History of the metro in Paris and the London Underground

A short history of the metro in Paris 
and the London Underground

I don’t know why I am so interested about the history of metros and undergrounds in general, but the two underground networks which interest me the most, and I must say that I have a real passion for them, are the ones in London and Paris. I also have a passion for the New York subway, although I haven’t had the opportunity to use it very often (and a passion for New York in general), so I will certainly write something about its history in the future.

The London Underground was the first metro in the world. It opened in 1863 between Paddington and Farringdon, but the idea was first proposed in the 1830s, which is really amazing!

According to Wikipedia, Paris metro is the second busiest metro in Europe after the metro in Moscow, which is a bit surprising as it seemed to me that the London underground was busier. However, I have read that there are more stations in Paris than in London (303 stations in total in Paris and 270 stations in London). On the contrary, the London underground has 402 km of tracks, against “only” 214 km in Paris.

Both Paris and London’s public transports have good sides and bad sides.

What I like in the Paris metro is that some stations are not only pretty, they are beautiful!

What I like in the London underground is that the seats are very comfy and you see plenty of people reading, although it is true that a lot of people prefer to play with their smartphones nowadays. 

The main difference between the metro in Paris and the Underground in London is that in Paris you have only one line on each platform, and in London, you can have several lines running on the same platform. In Paris, you do not find your way in the metro by thinking “west, north, south or east” like in London, but by looking at the name of the last stop in the direction you wish to follow. Then you follow the signs in the corridor that show the name of this last stop, until you reach your platform.

The metro maps in Paris show the stations where they actually are on the city maps, and the London Underground map is a diagram. The tourist office in Paris publishes metro maps that look like a diagram, to help British tourists who are not used to the French system and prefer the London system.

What I also like in the London Underground is that it is squeaky clean. In Paris it is clean too, but you can see a few graffitis in the trains sometimes, or (very rarely I must admit) scratches like these ones on a train door:

I took this photo a few years ago. It looks horrible but do not think it means the metro in Paris is a dangerous place. It is not at all dangerous and you will be very safe travelling even at night. The worst thing that can happen to you is to meet a pickpocket, so beware of your belongings, but this can happen anywhere: my London Oyster card was stolen two years ago in the London Underground.

I have seen on You Tube a video made by a tourist who shows a station in Paris (Republique) in need of a complete renovation, and full of beggars sitting on the floor. It is true that a few years ago this station desperately needed a full renovation, but the problem is that this person was presenting it as representative of the whole network, which is totally untrue, and very unfair, as most of the stations are very good looking.

Some lines are even incredibly modern. I must admit that line 14 is my favourite, and I always try to have an opportunity to take it if we are lucky enough to go and spend a few days in Paris.

Here is one of the stations on line 14:

Of course, Paris metro lines that were built in the beginning of the 20th century were not that modern. Or rather, they were modern according to the criterias of those days. Nearly all metro stations in Paris have been renovated and redecorated, which is a shame sometimes because in the 1970s you could see great orange decorations and seats everywhere! Thank God, it looks that some of them have been left with their original “end of 60s” decoration, like the station called “Nation”. I have not been to this station yet, but I suppose (and hope) it still looks like the picture below, as it was taken in 2014:

Other interesting texts and photos on the website: http://fintch.free.fr

Actually, this is not in the “normal” metro station, but something called the RER, which is an additional network built at the end of the 1960s to link Paris and its suburbs. Please see this fantastic page showing photos of the decoration of the Paris RER in the 1960s and 1970s.

You will find rush hours as crowded and unpleasant in Paris as in London, unless you love to feel like a sardine trapped in a tin can.

In Paris, the metro is open very late at night, until 2 am during the week end, and is free on the 14th of July (Bastille Day) and the 31st of December when it runs all night to allow people to celebrate the New Year. 
The Parisian metro is free for people aged over 65 and will also be free very soon for handicapped people. However, elderly people must have been living in Paris for a certain time to benefit from that, and have an income below a certain threshold. In addition, all people on a very low income benefit from a special tariff in Paris.

In London, you have a card called the Oyster card, as mentioned above, that you top up on the system of Pay As You Go. The great advantage is that you only pay when you travel. In Paris, you have yearly, monthly, or weekly subscriptions. You can also buy day cards, which is very interesting when you are a tourist. The great advantage of the subscription system is that once you have paid it, you can travel as much as you like.

Let’s start this article (all this was only the introduction!) very logically with a short history of the London Underground, as it opened (much) before the Paris metro.

 The London Underground is usually called the Tube by the Londoners. Actually, it has been called like this since 1890! The reason is the shape of some of the tunnels, that look like a tube. Some other tunnels do not have the shape of a tube: these ones were the first ones, and they were built just below the surface. The tube tunnels are the deepest ones.
In consequence, there are two types of trains in the London Underground: the sub-surface trains, and the deep-tube trains.

(Author: Chris McKenna)

It is impressing to see that there is just enough space for the train in the tube tunnels!

When the London underground was opened in 1863, it was first called the “Metropolitan Railway”. Some people think that this is where the name “Métro” comes from.

