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Paris Olympics sparked metro expansion for 1924 and will again in 2024

Today’s metro system boasts 16 lines covering 227 km, with a daily average of over four million journeys (on working days), more than 300 stops, and a fleet of 740 trains and 3,800 cars

Odéon station, on Line 4, opened in 1910 as part of the connecting section of the line under the Seine Pic: Kiev.victor / Shutterstock

The 1900 inauguration of Métro Line 1 brought a direct link between Porte Maillot and Porte de Vincennes, where the Olympic Games were held that year.

It was partly to cater for the influx of spectators, as well as visitors to the Paris Exposition that was also running that year, that officials signed off on ambitious plans to create a new rail solution. 

The capital already had the so-called Petite Ceinture – a circular railway line built between 1852 and 1869 to transport goods and, from 1854, the general public too.

However, for the city’s ever-growing population, this was not enough. As the Games and World Fair approached, the state and city of Paris agreed that a chemin de fer métropolitain should be built directly under the streets to enhance the surface network.

“It was quite different from the underground in London,” said Philippe Ventéjol, vice-president of the Association pour le Musée des Transports Urbains, Interurbains et Ruraux (Amtuir). “Most of the tunnels are very near to the surface, and the stations are also much closer together.”

Read more: Record-breaking electric ‘pod’ railway set for trial at Paris Olympics

The père du Métro

The project began in earnest in 1895 when Fulgence Bienvenüe, a French engineer who later became known as the père du Métro, and Edmond Huet created the draft for an underground network using prior foundations developed by the Lyonnais engineer Jean-Baptiste Berlier (1841-1911). 

Six initial lines were approved, with the first three scheduled for March 30, 1900, to coincide with the Paris Exposition running from April 15 to November 12. The remaining three were planned for 1906.

“They had to solve countless technical issues first, but the main problem was finding finance, of course. It was an expensive project,” said Mr Ventéjol. Work began on Line 1 in 1898. It would boast 18 stations and, as most of the construction was underground, it inevitably threw up challenges.

To extract the earth, between 3,000 and 4,000 workers created wooden galleries and built abutments using pickaxes, with the rubble removed in trucks or horse-drawn carts. Although it was behind schedule, the line was finally completed on July 19, 1900. 

Passengers were transported across the city in three wooden carts at 36 km/h. They had a choice of two fares: first class cost 25 centimes, while second class was 15 centimes, regardless of the route.

That same year, architect and designer Hector Guimard was charged with creating entrances for the new stations. He was known for his Art Nouveau style, and over the next 13 years, he went on to design 167 access points.

Growing pains

The burgeoning Métro system experienced its fair share of disasters. To this day the worst was a fire at Ménilmontant station (Line 2) on August 10, 1903 which claimed 84 lives.

The blaze started in an empty car, killing seven people waiting at the station before toxic fumes and heat spread through the tunnel to nearby Couronnes station, killing an additional 77 people. 

Flooding was also a regular problem, and the residents of Paris faced upheaval from the construction process as abysses opened up in the streets, wooden and iron structures rose from the ground, and tens of thousands of tonnes of rubble were removed.

Nevertheless, the Métro was quickly declared a triumph, and by 1906 the speed of trains had risen to 45km/h. A key moment in its construction came in 1910 when the central connecting section of Line 4 opened, including the crossing of the River Seine between Saint Michel and Île de la Cité in the historic centre of the capital.

“The ground in this part of Paris is in a very bad state,” said Mr Ventéjol. “The water is close to the surface, and they had to pass under monuments.” Metal caissons 20m-40m in length were ballasted with water and sunk in the riverbed.

A chamber filled with pressurised air was built at the lower level of these caissons so that workers could excavate underneath them. Each caisson gradually sank to its final position as the ground below it was removed.

Meanwhile, saturated ground was frozen to stabilise it by circulating brine cooled to -25C. The connecting section was put into service on January 9, 1910, but had to close just a few days later when the Seine suffered massive flooding.

In all 10 lines were completed by the 1920s, and Bienvenüe continued to oversee the development of the network until his retirement at 80 years old, after 12 lines reaching up to 115 km.

After his death and to recognise his input, his name was added to the busy station of Montparnasse, to see it become Montparnasse-Bienvenüe.

The evolution since

Read more: Flying ‘drone taxis’ on track to carry passengers at Paris Olympics

In the 120-plus years since the first Métro train departed much has changed. Travellers were once guided underground by wooden escalators, and poinçonneurs (ticket-punchers) were on hand to check fares before tourniquets (turnstiles) were introduced from 1973. 

These are gradually being replaced by automatic doors. The familiar rectangular white tickets are also being phased out in favour of contactless payment. Perhaps the biggest recent change, however, has been automation. 

Line 1 was converted to driverless operation between 2007 and 2011, and Line 4 is also in the process of automation. Line 14 was already automated when it was built in 1998. However urban transport heritage is being preserved thanks to Amtuir, which was established for this purpose in 1957.

Amtuir now has 70 pieces of its 133-strong collection on display in its museum in Chelles (Seine-et-Marne), including minibuses, trams, coaches, and buses. Prior to his role at Amtuir, Mr. Ventéjol worked for RATP, which has been responsible for the Métro’s operation since 1948, and the two organisations enjoy a good relationship.

“RATP is also involved in preservation and retelling the story,” he said.

The next chapter in that story goes full circle as the city once again prepares to bolster its public transport in readiness for a huge influx of visitors at next summer’s Olympics.

By next summer these statistics should look even more impressive, with the extension of Line 14 to Saint-Denis Pleyel in the north and the addition of seven new stations to Orly Airport in the south.

This expansion forms part of even bigger plans for Paris’s transport infrastructure – a 200km urban rail network called the Grand Paris Express that will loop around the city, joining the suburbs, with more than 60 stops by 2030.

Light relief for commuters

Since the late 1960s, RATP has been raising a smile among passengers with periodic April Fool pranks. In 2016, for example, it changed the names of certain Métro stations. Opéra become Apéro “for a more festive city”, Quatre-Septembre (Line 3) became Premier-Avril “to keep up with the times”, while Télégraphe (line 11) became #Tweet “in a bid to modernise”.

Related links

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