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