Rail Days

photo: steam loco, st pierre, type buddicom

One of the oldest, this 'St. Pierre' from 1844 was used
for the Paris-Rouen-Le Havre line.

Wheels of Steel

Paris:- Saturday, 17. May:- Millions of people a day ride around the city on rails. Millions more get to the city on rails. We are on the rails so much that we take them for granted, hardly ever stopping to think that before rails, the main method of our locomotion was walking.

And while it was restricted to walking, we didn't get far and we certainly didn't get anywhere fast. Besides this, we were largely agrarian, keeping warm with wood fires, keeping fed - in Paris - with what could be hauled into the city with barges, or overland on carts pulled by horses.

Then, within a 30 year period, from 1837 to about 1865, Paris networked itself to the rest of France with a revolution based on coal, iron, steel, money, and the willingness to take a lot of risks - both by the builders and operators of the first railways, and by their passengers.

Passengers - passing from a dangerous way of life with horses - to one of spectacularly awesome train wrecks - but in the end, accepted as rare and an acceptable trade-off for speed and convenience..

From now until mid-July Paris is celebrating travel on rails with two exhibitions. The one in the open air on the Champs-Elysées is a first - it featuresphoto: loco name plate,1829, st etienne, lyon, marc seguin train engines from the first moments, along with the SNCF's very latest rolling material that is just about to be put into service.

The other exhibition, organized by the Action Artistique de la Ville de Paris, treats the history of rails in the city, from the rails laid for the first line to the latest innovations, and renovations to Paris' many railway stations.

Rail Days in Paris

The very first line, conceived in 1825, began operations in 1837. It ran from Paris to Saint-Germain-en-Laye - as a first step towards Le Harve, to reinforce the canal connection to transport by sea - thus making Paris a deep-sea port, effective in 1838.

But in Paris, in 1840, there was doubt about where to place the first station. The original proposals were refused, and a temporary one was established in the Europe quartier. In 1854 it was placed along the Rue Saint-Lazare.

A more ambitious plan to have a rail line to Versailles had the notion of running it all the way to Bordeaux - to make it profitable - but finding a location for its station in the city ran into as many problems as the first line. The government gave concessions to private companies, and one went bust in 1839 building a rail viaduct between the hills of Clamart and Meudon - a long way from Tours or Orléans, or Rouen or Le Havre.

The government caved in to the anger of residents of Clamart and Meudon - communities carved up by a bankrupt rail line going nowhere - so in 1842 'l'utopie devient réalité' after the government kicked in five million francs, so Parisians could ride to Versailles in 25 minutes.

I used this line for eight years, and guess the ride still takes 25 minutes from Montparnasse to Versailles - even with the Montparnasse station being moved about 350 metres closer to Versailles.

Another effect in the 1840s was to create new housing areas next to the new work areas near the rails, in Petit Montrouge, and in the villages of Nouvelle Californie and Malakoff. Progress! Rails alone could create the future. The original station was replaced byphoto: loco crampton, 1852 a monumental one at the Boulevard de Montparnasse, and the city annexed it all in 1860.

There were six railway companies in all, and they had six or more stations. The idea for a central station floated around for a long time, but died as a result of each company building the most magnificent station - all based on the first, the Gare de l'Est, finished in 1849.

A flop in Britain, this 'Crampton' reached 120 kph on runs to Strasbourg.

Each of the 'doors to the city' had - some still have - a large stone front with a huge, industrial interior made of iron and glass. The original Gare du Nord was so modest it was dismantled and shipped to Lille, to be replaced by Hittorf's railway palace in 1861.

While the 50-year argument about the 'central station' raged, the city came to believe that is would be better if there were none, and it gradually took control of the inner Paris rail system - called the métro. The last 'gare centrale' proposals died in 1912.

To put it mildly, in the mid-19th century, everybody concerned was 'rail-crazy.' For example, Napoléon III thought it would be hygienic to ship all dead people out of town, and a place about the size of London was purchased in Méry-sur-Oise for transformation into a 'Cité des Morts.'

But the cost of the 12 stations in Paris - with waiting rooms! - and the six daily trains, with double-decker 'imperiales' for the mourners, was considered to be too expensive. The idea resurfaced in 1874, was projected to cost five million more than the original, and was dumped when the budget for it fell seven million francs short.

The circular railway line within Paris - the 'Petite Ceinture' - was constructed according to the rhythm of the Universal Expositions, especially that of 1867. When it was complete, it permitted circling Paris in one hour 30 minutes. Freight required a 'Grande Ceinture' circling the city, further out.

The métro, which began operations for the opening of the Universal Exposition of 1900, was built with normal rails, but with tunnels too small for the regular long-distance trains. Some people called it a 'joujou municipal,' but in the first year the Vincennes-Maillot line carried five million passengers.

