PARIS DAYS: Le train now arriving is cheap, efficient and smells wonderful

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The French railways have produced an entertaining leaflet. It shows the Eurostar route through the Channel tunnel as an outsize Metro/Tube line linking the underground systems of London and Paris.

If this fantasy is ever to be realised - boarding the Tube at Piccadilly, and alighting at Charles de Gaulle-Etoile - one hopes, for humanitarian reasons, that the trains will be run from the French end.

As a once daily victim of the London Underground, now removed to Paris, I wish to pay a glowing tribute to the Metro. It is clean; efficient; safe; frequent; cheap; and rarely breaks down. It also has that wonderful smell - a blend of sweat, perfume and burned rubber - which has defined Paris to generations of foreign visitors, as much as, say, the view of the Eiffel Tower.

My problem is that I can find few Parisians who agree with me about the Metro. They are convinced that their underground system is dirty, inefficient, expensive and dangerous. In other words, despite the Eurostar, few of them have been to London recently.

This is a perfect example of a French tendency to protest too much. The French have some reasons to be anxious about their future but not as many as they think they have. They have some reasons to be sour about the Metro - for instance, a tendency for bombs to explode in its younger, bigger, dirtier sister, the RER regional network - but not as many as they believe they have.

On my nightly struggle home in London, it was a common experience to wait 20 minutes for a Wimbledon branch train on a menacingly crowded platform at Earls Court; or to wait in tunnels three or four times on one journey.

In four and a half months in Paris, I can remember stopping between stations only once, and that on a day when the Metro line 6 was "perturbed" by industrial action. In daytime, you generally wait no more than two or three minutes for a Metro train. Late at night, you wait ten minutes, at most.

It costs eight francs, less than 90p, for a single journey, anywhere within the city of Paris, broadly equivalent to zones one and two of the London Tube system, where a single journey costs pounds 1.50. If you buy a carnet of 10 tickets, as most Parisians do, the cost falls to Fr4.60 a trip - around 50p. A monthly ticket in Paris costs Fr243 (pounds 26.40), compared to pounds 60.30 for zones one and two in London.

How does the Metro do it?

It starts with some advantages. The Metro (leaving aside the RER) is a denser network than the Tube and does not reach out as far into the suburbs. As a purely urban system, it is more intensively used - five million passengers a day, seven million including the RER, compared to 2.5 million on the Tube - which reduces the cost of carrying each passenger. Since the Metro was built later than the Tube (its first line opened in 1900), and has fewer deep tunnels, it is structurally cheaper to maintain.

Beyond that, the Metro-economics are confusing but instructive. The public subsidy for each tube journey in London is around 35 per cent (and falling). The public subsidy for each Metro journey is 50 per cent.

Thus the real cost of the pounds 1.50 single tube journey is around pounds 2.35 (based on figures supplied by London Transport). The real cost of the 88p single Metro journey is pounds 1.76 and the real cost of a 50p carnet ticket is pounds 1. In other words, the Metro is not only efficient; it is genuinely good value. The RATP, unlike other state-run operations, such as the main- line railway system, is not a licence for tearing up francs. It faces, none the less, demands for new "efficiencies".

As France struggles to reduce its budget deficits to qualify for Economic and Monetary Union (Emu), all public services are being squeezed, including the Metro. Some of the clever young men in the Finance Ministry have started to ask if it might not be possible for passengers to wait three or four minutes for a train instead of two.

Journeys were still about 5 per cent down last year on pre- bomb-and- strike levels of 1994. Parisians are turning more to their cars, to taxis, even to bikes.

There is an element of snobbery here: even racism. You hear better-off Parisians say that they never use the Metro any more: it is unsafe and unclean. By this, they seem to mean that there are more brown and black faces down there than they see at street level. Robberies and assaults on the Metro are, in reality, rare. (The RER, which links Paris with some of the poorer banlieues, is a different matter.)

Surveys and anecdotal experience suggest that Parisians are also offended by the intensive panhandling which afflicts the Metro. On one short journey I made this week, there was an almost choreographed French farce of entries and exits. At consecutive stations, three panhandlers got on and off through different doors, giving the same rather formal speech beginning: "Excusez- moi de vous deranger, mesdames, messieurs, mais ..." No one else on the train found this funny.

All three were trying to sell the same small booklet, produced by the French equivalent of the Big Issue. It turned out to be a well-written guide to the history and meaning of the station names on the Paris Metro.

Partly drawn from this publication, here is a brief quiz. Which two stations on the London Tube have the same names as stations on the Paris Metro?

Answer: 1. Temple (District and Circle line and Metro line 3); 2. Arsenal (Piccadilly line and Metro line 5). The second, I admit, is a cheat. The Parisian Arsenal station, next to Bastille, closed in 1939.

If you got one station right, you win a ticket on the first through Metro train to Wimbledon.

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