The forgotten railway

Thursday, May 26th, 2016
  • The Petite Centre, paris

    The great thing about doing 366 is that I engage with every day in a way that I might not otherwise find the time to do. Every day I venture out with my camera, sometimes with a plan and a location in mind, though more often than not, without a clue of where the day will take me. Today I headed out with the specific intention of breaking the law, albeit in a rather orderly and acceptable manner.

    I made my way to a part of Paris where I would be able to slip onto the Petite Ceinture (“the Little Belt” in English) which is an old and abandoned circular railway line that once connected the major railway stations of Paris with frequent passenger and freight trains.

    Built between 1852 and 1869, the railway was once a busy artery in the movement of Paris with up to six trains an hour rumbling along the tracks in both directions. However, from 1924 less and less commercial trains used the lines allowing the majority of the ‘little belt’ to gently and quietly decay as nature reclaimed the land.

    It’s that reclamation by nature that has drawn curious trespassers like myself who want to experience the strangely quiet world of beautiful natural chaos that’s growing where the locomotive once ruled.

    Unlike the reclaimed railway that the city turned into the Promenade Plantee, the Petite Ceinture is rough underfoot with the stones that sit between the sleepers and equally docile metal tracks. Old stations and platforms still stand, their walls decorated by graffiti, their windows boarded up, and their doors bolted and chained.

    This ribbon of greenery threads its way through Paris between homes, offices, and factories, dipping into concrete valleys, through long dark tunnels and rising onto bridges over roads and water. I found an access point through an open gate on Rue Florian near the Père Llachaise Cemetery (thanks to an unofficial map showing access points). From there I walked south making it as far as the Seine River where I climbed up a metal ladder and emerged onto street level just by the Port de Charenton tram stop.

    The railway is strangely quiet given how close it is to the busy streets and thoroughfares of the city. The sounds of traffic and people seem to fall away completely along parts of the track. Along these lines that used to rush and rumble, the fury of progress and change has come to a halt as if taking some time to meditate and reflect.

    The railway may be quiet today, but it’s not deserted. Along my walk which took around one and a half hours, I met a few people including a lady tending to a small crop of vegetables in a ‘gorilla garden’ beside the tracks, a group of young guys sitting on the platform edge at an old station while they smoked marijuana, and a couple enjoying a picnic complete with tall glasses of sparkling wine. I even helped a man in work clothes clamber over a fence onto the tracks as if he were making a daring escape from some kind of prison, which on reflection, I think maybe he was.

    It’s unclear what the future holds for the Petite Ceinture. The land is owned by SNCF, France’s national state-owned railway company. The city of Paris has been working in co-operation with SNCF to open parts of the railway to the public without damaging the biodiversity or ‘hidden’ charm of the forgotten tracks.

    Look down at this section of the La Petite Ceinture from a bridge at street level using Google street view. Also, seee a video of the Petite Ceinture.