Construction of the Metropolitan Railway in 1861.

In the beginning, the lines were owned by several private companies. It became the “UndergrounD” in the early 20th century.

Originally, the trains were steam-powered. Electricity replaced the steam in 1907.

A steam powered locomotive.

On the day the Underground opened, it was such a success that it transported 38,000 people!

During the steam locomotion period there were contrasting health reports. There were many instances of passengers collapsing whilst traveling, due to heat and pollution, leading for calls to clean the air through the installation of garden plants. The Metropolitan even encouraged beards for staff to act as an air filter. In contrast, however, there were reports claiming beneficial outcomes of using the Underground, including the designation of Great Portland Street as a "sanatorium for [sufferers of ...] asthma and bronchial complaints", tonsillitis could be cured with acid gas and the Twopenny Tube cured anorexia” (Wikipedia)

The circle line (you know, the one which is yellow on London Underground maps) was opened in 1884 or 1871. I have found the two dates on two different articles, so unfortunately I do not know which one is the right one.

Actually, the Circle line has not always been yellow, and a lot of lines have also had several colours. You can see all these different colours in this article.

and some information about each line here.

By the way, I have heard that some people learn by heart all the underground lines, their colour, and all the stations on them. If you live in London, you might be one of these people. As I have a passion for the London Underground, I might do it in the future too. 

In this article, you will learn everything about the former and unopened Underground stations. I’d love to visit them all!

Here is a map of the Underground in 1908.

The London Underground’s history is full of amazing facts and anecdotes.

The deepest station is Hampstead on the Northern line: it is 58.5 metres deep! You’d better have an escalator to exit the station, although everybody knows that using the staircase is good for the health!

In 1911, the first escalators came into use in Earl’s Court. There are 426 escalators in the London Underground and the longest is in Angel: it measures 60 metres! Waterloo has 23 escalators!

1924 poster

Superb station with escalators in Canary Wharf
(Author: Ian Mockford)

Here is a great article about escalators in general (I thought you might be interested). 

As you probably know, the population of London used some tube stations as air-raid shelters during the WWII Blitz. Please also visit this link. Londoners are known all over the world for their heroic attitude during the Blitz.

Unfortunately, using the tube stations as air-raid shelters also resulted in some accidents, as Wikipedia relates:

On 3 March 1943, a test of the air-raid warning sirens, together with the firing of a new type of anti-aircraft rocket, resulted in a crush of people attempting to take shelter in Bethnal Green Underground station. A total of 173 people, including 62 children, died, making this both the worst civilian disaster of World War II, and the largest loss of life in a single incident on the London Underground network.”

Here is a fascinating article about London Underground rolling stock:

Some Underground stations are incredibly beautiful

A few more photographs in this article.

More information.

A great YouTube video about the history of the London Underground.

Superb gallery of vintage photos of the Underground in London.

If you own a website about your passion for the London Underground, please contact me and I will add the link to this article. 

I can't believe I was going to forget to mention the London Transport Museum! Don't forget to visit it if you are in London, as it is really good (I know it, because I have been there).

What about Paris, then?

In the beginning, Parisians did not know if they were supposed to build an overground system, or an underground one. The overground system would damage the beauty of the city, and the underground one would damage people’s health and put their safety in danger.

In consequence, there were long debates that lasted a few years. There were also several eccentric and wacky projects of metros for Paris. One of them described the trains as being pulled by a cable like in the roller coasters. Another one was an overground metro where people would sit in sorts of boats. I wish I found more information about these funny projects…

Finally, the project that was accepted was very serious, and it was proposed in 1896 by a man named Fulgence Bienvenüe. His name “Bienvenüe” sounds like the French  word “bienvenue” which means “welcome”. Nowadays, one of the stations bears his name : Montparnasse Bienvenüe.

That’s him!

According to the project, the metro lines would not go beyond the borders of Paris itself (and actually they didn’t until the 1930s), with no extension into the suburbs. Wikipedia mentions that “many Parisians worried that extending lines to industrial suburbs would reduce the safety of the city” without explaining if this was the real cause of the decision in Fulgence Bienvenüe’s project to avoid extensions into the industrial suburbs.

However, everything was done, apparently, to avoid these extensions into the suburbs, as Wikipedia points out: “Paris forbade lines to the inner suburbs and, as a guarantee, Métro trains were to run on the right, as opposed to existing suburban lines, which ran on the left.”

They are obviously talking about the suburb railway lines, as the metro was not even built in Paris yet, and there has never been any metro lines in the suburbs prior to Paris.

Anyway, the Universal Exhibition of 1900, and the 1900 Paris summer Olympic Games were approaching, and building the metro was becoming an emergency.

The construction of line 1, which was going to serve the two major events in 1900, started on 4th October 1898.

Photos of the construction of the metro in Paris:

Line 1 was inaugurated on 19th July 1900, only four years after the project was adopted!
The carriages were entirely made of wood.

The first line was Line 1, of course, and in December 1900, there was already 130,000 people per day on it!

To see all the evolution of the lines, please visit this link and click on the dates in the bottom right corner of the image.

