Friday, January 21, 2011

Paris, A broken city?

I’m sitting in Gare Du Nord, Paris on the Thalys train soon to set off for the return trip to Brussels. I took the train as it appeared to be quicker and cheaper than taking the car. I was wrong on both counts!

The train from Brussels to Paris is indeed very quick, whisking one from capital to capital in 1 hour 20 minutes. The problem starts once deposited on the platform at Gare Du Nord. I thought I had worked out some ongoing trains to get me close to my destination. I was first looking for “the blue line” (well it was blue on my copy of the plan). It also seemed to be called the RATP but I could see signs for neither. After 20 minutes and three cryptic clues from station staff later I found the RER (as I now know it) two floors down from the main station. I boarded the train but it continued to sit at the station for another 5 minutes. No problem I thought, only 2 stops on this train. It then ground into the next station and waited a further 10 minutes before moving on. I eventually arrived in "Notre Dame" about an hour after disembarking from the Thalys and now too late catch the last regional train to where I wanted to go.

I emerged from the underground station to find I really was outside Notre Dame cathedral and reluctantly hailed a cab to take me to my hotel at an additional cost of €30 and another 30 minutes. Total journey time from home to hotel was four and a half hours, about an hour more than I could have comfortably done it in the car.

The journey back was worse. The customer’s office, in the south west of Paris was at an intersection of the Peripherique and traffic starts to build at 4pm and doesn’t stop until 10pm. This was my original motivation for taking the train. I tried to call a taxi (actually several taxi firms) to take me to the local railway station but none of them wanted to come as the traffic was too busy. Eventually I had to jump on a bus heading in the general direction of central Paris.

At the bus terminus was an underground station but I'd been advised by the customer to take a taxi as it would be quicker and easier. My colleague had an earlier train than I so we took his advice – big mistake! I am sure the taxi driver took us for a ride, if you know what I mean; We took 45 minutes and €43 to get to the Gare Du Nord.

I am sure millions of people like to live in Paris, after all, why else would they do it? For me there is nothing so appealing about the place that I would be willing to spend my life crawling around in my car, or on dysfunctional train systems or buses. Every Parisian road is full to overflowing with cars travelling at little more than walking pace and belching out carbon dioxide. The general population seems to be resigned to the fact that their commute consumes over 10% of their waking hours. My colleague and I boggled at the waste of life and resources.

Brussels has problems but its transport system is streets ahead (pun intended) of Paris and its appeal just as great. Perhaps another case where small is beautiful?

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