Monday, 21 August 2017

Paris's missing museum

There is no shortage of museums in Paris - from the great national institutions to the smaller, quirkier collections. However, one type of museum is perhaps conspicuous by its absence. For unlike London, Paris does not have a transport museum. 

No smoking and spitting

It does, thankfully, have a collection, held by RATP (the city's public transport operator, not unfamiliar to Londoners since it also runs a number of our bus routes). The historical vehicles, signage, and assorted other objects are stored outside the city in Villeneuve-Saint-Georges. They are beautifully kept and displayed, but only visited by special arrangement (my tour was organised by the Seine-Saint-Denis tourist board, who have an excellent programme of events). 

The station feels a long way from Paris: small and quiet, with few facilities. But a bus meets us here - a vintage vehicle from the collection itself.

Our destination is an unremarkable warehouse - but there are treasures inside! We are guided through over  a century of public transport, beginning with the métro. It's younger than London's, so never ran on steam engines: the first underground trains ran in 1900. However, the modern, electrical railway suffered a disaster only a few years later, at Couronnes station in 1903. A short circuit caused a train to catch fire; the resulting smoke overwhelmed the evacuating passengers, and 83 lives were lost.

The consequent safety improvements are well-illustrated by the trains on display. A recreation of the original, all-wooden train also illustrates the luxurious first-class carriage interiors. (This is the only replica in the collection.)

First and second classes were maintained in the next generation of trains. Their passenger accommodation was still made of wood, although they had been modified quickly after the Couronnes tragedy to have metal driver's cabs.

By 1908, the first fully-metal trains were introduced.

Metro trains continued to develop - as did their branding. Separate companies were united into the RATP in 1949, but the logo changes continued.

One famous Parisian innovation - whose prototype is here - is the use of pneumatic tyres. They brought better acceleration and braking, better passenger comfort ... and no more sounds of shrieking metal. However, the expense of converting tracks to accommodate them means they are used on only a minority of Parisian metro lines.

A second hall holds buses, most of which belong not to the RATP but to Sauvabus. The volunteers of this organisation keep many of the buses in working order - including the one that brought us here.

Another bus from the collection takes us back to the station. Travelling home in modern vehicles, one has a new appreciation for the history of this network - and for London's good fortune in having a dedicated museum in the heart of the city. 

There is also a museum of urban transport just east of Paris, with a collection drawn from across France. The Musée des Transports Urbains has moved around in recent years, only opening on a few special occasions each year; but is now settled at Chelles, with monthly openings. Something for my next visit to the city!

1 comment:

HughB said...

I remember being really impressed by the quietness of the rubber wheels on a school trip after the noisy squealing and grinding of the underground. That and nearly being run down trying to cross the Champs Elysee.

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