PARIS TRAMWAYS DATE BACK to the mid-nineteenth century with the first city tram route opening in 1855. At its peak in the 1920s, the tramway network incorporated some 122 lines and upwards of 1,000 km of track. By the 1930s though, the internal combustion engine reigned supreme and the number of motor cars and motor buses on the roads signalled the end of the tramways. The last of the tram lines in Paris, Porte de Saint-Cloud to Porte de Vincennes, closed in 1937, and the last line in the entire Paris agglomeration, running between Le Raincy and Montfermeil, ended service in 1938.
Carte postale ancienne éditée par Cormault, N°136 Paris
Paris and the surrounding region had to wait for almost sixty years before a new tramway network began to appear with a new generation of trams. First came Line T1, opened in 1992 followed by Line T2 in 1997, Lines T3 and T4 in 2006, Lines T5 and T7 in 2013 and Lines T6 and T8 in 2014. Some of these lines have already been extended and further extensions are planned. And two further new lines are planned: Line T9 is scheduled to open in 2020 and Line T10 in 2021.
Of the nine tramways currently operating in the Île-de-France region (Line T3a and T3b count as two separate lines) most operate within the suburbs around Paris, with only two lines, T3a and T3b, running entirely within the city limits, although line T2 does so for part of its route.
One of the suburban tramways is Line T8, the latest tramway to be opened, and I went to take a ride on it.
Image courtesy of RATP
After a trial running of four weeks without passengers, Line T8 opened in December 2014. The tramway runs 8·5 km north from Saint-Denis – Porte de Paris to Delaunay-Belleville, where it splits into two branches, terminating at Villetaneuse-Université and Epinay-Orgemont. There are a total of 17 stops and, in another example of RATP’s joined-up thinking, interchange is provided with metro Line 13, tram line T1 and RER Line C.
I caught a tram at Saint-Denis and travelled to Epinay-Orgemont in Epinay-sur-Seine.
The journey took 22 minutes and included 13 stops, the other 4 stops being on the branch line to Villetaneuse.
Villetaneuse is planned to be a future station on the new Tangental North line, a €1.5 billion suburban tram-train line that will interchange with existing SNCF Transilien trains, trams, metro, and Réseau Express Régional (RER) lines A, B, C, D and E. This line is scheduled for completion in 2023.
Epinay-sur-Seine is no stranger to trams. The tramway Enghien (Cygne d’Enghien) – Trinité (Église de la Trinité à Paris) was opened by the Compagnie des Tramways électriques du Nord-Parisiens on 26th September 1900. The line survived until March 1935 when it was replaced by a bus route.
Le Tramway Enghien-Trinité sur la route nationale à Épinay, avant 1912
I didn’t have to wait long for a tram for my return journey from Epinay to Saint-Denis. The trams run every six minutes, although along the stretch from the Delaunay-Belleville stop, where the two branch lines meet, to Saint-Denis they run every three minutes.
Tram Line 8 – Epinay-Orgemont to Saint-Denis – Porte de Paris:
Tram Line 8 operates with a fleet of 20 low-floor Alstom Citadis trams assembled at Alstom’s La Rochelle factory. Each tram is 32 metres long and 2.4 metres wide, made up of five sections with capacity for 200 passengers. The trams include air-conditioning, CCTV, a passenger counting system and audiovisual passenger information. Some 55,000 passengers use Tram Line 8 every day, which amounts to 16 million passengers per year.
Constructing Tram Line 8 was a formidable task. The project, implemented by GCF, Generale Costruzioni Ferroviarie, in a consortium set-up with Esaf and Laforet, had to contend with a route running through a densely populated residential area characterised by a high volume of traffic. During construction, efforts were made to reduce pollution involving dust, gas and noise, as well as achieving maximum vibration reduction. Steps were also taken in advance over the entire length of the line to ensure the physical protection of trees by masking them to safeguard against the possible effects of shock caused by mechanical equipment.
Today, the tramway network around Paris amounts to some 105km of track with more still to come. The tramway network may be far short of its peak in the 1920s but riding today’s trams is a convenient and comfortable way to travel and I thoroughly recommend it.
Tram Line 8 Terminus at Saint-Denis – Porte de Paris
SOME NINETEENTH CENTURY OBSERVERS of Paris were quite forthright in their impressions of the sonic tapestry of the city.
For example, the American writer John Sanderson arrived in Paris for the first time in July 1835 and he wasn’t over impressed with what he found …
“All things of this earth seek, at one time or another, repose – all but the noise of Paris. The waves of the sea are sometimes still, but the chaos of these streets is perpetual from generation to generation; it is the noise that never dies.”