You will notice a black line called “S” which goes into the suburbs. This line was not a metro, but a railway line.

The very first extension into the suburbs was made on line 1 in 1934. Why did they suddenly accept to extend the metro to the suburbs? No idea. Unfortunately I haven’t found any information about that.

Two other extensions on other lines followed that year.

As the number of travellers was constantly increasing, the number of carriages was gradually increased too, which was possible as the platforms in the stations measure 75 to 90 metres long.

From 1956, the metro started to be modernized and rubber tyres progressively replaced the old steel wheels, first on line 11, then on line 1, then on the rest of the network.

The idea was also to be able to accelerate and decelerate the metros quicker, so more of them could be added, with the number of minutes being reduced between two metros, especially on line 1 which was totally saturated.

As this was not enough to relieve line 1, the authorities decided in the 1960s to create a new type of metro, called RER, which means “Reseau Express Regional”.

Construction of the first RER line, the “RER A”, in 1966. (https://rera-leblog.fr/rer-a-histoire-ratp-sncf/ )

The line A, was inaugurated in 1969. It consisted in fact of two lines, one going from the centre of Paris to the eastern suburbs and the other one going to another station in the centre to the western suburbs. The two lines were joined in 1977 in “Chatelet les Halles” station (now one of the biggest underground stations in the world) to form a single line.

This video shows the inauguration of the junction of the two lines in the station “Chatelet les Halles” in 1977. You can see the video in full, of course, but a lot of it is interviews of people and it is in French.

RER A in “Auber” Station in 1971.

“Auber”. The main hall of the RER nowadays:

RER in “La Defense” station in 1970

Main hall of “La Defense” station nowadays.
You can buy your metro or RER tickets of course, but it is also full of shops, food markets (like Marks and Spencer), pharmacies, fast foods, cafes… 
There is even a direct access to a huge shopping centre!
Actually, it is a sort of amazing underground town.

Charles de Gaulle Etoile’s RER platform nowadays.

This silent video shows you the very old trains which, as far as I know, were not wooden like the first ones of 1900, but the seats inside 2nd class were made of wood and looked like benches. These trains were still used on certain lines in the seventies. The red carriage is 1st class, and the green carriages are 2nd class.

Another YouTube creation showing you a slideshow of these old metros

The metro in Paris may not be the most beautiful one in the world, it is not as luxurious as some of the stations in the Moscow metro, but according to me it has a lot of charm. Many stations have been decorated, or redecorated, in a very original way, like:

-        Arts et Metiers, where you will have the impression to be inside a Jules Verne submarine!

-         Concorde, where the Declaration of Human Rights of 1789 has been written on the wall, letter by letter, tile after tile.

-         Bastille, also decorated on the theme of the French revolution of 1789

-         Franklin D Roosevelt, a homage to the American President

-         Louvre Rivoli: you are already in the famous museum! (By the way, do not get off at this stop if you want to visit the Louvre museum, but get off at "Palais Royal Musee du Louvre")

-         Cluny La Sorbonne, quite nice…

-     Pont Neuf La Monnaie. The museum of old coins is in the neighbourhood, which explains the decoration

-         Cadet, with the theme of the American flag

-         Cité, in the heart of Paris, named after the island "Ile de la Cité"

-         St Lazare, not bad either…

-         Parmentier, simple, but quite interesting too with this statue
And many others that you will discover next time you visit Paris.

Also, the remaining Art Nouveau entrances of the metro are superb! 

Nice page about the 10 most beautiful stations in Paris.

The RATP, the company that runs the metro, also loves to turn metro stations and halls into exhibition or documentation centres.

Metro station Tuilerie, a homage to all decades of the 20th century, like the 1920s, the 1960s, 70s, the 1990s

One thing I’d also love to visit in Paris are the ghost metro stations It seems that the RATP opens them on special days like the European Heritage Days.

Some people also (illegally, I guess) visit the abandoned tunnels where some old metro carriages are stored and apparently forgotten, and very degraded (which is a shame!) The video is in French but worth seeing even if you do not understand the language.

Superb photos of ghost stations and abandoned tunnels on this fantastic website in English 

If you like to watch movies and are interested in these abandonned or hidden places of the Paris metro, you should watch “Subway”, a 1985 film by French director Luc Besson, with Christopher Lambert and Jean Reno: https://youtu.be/P6Aw4j0A89A

Adverts in the metro and the metro in vintage adverts.

To end this part of the article, let’s not forget to mention that the transport network of Paris and suburbs is currently developing, extending and being modernized to create the Grand Paris Express of the 21st century. 

The WiFi, which is accessible in some stations only at the moment, will be fully available next year (in 2019) when 4G will be available in all stations.

More information.
To know (much) more about the Paris metro, please visit Wikipedia, or this link (excellent article in English, in 3 parts)

If you read French, you can visit this very pretty website called Passion Metro

I must admit that I promoted the Paris metro a lot in this article which looks like a tourist advert for Paris. This is because a lot of negative things have been said about Paris, Parisians and their metro, which I think are unfair, if not untrue.

So if, like me, you love to visit Paris, you can use this RATP guide of the metro, written in English.