For 30 years the rail companies refused to consider forming a global network together with the city - while the city busily planned to reach out to its growing suburbs. Gambetta came out in favor of Paris and the rail companies began to offer special prices for working commuters living in the new suburbs - themselves made possible by rail access.

The Gare d'Orsay and the Gare de Lyon were built for the 1900 exposition. Orsay got the bonus of the Pont Alexandre III thrown in, to bridge the Seine between the station and the Grand and Petit-Palais. The bridge was inaugurated by Czar Nicolas II before the exposition, and its gilded opulence eclipsed the station's.

The Gare Montparnasse had been slumbering along in three buildings. In 1931 a new station was proposed, with an interconnection to the métro, but with the creation of the SNCF in 1937, work was stopped on it. It didn't resume until the old station at Maine-Arrivée was demolished, and the Tour Montparnasse was tossed up, with the entire project completed in 1969.

The six rail companies were nationalized in 1937, to become the SNCF. It prospered after the war with what are called 'Les Trente Glorieuses' of the post-war boom. The deindustrialization of Paris became public policy in 1975, reversing its industrial vocation that has been ushered in by the rails.

The creation of the regional expressphoto: wine war, bi foudre, 1900 network - the RER - took 120 years of dreaming and planning, and had to wait until after WWII until the lines 'A' and 'B' began crossing at Châtelet. With these, the Paris transport authority - the RATP - lost its Paris exclusivity by having to share operations with the SNCF.

One of the tank wagons used for hauling wine to Bercy during the 'wine war.'

Despite the addition of several newer lines, within Paris RER trains are often saturated. But the city works together on common projects with the SNCF these days. The SNCF has a lot of real estate that the city wants to recuperate, such as the area parallel to the Seine in the 13th arrondissement, from the Gare d'Austerlitz to the Perifreak!

With the evolution of Paris after 1960 into a sort of giga-megapole, railways and their infrastructures that might have disappeared, are instead becoming more necessary - to keep the city from being strangled by automobiles and other road traffic. Even streetcars are making a comeback.

Le Train Capitale

The Champs-Elysées has been the scene of some 'really big shows' - from scheduled annual parades to rock concerts. But every once in a while an idea to do something unique surfaces - like the 1990 wheat harvest on the avenue, or the more recent a aviation show that was staged on the avenue in 1998.

So it does not require a big leap of credence when the SNCF wants to show itself off and joins with the event creator WM Evénements - famous for its 'Incroyable Pique-Nique' on 14. July 2000 - to place its newest equipment on view on the Champs-Elysées.

The show opened to the public today, after a couple of weeks of being trucked in through the nighttime streets of Paris, thus ending its sidewalk superintendent phase - which was reported in the papers, on radio and shown on TV-news.

The heavy material is lined up on the avenue's south side from Rond-Point to Concorde, and most of the PR displays and booths, and special animation locations are on the avenue's north side.

From a practical stance, I would suggest beginning at Pond-Point and going east to Concorde past all of the engines, wagons and other rolling stock. Take in the latest models parked at Concorde and then return on the avenue's north side to take in the booths put up byphoto: wagon lits, salon bar, 1926 the SNCF's industrial partners, and the model train tent, to end at the Clemenceau intersection opposite the Grand Palais.

The 1926 salon-bar car of the Flèche d'Or, used from Paris to London.

On the north side, right at Rond-point, there is a lone exhibition of the Eurostar's new interiors designed by - who else? - Philippe Starck. This is a full-sized model, not a real Eurostar car. It is on show in anticipation of a speedier Paris-London transit of two hours 35 minutes - coming this fall.

Opposite this, on the south side, is where the good old stuff is, beginning with a faithful reproduction of the 'Marc Sequin' engine, France's first steam engine. It went into service in 1829 with the Saint-Etienne-Lyon rail company.

Under gray skies, about to drop rain at any moment, there is a large crowd out to see everything. The train material is protected by train-strength barriers, and there are a few platforms for viewing into interiors.

There is a 19th century feel to the show. The avenue's paved sidewalk is narrow and the considerable rest of the space is plain dirt. While it is not raining the movement of many feet raise clouds of dust, and light winds are blowing it all over.

Another rare sight is the 'St. Pierre' locomotive - an original, dating to 1844. It was in use until 1910, mostly on the Paris-Le Harve line. It could pull a train of 80 tons at 60 kph.

Shortly after it there is the 'Crampton' of 1852. Made in France, this British-designed engine had no success across the Channel. It joined Paris to Strasbourg at a speed of 120 kph, and the SNCF was using it on special occasions until 1971.

Further on down the line - all of these engines and wagons are sitting on steel rails - there is a double-barreled wagon called a 'bi-foudre.' This type was used by the competing P.L.M and Paris-Orléans-Midi railroads for transporting wine from the south to the wine depot at Bercy, during the 'wine war' of 1893-1909.