John Sanderson, Sketches of Paris: In Familiar Letters to His Friends (1838)
And in 1837, the journalist and flâneuse Delphine de Girandin wrote …
“In Paris today, the day is a perpetual concert, a series of uninterrupted serenades; Parisien ears have not one instant of rest.”
Delphine de Girandin: Lettres parisiennes du Vicomte de Launay: August 25, 1837
For John Sanderson the ‘noise that never dies’ included the sound of the notorious cries de Paris, the often piercing cries of the street traders hawking their wares, as well as the sound of traffic:
“… this rattling of cabs and other vehicles over the rough stones, this rumbling of omnibuses.”
Delphine de Girandin’s ‘perpetual concert’ was aimed at the itinerant street musicians:
“Starting in the morning, the organs of Barbary divide up the neighbourhoods of the city; an implacable harmony spreads over the city. [ … ] Finally, in the evening, great serenades! Violins, galoubets, flutes, guitars, and Italian singers! It’s a concert to die for, and there is no refuge; all this takes place under your window, it’s a residential concert that you cannot possibly avoid.”
And so to Paris in the twenty-first century; has anything changed?
The kind of sounds that John Sanderson and Delphine de Girandin encountered still exist in modern day Paris although the emphasis has changed.
The cries de Paris are now largely confined to the traders in the street markets although one can still come across men (it’s almost always men) calling out ‘Le Monde’ as they meander from café to café selling the afternoon edition of the daily newspaper. The street musicians still ply their trade although not quite so prolifically as in the nineteenth century. And then there’s the traffic! The sound of traffic pervades almost every nook and cranny of the city today and it can be overpowering and it’s perpetual; it really is the noise that never dies.
I spend a lot of time listening to Paris, so the notion of the city as a perpetual concert chimes with me. For me, it’s not just the street music that forms the concert, but rather all the sounds of the city. I see each individual sound, musical or not, as a dot on a score which, when added together, form a complete sonic composition. Or, to use a different metaphor, one might consider individual sounds as the warp and the weft, which, when woven together, form a sonic tapestry depicting the city.
Perhaps I can illustrate the notion of the city as a perpetual concert by recounting my perambulation around a part of Paris last Saturday afternoon.
I began at the Jardin du Luxembourg where I came upon this gentleman playing one of Delphine de Girandin’s organs of Barbary.
Street organ at the Jardin du Luxembourg:
Outside the gates of the Jardin du Luxembourg this little street organ sounds quite charming but, in different circumstances, I take Delphine de Girandin’s point: “ … there is no refuge; all this takes place under your window, it’s a residential concert that you cannot possibly avoid.”
Listening to this street organ, it’s impossible not to notice the pervading background sound of the passing traffic.
So let’s consider the sound of traffic, or as John Sanderson put it: “… this rattling of cabs and other vehicles over the rough stones, this rumbling of omnibuses.”
From the Jardin du Luxembourg, I walked the short distance to the Église Saint-Sulpice and then to the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
The Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés is home to the church of the former Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, founded in the 6th century, and the famous café Les Deux Magots, once the rendezvous of the literary and intellectual élite of the city.
But for our purposes, the important thing about the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés is that it is paved with John Sanderson’s rough stones.
When people ask me what my favourite sound of Paris is I usually decline to answer. But if asked what sound most typifies Paris then my answer is unequivocal: “… this rattling of cabs and other vehicles over the rough stones, this rumbling of omnibuses.”
Traffic over the pavé in Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés:
The Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés revealed the sounds of passing cycles, cars, the occasional two-wheeler, a luggage trolley and, with a nod to John Sanderson, at least three omnibuses.
And these sounds deserve to be listened to attentively because, thanks to the pavé, the pervasive, noise polluting, cacophonous traffic noise that blights this city seems to have been transformed into a soporific, almost musical composition.
My guess is that most of the people in Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés on Saturday afternoon were probably unaware of these sounds other than providing them with a faint sonic background to their dash from the church to the café. Yet for someone wired up like me, these sounds not only form part of the perpetual concert but they also screech, Paris!
Having listened so far to modern day examples of Delphine de Girandin’s organs of Barbary and John Sanderson’s rattling of cabs and other vehicles over the rough stones, it’s possible to take the notion of the city as a perpetual concert a stage further.
A few steps away from the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés is the Rue de l’Abbaye, a street named after the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. It’s a narrow street running some 170 metres from Rue Guillaume Apollinaire to Rue de l’Echaudé and, although Paris is a bustling, sound rich city, Rue de l’Abbaye is one of the few streets shrouded in relative quiet.
