The Grand Paris Express is potentially the most important and transformational urban mobility project underway in Europe

The Grand Paris Express transport project

I was in Paris, France for the Autonomy Mobility World Expo conference late last month. As an addition to the conference I was able to book a guided visit to the project exhibition exploring the Grand Paris Express transport project.

This is potentially the most important and transformational urban mobility project currently under construction in Europe and one which you may not have heard a great deal about! Its construction is underway with some early phases already in operation, parts being delivered in 2024, and work continuing into the 2030s.

The most transformational and important outcome for mobility professionals is the provision of high quality and comprehensive orbital ‘metro’-style services throughout the periphery of the city that links together the radial public transport routes as well as provides high capacity suburb to suburb mobility.

Will this project transform the transport offer and choice and draw significantly more people to sustainable transport solutions and thus, deliver on the transport decarbonisation agenda?

Will this fundamentally change the premise of suburban transport and act as a model for other urban areas?

These are the issues that Grand Paris Express (GPE) will showcase.

While I will outline the GPE project in this article, there are other sustainable transport interventions in the Paris area that support this transformation. These include the continual expansion of the light rail system into more suburbs and as an orbital ring around the City of Paris, continual expansion of the radial RER network, modernisation of the Metro system, as well as a comprehensive rebalancing of streetspace to support micro-mobility and shared and electric vehicles.

However, in order to understand the Grand Paris Express project, it is useful to look back at some of the scheme’s context.

The Paris region is a huge, diverse and wealthy region of France and Europe

The Paris region is a huge, diverse and wealthy region of France and Europe. The region’s GDP is approximately one-third of all of France. The City of (Ville de) Paris is the core of the region and contains approximately 2.1 million people within the dense urban centre. The Paris Metro network typically has provided a dense service within this area. However, the wider Île-de-France region which includes dense urban areas immediately adjacent to the city, smaller sub-cities, the region’s airports, etc is also a densely populated and diverse area including wealthy suburbs such as Versailles, large industrial areas such as Flins, poorer working class suburbs as well as open countryside. The entire Île-de-France area contains 12.2 million people.

Also, and importantly, mobility is now managed at the regional level by Île-de-France Mobilités who contract service providers such as RATP to operate the Paris Metro and RATP and SNCF to operate the RER network.

There are, as in many large cities, historical divisions between Ville de Paris and its suburbs. Planning, investment and coordination of services has not always been well considered. In terms of transport, much of the intense and high quality public transport had traditionally been concentrated in the Ville de Paris. The suburbs had the RER and classic SNCF train services to access to the city as well as local bus services.

As the city grew and dispersed, this became unsustainable, unproductive and unfair! While some Metro lines have been extended into some suburbs, this was not universal and perpetuated the radial model of public transport in the urban area.

The RER has been a huge success in linking the suburbs to the city with high quality and high capacity rapid transit starting in the late 1970s, but has been so popular that many routes are operating well over capacity and the system continues to be expanded.

The re-insertion of a tram network has also been hugely successful in Paris over the last 30 years. Since 1992, 14 modern tram lines have been put into operation covering over 180km. Trams offer better quality and improved capacity local transport versus buses around the ring of the City of Paris and now in many suburbs, but their speed is limited versus the need for inter-suburb transport.

The history of the ‘Grands Projets’ in Paris must also be mentioned. For now hundreds of years leaders of France have made political statements by making major interventions in Paris that were meant to redefine the city, hopefully for the better! This has included the Haussmann boulevards, the removal of the Thiers walls, La Defénse’s business district, the Grand Louvre museum… And in fact the current GPE project, which has a cost of upwards of €35bn when complete, continues this pattern.

In preparing Île-de-France for the next 30 years+ the GPE aims to make the existing (public) transport system work more efficiently by distributing demand, directly linking peripheral suburbs, providing high quality and capacity public transport in the suburbs for the suburbs, linking key regional demand points – airports (Charles de Gaulle, Orly and Le Bourget), business centres – such as at Saclay, Noisy and Versailles, universities and residential suburbs to modern orbital public transport.

