Just before you struggle on to the underground platforms of the busiest railway station in Europe, there is a large sign which says: “Au revoir Gare du Nord.”
It is welcome to weary travellers from Britain. It means that you have finally got past the pickpockets, the beggars, the homicidal baggage trolley drivers, the jumble of misleading signs, the labyrinth of food stalls and the interminable queues for Metro tickets which greet rail passengers arriving in Paris from the north.
The French state railways and the Paris city hall also plan to say au revoir to the Gare du Nord. Over the next eight years, the oldest station in the French capital is to be expanded and completely remodelled.
The original Gare du Nord, built in 1867, has a frontage like a two chateaux standing end to end. Behind them are two elegant, tent-shaped glass sheds which comfortably housed the short trains of the 1870s. Up to the 1960s, they accommodated the steam-hauled Flèche d’Or from Calais, which connected by Channel packet with the Golden Arrow from London.
This original station is largely intact – and will be preserved under the plans. It has, however, been engulfed by several other Gares du Nord added at random.
The site now sprawls over 43 platforms, overground and underground. It is used by 700,000 passengers a day.
The Gare du Nord has become a notorious gathering point for drug dealers and criminal gangs from the troubled suburbs. Its most recent addition is a large, gleaming police station which is open 24 hours a day. The British ambassador to Paris, Sir Peter Ricketts, pointed out to the French government in 2013 that it was a shame that the first Parisian experience for many British visitors was to have their pockets picked or their luggage stolen at the Gare du Nord.
Recently, the French police announced that muggings and other thefts at the station had been reduced by 20 per cent, Unfortunately, they admitted, stabbings and other violent crime were rising. Last year, the head of the John Lewis store chain, Andy Street, made the Gare du Nord the symbol of what he thought were the ills of France. In an interview he said: “You get on the Eurostar from something I can only describe as the squalor pit of Europe, Gare du Nord, and you get off at a modern, forward-looking station, St Pancras.”
His comments angered the French government and the city of Paris. It seems, however, that they did finally shame the French railways, the SNCF, into picking up the gauntlet thrown down by Britain in 2007 when it opened the beautifully restored St Pancras station as the London terminus for Eurostars to Brussels and Paris.
The SNCF had already planned a €74m (£52m), refurbishment of the Gare du Nord before Mr Street made his comments in October last year. This has now been swallowed up into a much more ambitious plan to expand the station – above ground and below ground – before 2023. The precise cost has yet to be worked out but it will run to “hundreds of millions of euros”, according to the SNCF.
Top 10 countries with the world's longest railway networks
“The Gare du Nord is a 19th-century station which didn’t struggle though the 20th century very well and needs to be brought up to the standards of the 21st century,” the head of the SNCF, Guillaume Pepy, announced. Departing and arriving passengers will be segregated. The main concourse will be cleared of the slalom course of food outlets and news kiosks. The underground platforms – a jumble of dark and cramped dungeons built in the 1970s – will be rebuilt and expanded.
Is all this work necessary? “Absolutely. And not before time,” said Geoffrey Wilkinson, 54, a frequent British traveller through the Gare du Nord, accosted soon after he arrived by Eurostar this week. “At St Pancras, it’s a pleasure to stick around for a while. Here, I try to get through as quickly as I can. Each time it seems they have shifted the entrance to the Metro to somewhere else.”Reuse content