The Mysteries of Paris, Public Transport Edition

A Place for Everything – Whether You Need It or Not

April 17, 2012By David JaggardC'est Ironique!
Paris Update TGV-train
Aerodynamically streamlined on the outside, mystifyingly designed on the inside.

On a recent trip south, I had the pleasure of taking one of the new models of high-speed TGV train. SNCF, the French rail company, updates the design of the passenger cars every few years, and this one featured a number of improvements. Plus a few “improvements.”

A section next to the baggage rack offered two unreserved seats on either side of a small desk-like surface with electrical outlets and a little wall lamp. A sign near the ceiling proclaimed it to be the “Bureau” (“Office”), so I guess it’s intended for people who want to spread out their spreadsheets, plug in their laptops and get some work done in transit.

No one was using the space, probably because it was cramped, ill-lit, windowless and adjoining a drafty, noisy corridor with a constant stream of people passing by. In other words, probably because it resembles an actual French office.

Not having any reports to skim, memos to ignore or accounts to falsify, I decided to stay in my seat, where I found a much more interesting way to pass the time: trying to figure out what all the fittings and attachments were for. Take a look:

Paris Update TGV-drink-holder

In the new TGVs, each seat has a pull-down tray table of the kind that all passenger planes and most trains have had for decades. So far so good. And next to the tray is a little rounded pull-down tray-ette molded to accommodate a standard 12-ounce can or bottle. So OK, a drink holder. With a hole in the bottom so if you spill any it will dribble onto your pants, but I won’t quibble about that.

Moving down, we have a T-shaped thing in the footwell upon which you could well rest your feet, so that’s obviously a footrest:

Paris Update TGV-Footrest

But what’s that thing just above it? A fairly flimsy, flexible panel of translucent plastic anchored at the bottom but open on the other three sides:

Paris Update TGV-Magazine-Clip

Most likely not a boot scraper. I decided that it must be magazine/newspaper holder. Not a very capacious or effective magazine/newspaper holder, but fair enough.

And that brings us to the real mystery. Look a little closer at the rectangular receptacle next to it:

Paris Update TGV-Odd-Box-Close

Pardon my French, but what the intercoursing hell is that thing for? Is it a little trash container? No, because it’s open at the bottom, as you might not notice right away, so if you dump a handful of oily olive pits into it, they will just spill out and roll all over the floor, making everyone unhappy. And by “you” I mean “me,” and by “everyone” I mean “the couple sitting behind me.”

It’s too small to hold a book, too narrow for a train ticket and too deep to have been conceived for MP3 players or smartphones. So what common traveler’s item fits this shape? The only thing I could think of was a pack of cigarettes, the consumption of which was banned on trains long before this one was built.

I found this gizmo so bafflingly bizarre, I tried to look it up when I got home. I never determined its intended purpose, but I did learn that the design is by none other than Christian Lacroix, the formerly pre-eminent fashion designer whose haute couture house went into receivership in 2009.

Perhaps that explains it: Lacroix probably thought that he would soon be traveling by second class train carriage himself, and he wanted a place to put a pair of silk brocade slippers and a split of Dom Pérignon.

Back in Paris after that trip, I began noticing that the local low-speed trains also have their share of design anomalies. As with the TGVs, a new and (at least hypothetically) improved Métro car is introduced every three or four years.

The improvements almost always include a reduction in the number of seats to allow more standing room. For many years, most trains had four seats per row:

Paris Update Metro-6-line-interior

But now this is giving way to cars with three seats across:

Paris Update Metro-13-line-interior

It makes sense: the city’s population continues to grow and fewer people are driving, so rush hour gets more crowded down there every day. But, pardon my English, other than a few sparsely spaced poles, what the enfer copulant are the standing passengers supposed to hang onto? Neither train has any overheard straps or bars, and in the newer one they actually took out the handrails on the seatbacks.

This has been a perennial problem for the Métro – when it gets really jammed there are always dozens of people left upright and out of reach of any handhold, left to lurch into each other with every jerk and jolt. The only difference between a crowded Métro car and the mosh pit at an Ozzy Osbourne concert is that it’s easier to get out of the mosh pit. And it smells less of sweat.

Stability for the seatless aside, I have another brontosaurus femur to pick with the Métro authority. One of the most recent modernized trains was introduced on the Nation-Porte Dauphine line about two years ago. Look at the interior:

Paris Update Metro-2-line-interior

Nice, huh? Notice the colorful upholstery, the soft lighting, the seat layout configured to accommodate a maximum of passengers with at least a modicum of comfort. Bravo, bravo. But there are still not enough poles to grab, and the old seatback rail has been reduced to half a gymnastics ring.

But that’s not the real problem here. Have a look at, or rather a listen to, this video of a Nation-bound Métro pulling into the station (warning: if you have sensitive ears, keep your mouse poised to pause):

Actually, the video doesn’t do the sound justice – for passengers on the platform, it’s an eardrum-lancing, brain-dislodging, cornea-corrugating shriek. Regular users of this line plug their ears whenever a train comes in. And scratch blackboards to calm their nerves.

So who is the railroad rocket scientist who came up with this braking system? Presuming that he has experienced career advancements commensurate with his accomplishments, I’d like to know which bridge he’s sleeping under now so I can go BLOW A SHRILL, STRIDENT WHISTLE RIGHT INTO HIS EAR THROUGH A BULLHORN.

Sorry to yell, but I’m a little on edge, not to mention deaf, from riding the Métro. I need a break. Maybe a little trip south. I hear there’s a new TGV on the Marseille line – designed by Ozzy Osbourne.


Reader Jackie Martin writes: “I have traveled on the TGV and also wondered about the odd-shaped bottomless, double-receptacle – that is, until the time I boarded with a parapluie in hand, which fit nicely into one of the slots. I figured it might also hold a cane. At any rate, I’ve never seen anything similar on any other country’s mass transit. C’est la France!”


© 2012 Paris Update


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