So can a quiet street like Rue de l’Abbaye contribute to our perpetual concert? To find out, I perched myself on the steps of N° 3 Rue de l’Abbaye, the Institut Catholique de Paris, known in English as the Catholic University of Paris, and began to record.
Sounds in rue de l’Abbaye:
In Rue de l’Abbaye we find the human and avian species intertwined; the footsteps, the voices and the rustle of clothing as people pass by interlaced with the gentle cooing of the pigeons enjoying a late lunch and the flapping of their wings as they flutter to and fro in search of a tastier morsel. The occasional traffic sounds are in proportion to the surrounding ambient sounds rather than dominating them.
It takes concentrated listening to get the most out of these sounds but the effort is worth it because what is revealed is yet another strand to the city as a perpetual concert.
To complete my afternoon’s listening I returned to the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés and one of Delphine de Girandin’s great serenades! Not the violins, galoubets, flutes, guitars, and Italian singers she referred to but instead, the Dixieland jazz style of the early twentieth century.
Jazz in Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés:
This group of jazz musicians can be found most Saturdays at the southwest corner of Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés entertaining an enthusiastic audience comprising mostly tourists.
In conclusion, I look upon Paris as a city of perpetual concert in which all the sounds the city has to offer, ranging from the loud, brash and often unwelcome to the subtle and understated, are performers of equal value. John Sanderson refers to the noise that never dies and Delphine de Girandin to Parisien ears have not one instant of rest, both of which are true: the city is never without sound so the concert is perpetual. It’s just a question of learning to appreciate it.
Important Listening Note:
It’s a quirk of our times that when we listen to recorded sound we tend to crank up the volume too much. In order for you to appreciate the sounds featured in this post I have set the levels so that the sounds correctly relate to each other. In other words, the sounds will replay at the same level relative to each other as I heard them when they were recorded.
To get the best effect, set the level of your listening device to the sounds of the street organ remembering that less is always more! Then keep your listening device set to the same level for all the other sounds.
NAMED AFTER THE FRENCH comedian, humorist and member of the French Resistance, rue Pierre Dac is just 23 metres long making it one of the shortest streets in Paris. Originally forming the upper part of rue de la Fontaine-du-But linking rue Lamarck and rue Caulaincourt in the 18th arrondissement, the street’s name was changed in 1995 in honour of Pierre Dac.
The distinctive red sign in rue Pierre Dac points us towards the Métro station Lamarck-Caulaincourt and tells us that this station once formed part of the three Paris Métro lines owned by the Nord-Sud Company, or to give it its proper name, la Société du chemin de fer électrique souterrain Nord-Sud de Paris. In 1931, the Nord-Sud Company was taken over by its competitor, la Compagnie du chemin de fer métropolitain de Paris, which in turn was nationalised in 1948.
The Métro station Lamarck-Caulaincourt is perhaps best known for its distinctive entrance nestling between the two staircases that form most of rue Pierre Dac.
Lamarck-Caulaincourt station was opened on 31st October 1912 and today it forms part of the Paris Métro Line 12 linking the stations Front Populaire in the north to Issy-les-Moulineaux in the south. The station platforms were renovated in 2000 – 2001 and further work was carried out in 2006.
Lamarck-Caulaincourt platform before renovation
Lamarck-Caulaincourt platform today
Since Lamarck-Caulaincourt station was constructed under the butte Montmartre, the large hill that forms the village of Montmartre, it’s not surprising that the station platforms are some 25 metres below the station entrance. For those who arrive at the station by train and find the 25-metre climb out of the station a challenge, RATP have thoughtfully provided a lift to make life easier.
Sounds around Lamarck-Caulaincourt station platforms and an exit by lift:
I recorded the sounds inside the station to add to my extensive archive of sounds of the Paris Métro network but I also recorded sounds from the staircases in rue Pierre Dac outside the station, which I found to be equally fascinating.
I sat on one of the staircases and simply observed life passing by just as the photographer did in the 1925 photograph below.
L’entrée de la station de métro Lamarck-Caulaincourt entre les escaliers de la rue de la Fontaine-du-But, vers 1925. Photo collection Jean-Pierre Rigouard.
Sounds from the staircase in rue Pierre Dac:
Entrance to the Métro station Lamarck-Caulaincourt between the staircases in rue Pierre Dac (formerly la rue de la Fontaine-du-But), August 2017
Sitting on a staircase in the street observing the world passing by might not be everyone’s idea of a good day out, but at least I wasn’t the only one!
Observing through active listening is what I do and whether it’s the sounds of a Métro station platform or the sounds of a staircase in the street I’m always captivated by the stories sounds have to tell to the attentive listener.
Although we can see from the photograph what this place looked like in 1925, I can’t help wondering what it sounded like then and what stories those sounds would have told us.