Parisians get pounds 700m Metro fit for pharaohs

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The Independent Online
PARISIANS WILL be treated next week to their first new Metro line in 63 years, operated by fast, bullet-nosed, driverless trains resembling underground TGVs.

To prevent suicides and accidents, tracks through the seven stations will be encased in transparent tubes. Sliding doors in the see-through walls will open simultaneously with the doors on the trains. Broadly similar safety systems exist in Russia and the United States, but the transparency of the cocoons is claimed as a world first. The "Metro a grande vitesse" - Line 14 or Meteor - will connect Madeleine in the centre of the city to the grandiose new national library in an obscure part of the Left Bank.

Even before it opens, the pounds 700m line is the source of controversy. Critics say it mostly parallels two existing lines down the spine of the city, has been built to "pharaonically" lavish standards and that the money would have been better spent on the capital's creaking suburban train system. The cost of six miles of Meteor, they point out, would have paid for 25 miles of urgently needed new tramway in the suburbs.

The fact that the trains have no drivers may seem a great attraction to Parisian commuters. Their lives have been severely disrupted this week by strikes by bus and suburban train drivers, protesting against attacks by gangs of youths. In fact, there will be no saving in staffing on Meteor. The "drivers" will walk around the train, chatting to passengers, checking on security.

"We're retraining drivers to circulate on the platforms and in the trains with the passengers, where they can have some company instead of being shut up alone," said Claude Janet, a Metro guide.

The Meteor can travel at up to 50mph, twice the speed of the existing 13 Metro lines. The six-car trains, operated from a central computer console, will be 85 seconds apart in the rush hour. Like the new trains operating on the original, century-old Metro line - Line One - the Meteor carriages will have wide corridor connections, allowing passengers to walk from one end of the the train to the other.

The Meteor was originally conceived as a way of connecting the centre of the city to the new Bibliotheque Nationale de France - one of the Grands Travaux (Great Works) of the late President Francois Mitterrand - sometimes known as the "Tres Grand Bibliotheque", or TGB. The building, partially open for two years, finally threw open all its departments and archives yesterday.

The library station - to be called Bibliotheque-Francois Mitterrand - is the most extravagant on an extravagant system, with 50ft-high roofs and mock granite pillars on the underground platforms.

The great mystery of Meteor remains its route. Although the new library will be connected conveniently to the rest of Paris for the first time, the bulk of Line 14 follows closely the path of both the original Metro - Line One - and the first regional Metro, or RER, line A. (Three regional, underground RER connections have been built through Paris since the 1970s, but Meteor is the first Metro line proper since 1935.)

Even more oddly, Meteor will end (for the foreseeable future) at Madeleine - a few hundred yards from the Gare Saint-Lazare, one of the busiest stations in the world. Originally, the Meteor line was to extend to the Gare Saint-Lazare, but that section was shelved to save money.