Paris' Experimental High-Speed Moving Walkway is Abandoned

Paris Montparnasse Moving WalkwaySpeedy pedestrian connection between metro lines was plagued by problems

At Montparnasse-Bienvenüe Station in south Paris, travelers can transfer between four metro lines. The problem is that customers attempting to make the connection between lines 6 and 13 — located under the Montparnasse high-speed rail station — and lines 4 and 12 — located several blocks north — must travel through a 600 foot-long tunnel built in the late 1930s. Outfitted with moving walkways moving at less than 2 mph, that’s almost four minutes of travel time for those not walking.

In 2002, hoping to improve the situation, Paris’ metro agency (RATP) decided to install a high-speed walkway (video) in the center of the tunnel capable of moving people four times as fast. At 7.5 mph, it provided a tunnel traverse in less than a minute. But for all its promise, the experiment failed too often because of technical problems. On Wednesday, RATP announced that it would shut down the project and replace it with a conventional walkway by 2011.

As far as I can tell, Paris’ moving walkway was the fasted operated commercially anywhere in the world, and its success could have meant faster commutes in airports, transit stations, and large buildings everywhere. It represented a new advance in a field that has been moving at a crawl for decades, but which could have transformed the sometimes punishing act of changing lines at hundreds of major transit hubs.

Yet, it was not to be. The original speed of the walkway had to be reduced to 6 mph after customers repeatedly fell when attempting to adjust to the speed in an acceleration zone. The technology, invented by French group CNIM, was simply not up to the task of working day-in, day-out, and it was more often out of service than in operation; RATP will sue CNIM to get back some of the project’s initial 4.5 million Euro cost. The new conventional walkway won’t be exciting, but at least it will work.

The Toronto Airport, feeling a similar urge to speed up the movement of pedestrians, introduced its own super-fast walkway last year, capable of about 5 mph. Though not as quick, Toronto’s walkway uses a different technology: a “moving pallet system” in which the panel on which a person stands accelerates independently to full speed. Paris’ connection, with the exception of the 10 meter acceleration zone, operated at one, full speed and was therefore more subject to pedestrian falls and system breakdowns. Toronto’s newer system may be more capable of withstanding the crush of thousands of daily passengers, but only time will tell. If it works, subway systems with cash on hand will emulate it, because a four minute transfer between lines like that at Montparnasse is simply too long not to address.

Image above: High-speed moving walkway in Montparnasse Station, from Flickr user Daniel Sparing

10 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Don

    Every time I hear about these walkways, I can’t help but recall a story by Heinlein that I read as a kid: The Roads Must Roll

    • Dexter Wong

      I read that story, too, but the problems that the French had with their walkway underscores the difference between science fiction and real life.

  • Vin

    This is a cool idea, but is it really that onerous to walk 600 feet through a tunnel? There’s plenty of such transfers in the world – I’d venture a guess that the tunnel you have to walk through to get from the L to the 1/2/3 at 14th Street in New York is longer than 600 feet.

    Don’t get me wrong, I understand that there are people for whom walking 600 feet is a monumental task. That should be considered, no question. And it would be cool, for everyone, to be able to speed through transfers. I just think that, in a time of limited resources, it’s probably best to put the money somewhere else.

  • The Toronto subway system used to have a moving walkway connecting the Spadina line to the Bloor line at Spadina station. It was 150m (492ft) long. In 2004, they gave up on the idea of repairing them further, removed them, and put in a fixed tile floor.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spadina_(TTC)

    It’s much simpler to transfer at the next station over, St. George, because the lines are right on top of each other there.

  • Nikko

    I remember going on this when I went to Paris with my family. It was near our hotel so we used it all the time. It’s quite a funny sensation under your feet and its quite a novelty. But at the same time, you do get a slightly uneasy sensation although I never had the urge to fall on it.

    But looking at all the little wheels, I’m not really surprised it was prone to failure. I hope they improve the technology for the sake of transfer efficiency.

  • It’s a bit sad occasion to see my photo featured here as I really liked this walkway despite having my finger caught in the contracting handrail :)

    But it’s true there has been problems, this was my 3rd visit to this stretch and only the 1st (and now the last) seeing it working.

    @Vin I don’t think the main motivation was that people were unable to walk this far (although providing comfort is important as transit is competing with the automobile), more that people can leave stations faster and thus relieve congestion.

  • When it’s too fast people will fall and injure themselves (and sue as a result). When it’s too slow it’s pointless. I guess it’s hard to find the balance here.

  • It was great, and no one left the line without a grand smile on their face.

    At one time, it operated at about 9 miles per hour. You could actually feel your hair being blown in the wind that this line created.

    The point wasn’t just the 600 foot long tunnel, because usually that tunnel was only part of the transition going from one or the other stations, all which are several times farther apart than that. And so many people too! some wanting (or needing) to run, others not capable of doing more than getting in their way.

    It was a grand experiment, something that will be missed.

  • What a pity – I loved this thing!

  • […] have been a few experiments with high-speed walkways. A slidewalk in a metro station in Paris in 2002 operated at 12km/h, but after slowing it down due to many people losing balance and falling […]

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