Next in line is a standard boxcar, first made in Bordeaux in 1896, for the Compagnie du Midi. It could be easily converted to carry troops instead of goods, and is a sad souvenir of the WWII deportation trains.

There are several other antique engines and suburban passenger wagons, before the appearance of more modern equipment - such as the single-wagon self-propelled 'Picasso,' designed to run on branch lines between main lines. These were in operation in the '60s.

I miss noticing the luxurious and armored presidential wagon, used by French presidents and visiting chiefs of state. Next to it is an equally luxo salon-bar car of the 'wagon-lits' era. Created in 1926, the one on show was used for the Paris-London 'Flèche d'Or.'

After this come the later locomotives, such as the 80-ton 'BB 9004' of 1953, which set a speed record of 331 kph on 29. March 1955. Following it is the newest heavy-duty freight loco, put into service last year.

But I cross the avenue to see the exhibits on the north side. The SNCF has 13 glass-sided display units, and the rest show off displays by its partners, Alstom, Bombardier and Siemens.

On the avenue's north side, from Concorde to Clemenceau, there are also exhibition or multimedia 'spaces' in tents for these companies, plus the long model train tent. Finally there is one for the SNCF subsidiary, 'Réseau Ferré de France,' which is responsible for the rails themselves.

At Concorde, there are three brand-new but still covered 'Corail' wagons, waiting to be unveiled onphoto: tram train, avanto, siemens Tuesday, 20. May. If I understand the information I received, it is these that will be running up and down the Champs- Elysées on Sunday, 1. June, from 9:30 to 20:00. The 1450 metres of steel rails on the avenue will be laid for this one day only.

Even the newest rollling stock has its fans. Here, Siemens' tram-train 'Avanto.'

On the south side, at Concorde, there are three new units, two self- propelled - by Alstom and Bombardier - and one tram, conceived by Siemens. These have no rivets, no brass, but probably have lots of comfort and ample headroom. In France at least, all three will be in service within a few years.

Accompanying the hardware, each week of the exhibit will have a different over-all theme. But the main thing the SNCF is trying to sell here is the fact that, for travel times less than three hours, you can't beat rails.

To put the idea in a single gastank, one kilo of gas will take you 20 kilometres by plane, 39 kilometres in an automobile, 53 kilometres on a long-distance train, or 66 kilometres on a TGV. Better yet, a modern train like the TGV doesn't use gas. Its electrical power emits only half a percent of its energy, while a car pumps out 93.7 percent into the atmosphere.

Exhibition - Paris et Ses Chemins de Fer

See this artistically and historically-oriented exhibition organized by the Action Artistique de Paris, until 23. May, from 11:00 to 17:00, and until 19:30 on Thursdays. At the Mairie of the 10th, 72. Rue du Faubourg- Saint-Martin, Paris 10. Métro: Château d'Eau.

Then from Thursday, 5 June until Friday, 18. July, from 11:00 to 17:00, and until 19:30 on Thursdays. At the Mairie of the 12th, 130. Avenue Daumesnil, Paris 12. Métro: Dugommier. For group visits, InfoTel.: 01 43 25 30 30. No entry charge.

Exhibition - Le Train Capitale

On outdoor view along the Champs-Elysées from Rond-Point to Concorde - steam engines, old wagons, TGVs, mini streetcars - from Saturday, 17. May until Sunday, 15. June. Organized by the SNCF, with its partners Alstom, Bombardier and Siemens, and with exhibits from the national railway museum in Mulhouse. Métro: Franklin D Roosevelt, Champs- Elysées-Clemenceau or Concorde. No entry charge.

Related Exhibits - The SNCF is showing films about itself and railroading at a cinema, daily at 10:00 and 11:00. At 1. Rue Balzac, Paris 8. Métro: Etoile or George V. Other films about trains will be shown outdoors in the Tuileries, from Friday, 6. June to Sunday, 8. June. Showtime is 22:30.
Lalique - added their talents to the 'Wagon-Lits' and this is on show at their boutique at 11. Rue Royale, Paris 8. Métro: Concorde.
Christoffe - has given the TGV its treatment and it can be viewed at their boutique at 9. Rue Royale, Paris 8. Métro: Concorde.
Carlos Regazzoni, the Argentinean sculptor, has created a 'Zoo Ferroviaire' for the occasion, which is on view at the Ambassade d'Argentine, 6. Rue Cimarosa, Paris 16. Métro: Boissière. The sculptor's atelier is also open to the public from Monday to Friday, from 9:00 to 17:00, at 22. quinter, Rue Pajol. Paris 18. Métro: Max Dormoy.
Hommes de la Vapeur - is a photo exhibition, on view from Saturday, 24. May until Saturday, 31. May. At the Pavillon Deutsch de la Meurthe at the Cité Universitaire, 37. Boulevard Jourdan, Paris 14. Métro: RER Cité Universitaire.

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