industrial action by RATP employees had paralysed the métro system, causing citywide traffic jams, perfectly timed for the International Olympic Committee’s visit to assess the strength of the city’s bid to host the 2012 Olympic games.  Amidst the chaos, French officials bravely described their usually fast, efficient underground transport network as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of their Olympic bid, which was, along with volleyball under the Eiffel tower, one of the main reasons why they should get the games.

For the able-bodied, this may be true.  Sadly however, the métro system of the most popular tourist destination in the world is less than accessible if you’re not fit and healthy.  Inside the Louvre, lifts are available to take wheelchair users between the various levels, so no one need miss out on the Mona Lisa or Venus de Milo.  The Pompidou Centre’s commitment to its hundreds of customers with physical disabilities is built into the fabric of the building for all to see.  Hilly Montmartre has a tourist train, and staff at the Eiffel Tower lovingly maintain the nineteenth-century lifts which carry passengers to the top floor.  Travelling to and from these world-famous monuments by métro is quite another matter. Unlike its London counterpart, where tourists and commuters are shuffled about on escalators and packed into lifts, with only two thirds of métro and half of RER stations having lifts at all, Paris relies on stairs, making life all the more difficult for anyone with a disability, be they walking stick or wheelchair users.

For a visitor from Waterloo, the change is apparent as soon as they step off the Eurostar.  As one of Paris’ main terminals, Gare du Nord is equipped with escalators, but once the bag-laden passenger has struggled through uncomfortably narrow turnstiles onto the platform, they are on their own.  Nearby Montmartre and République make popular bases for British travellers and both require a change of line.  The lesser of the two evils, a connection with Line 12 at Marcadet Poissoniers, entails a mere two staircases and a quarter of a mile of tunnels, while a change onto Line 5 for République at Gare de l’Est involves three staircases and labyrinthine network of tunnels.  Once at their destination, our passengers will find themselves climbing at least one flight of steps to reach the surface, whichever station they choose.  Montmartre’s deeper stations, such as Lamarck-Caulaincourt and Abbesses have lifts to the exit, but the painful alternative is more than a hundred steps.

A day’s sightseeing by metro could arguably present more difficulties than it’s worth.  The Louvre, the world’s greatest art museum, is only one change away from République.  From Line 11, passengers change onto the swifter tourist line, Line 1, which comes complete with automatic doors and plenty of wheelchair space.  Oddly enough, the much-trodden route from the Louvre to Trocadéro for a picturesque view of the Eiffel Tower boasts none of these comforts after the change at Franklin D Roosevelt onto Line 9.  Line 1 may connect the Arc de Triomphe with the Palais du Louvre, Rue de Rivoli and Châtelet, but Paris’ sights are not all grouped conveniently along the banks of the Seine.  Disabled visitors are going to be forced to change lines at some point during their stay, a process which could be made much easier were there more escalators and moving walkways.  And it won’t be onto Line 14 that they change either, the super-fast, smart, fully automated line that was shown to the IOC delegates.  A modern, streamlined version of the rickety old metro, this is primarily a commuter line, linking the city centre with two mainline stations, Gare St Lazare and Gare d’Austerlitz.  Automatic doors and escalators are standard and for visually impaired travellers, station names are announced before each stop.    It’s a simple measure, but features like these, common in France’s newer transport systems in towns like Toulouse and Montpellier, make all the difference to tourists who may be having difficulties finding their way around. 

For it’s not just passengers with mobility problems who are at a disadvantage.  Apart from little indication on most lines of which station the train has just arrived at, most traveller information is communicated via information screens to be found, when they are working, on platforms and in ticket areas, as well as frequent announcements.  The visually impaired have more than inconvenience to deal with if the station at which they alight is not the right one and turns out to be unfamiliar to them.  Closed stations are announced regularly, but the poor quality of the recordings makes them easy to misinterpret over the noise of the trains.

Passengers with hearing problems rely on information screens and often-unhelpful assistants as sources of information.  Their lot has been greatly improved recently, by the addition of a hearing loop into at least one ticket booth in every station, which cuts out background noise on hearing aids, to make transactions easier.  Other passengers will have to wait for solutions to their particular problems.  The RATP website boasts plans to widen barriers for wheelchair access, and add escalators to make significantly more than the current 39 stations accessible to all from street level.  Until then however, unless willing to pay 25EUR an hour for a guide who must be booked in advance, passengers may be forced onto other, even more impractical means of transport.

The Easy Access map on the RATP  website shows a much-reduced  métro system available for physically challenged travellers.  London’s tube may be riddled with delays when it’s even running, but at least passengers have access from the street.  As one of the world’s most-visited tourist destinations, the City of Love still leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to disabled access on the métro.  Let’s hope that there’s a faint glow at the end of the tunnel for the hundreds of thousands of disabled visitors who come to see the sights every year, because as it stands, they won’t be coming back for much more.

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