Also, the scheme aims to build a best in class contemporary rail public transport system with features such as automation, integration of modes at stations, accessibility, high speed and crucially architectural interventions in local areas which showcase station and community design. While much of the historic Paris Metro has been remarkably modernised, such as with driverless trains and platform screen doors, the historic system has many limitations and will never be “fully” accessible, for comparison.

Thus, the Grand Paris Express has a number of features. There will be four new lines (15, 16, 17 and 18) as well as extensions to Metro line 14 at the north and south. This will lead to 68 new stations and 200km of new Metro. Up to three million new daily passengers are forecast. 80% of the route will be underground. Trains will be shorter than traditional Paris Metro services but wider, and will operate without drivers and at high speeds and frequencies. The scheme was formalised in 2011 and construction began in mid-2016.

The GPE scheme will double the length of the current Paris Metro network!

The GPE scheme will double the length of the current Paris Metro network!

GPE is being led in its construction and financing by the French state, but ultimately will be operated and supported by Île-de-France Mobilités as an integral part of the overall region’s public transport system.

The stations will typically be quite deep to get beneath existing underground stations and city infrastructure. The average travel time between stations will be two minutes as the automated trains will travel at up to 100km/h.

As the tram network has been used to recreate the streetscape in a contemporary multi-modal and traffic restricted model, the GPE is being used to regenerate placemaking at many of the key stations. The stations will typically not be simply “transport infrastructure”, but architecturally-led urban interventions that create multi-user community locations as well as transport systems.

The role of transport-led community interventions is notable at a few key stations. The stations are being used as an opportunity for a range of architects to excel in design and placemaking. Implied is an opportunity to bring the highest quality of architectural design to the ubiquitous Paris suburbs.

The busiest and most important GPE station will likely be Saint Denis-Pleyel just north of the City of Paris. The station’s architect is Kengo Kuma who has also designed the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Stadium. If you take a Eurostar train from London to Paris, this station is to the right of the railway as you enter central Paris just north of the Périphérique motorway and on the opposite side of the railway corridor from the Stade de France. Saint Denis-Pleyel will link the new lines 15, 16 and 17. It will also contain an extension of the existing Metro 14. A quarter of a million users are expected at this station daily.

St Denis is an historic, yet industrial and deprived area. It has become an extremely well connected transport interchange – for roads and public transport as well as residential, commercial and institutional development that aims to relieve much of the development pressure in central Paris as well as redefine the inner suburbs.

Note, Metro line 14 – largely built in the 1990s – contains many of the features of the GPE including station design in its most recent extensions and is currently using rolling stock very similar to the eventual GPE designs. However, line 14 uses rubber tyred trains and the rest of the GPE will use traditional steel wheels. Much of the GPE will also use overhead catenary and pantographs. GPE trains will be in three- or six-car formations.

Other key GPE stations will be at Villejuif in the south; Noisy in the west; CEA-Saint Aubin in southeast Paris on the Saclay plateau, a major research and academic site with 10,000+ employees, but no direct rail service up to now; and Orly Airport, which will finally have a direct high capacity rail service following an earlier light rail shuttle to the RER and tram service to the terminus of the Metro.

Grand Paris Express will redefine public transport in Paris and the Île-de-France region. The population, employment and visitor density of the region means that the scheme will almost certainly be intensively used as soon as it opens. Will it offer a model for inter-suburban transport for other cities globally? Certainly, it is a high cost intervention that has been pursued quickly and comprehensively! Is this the model for redesigning mobility in suburbs and challenging the pervasive and unsupportable use of private vehicles as well as the high carbon outcomes of current mobility choices? We will see the outcomes starting later in 2024!


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Giles K Bailey is a Director at Stratageeb, a London based consultancy assisting businesses think about their strategic vision and innovation. Previously, he had spent nine years as Head of Marketing Strategy at Transport for London.

This article appears alongside further coverage in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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