Continuing our series of comparisons between the London Underground and the subterranean mass transit systems of other cities worldwide (see previous bouts with Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo and New York). In early 2016, we found ourselves riding the Paris Metro, and decided it was high time we pitted the City of Light's underground network against London's.
Before we get started though, it's worth noting a couple of obvious differences between the two networks:
In Paris there are staffed ticket offices at almost every station - we went to all 303 station in the space of five days, and even the small poky stations which hardly see any passengers had a staffed ticket office.
And yet a no point did we see any staff out on the platforms, no-one speaking into a PA system telling us to stand clear of the closing doors. And guess what: everyone seemed to manage just fine, merci.
Then again, maybe Paris SHOULD have more staff manning the platforms; numerous times we saw people entering via exit gates and not paying for a ticket — tut tut, Parisians.
One other thing: most Paris Metro stations have Durex machines in the ticket office areas. OK, this is a romantic city, but does travelling on the Metro really make you that horny? Apparently not: in the five days we were there, we didn’t see a single prophylactic dispensed.
Although the Paris Metro system has six core zones (similar to London) most of the network is within zone 1. That's because even though Paris has more stations (303 to London’s 270) the geographical area is much more condensed; around the same size as the zone 3 boundary in London.
In London, the average amount of time between two stations is almost exactly two minutes. In Paris it's literally one minute — sometimes even shorter. Think Leicester Square to Covent Garden in a LOT of places. In fact Paris's stations are SO close you can often see the next one up from the platform you're standing on.
Another interesting comparison: whereas it takes around 16 hours to travel to all stations in record time in London, in Paris — even with 33 more stations — it can be done in just 13 hours.
But for all its nifitiness, the Paris Metro doesn’t really reach out into the suburbs (where buses and trams take over). And the fact you never really get up speed is also frustrating.
London's network may be more lumbering, but it goes further, and is thus more useful.
Information and navigation
We can't deny it: the Paris Metro has a great map. It's well proportioned, folds up into a nice size, and it has buses and the rail network printed on the reverse.
There's a sensible lettering and numbering scheme too. The Crossrail-like RER services have a letter associated with them, while all the Metro lines have a number.
There are 16 lines in total on the Metro system (14 'proper' ones, and two 'short' ones — a bit like the Waterloo & City line). Yet the map doesn’t feel too busy and they’ve not run out of colours.
Station signage in Paris is neat and clear too, provided you know the name of the station at the end of the line; as there are no directional signs (eg 'westbound') signs in stations and platforms as there are in London — just the name of the last stop on the line which made it harder as a tourist.
A final note: Paris trains don't overburden you with repetitive information pollution either. It was telling that the one time during our trip that there was an issue, everyone paid attention to the driver's announcement.
The Paris Metro doesn't do deep tunnel tube trains: 90% of it is built at 'cut and cover' level. Rather than a proper underground system, it feels more like a tram/light rail system that's been sunk 20ft underground.
The trains feel narrower even though they’re on the same gauge track as London, but you don’t ever have to lean in and stoop like you do with a London tube train at the height of rush hour.
There's only one line in Paris which doesn’t have nice vibrant seat 'moquette-style' patterns — it has blue vinyl seating instead, but Paris does have 'tip-up' seats so that in rush hour, people can stand in those spaces — and in the rush hour you'll get tutted at if you remain seated on a tip-up seat. Yes, London has these too now, but Paris paved the way, and they know how to use them.
Oh and two of Paris's lines — 1 and 14 — are fully automated, so you can sit up at the front and get a glorious view as you descend into the tunnel and feel like you’re driving the train a la DLR.
Do driverless trains lead to less strikes? Er, no. But let's not mention strikes in France.
Overall, we liked Paris Metro trains better. It's a Paris win.
As soon as we attempted to buy our tickets for the Metro we knew that London was waaaay ahead of the game. Although we still have paper tickets, more often we use Oyster and contactless.
Parisians, it seems, prefer the traditional methods, with many still buying single tickets or carnets (10 tickets).
There is an Oyster-like ticket called Navigo, but it's not used by everyone. It also requires you to have a photo and the options are still limited. You can only buy a Monday-Sunday weekly pass, or a pass for a WHOLE calendar month. So it's not so useful if you visit Paris for four days - say between Friday and Monday.
TfL is leaps and bounds ahead with Oyster and now contactless payments when it comes to ticketing. An easy London win.
So. The corridors. Oh my, the long, undulating corridors that twist and turn under the streets of Paris. Relentless long corridors decorated with nothing other than bland white tiles. Oui, the Bland White Tiles Co must have made a tidy packet when the system was first built.
OK, some of the stations have been decorated to look a bit different, and in a tiny number of places some coloured tiles have been introduced to give the system character, but London has its Art On The Underground project, while character oozes from nearly every station — even new designs, like the revamped Tottenham Court Road.
The prices (and this will not surprise you) are so much better in Paris. Our weekly Navigo pass that let us go anywhere on the Metro and the buses, and the trams, cost us just over 25 euros – that's £20 to travel for a whole week on the whole system. In London the cheapest zone 1 only weekly travelcard is £32. Our French friends offer much better value for money.
Paris wins hands down.
So that’s a 3-3 draw then. OR IS IT?
There is just one other thought to consider on why the Paris Metro may just be better: it doesn't have any 'flat' junctions.
While the Underground was established in the 1860s, the Paris Metro wasn't constructed until 40 years later. Maybe during those years the French had a chance to learn what London got wrong — and one of the things that the Underground is rubbish for is the fact that lines share tracks in too many places. Why? Because rail companies that started out separately eventually merged together.
We got chatting to a Parisian and they said that this was the most confusing thing about London — separate lines which arrive at the same platform, as that wasn't normal for them. If you got rid of the flat junctions in London, you'd never get stuck at Edgware Road on a Circle line train, as a Hammersmith branch cuts in front of you.
Is that a Paris win then? Sacre bleu!
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