In Paris the old railway has been defunct since the 1930s
But there are plans afoot.
Conservationists hope to turn a disused Paris railway line into a nature trail
City launches consultation process to decide the fate of orbital track that could offer residents their own ‘little belt’ of green
The visit starts on an icy January morning, overlooking Cours de Vincennes in the 12th arrondissement of Paris. The rails are coated in frost. We step gingerly out onto the iron bridge that spans the busy traffic, then enter an area that has run wild. The noise of the city is suddenly dulled. We are exploring the Petite Ceinture (which translates as “little belt”), a 32km circular rail link round Paris – part elevated, part in cuttings or underground – inside the Périphérique ring road.
Buildings rise on either side of the old railway, but sufficiently far away to give a real sense of space. The track runs through an abandoned station, covered in colourful graffiti. Beyond the vegetation we glimpse blocks of flats with spacious balconies, conjuring up an odd impression of having slipped behind the scenery.
So what should Paris do with this secret hideaway? Leave it to run wild, or turn it into a park? The city council has launched a consultation process involving residents and neighbourhood groups, the aim being to take a decision at the end of the year. The topic has stirred a lively response: train enthusiasts are keen to reinstate the service; nature enthusiasts want to turn the track into a wildlife reserve; and sport lovers sees the route as a gift for exercising.
The orbital railway was originally built between 1852-69 to transport goods and passengers, connecting up the mainline stations. A victim of the Métro’s success, passenger services were withdrawn in 1934, with a trickle of goods traffic persisting until the 1990s. Only a section round the west of the capital is now used by the RER C express service. Vegetation has taken over, soon followed by wildlife (bats and birds, hedgehogs and foxes), turning the old line into a biodiversity reserve. Other, more or less illegal practices have also taken root here: it is a paradise for graffiti artists and a refuge for the homeless. Various work-integration schemes carry out a minimum amount of upkeep.
The council would like to turn part of the track into a green swathe, but it is not the only one to have a say. The land belongs to Réseau Ferré de France (RFF, which operates the whole French rail infrastructure). In 2006 the two organisations signed an agreement enabling sections of track to be opened to the public.
A nature trail was established in the 16th arrondissement, and a park is being laid out across the Seine in the 15th district. But the agreement expires this year. RFF is considering shutting down the stretches of track where there is no further prospect of rail traffic, in particular in the east and south, between Gare des Gobelins, near Place d’Italie, and the Parc André Citroën, west of the Eiffel tower.
Anne Hidalgo, the deputy-mayor tasked with planning (slated to run for mayor in the municipal election next year), advocates a long east-west swathe connecting the wooded areas – Vincennes and Boulogne – at either end of the city. “My idea is to make this an area for leisure, walking and getting some fresh air, keeping as much continuity as possible,” she says. Hidalgo is conscious of the fact that her potential Green allies are keen to protect biodiversity and consequently opposed to chopping the trail into little bits. But allowance must also be made for other factors: two-thirds of the line is in the open air, the rest consisting of either tunnels or deep cuttings, posing a risk for ramblers.
Cities around the world have such sites, they should not be turned over for corporate use, they should be preserved to create badly needed green belts in our cities to save us from pollution and help get the kids outdoors. We need to do this for future generations, it is their legacy.