Underground Railways in France

Quality of service and regulations

Underground Railways in France

A number of French cities have underground railways or subways ( métro), including Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Paris, Toulouse and most recently Rennes, whose Val system claims to be the world’s smallest underground network.

(The French will boast about anything!) In most cities, public transport tickets and passes permit travel on all modes of transport, including the underground, buses, trams and suburban trains. No smoking is permitted on underground trains or in stations.


The Paris métro dates from 1898 and is one of the world’s oldest and most famous ‘underground’ railways (some of it runs overground). It has 200km (123mi) of track, 322 stations and 13 main lines plus a number of short supplementary lines. (The network is to be extended north to Aubervilliers by 2007.) In the centre of Paris, you’re rarely more than five minutes’ walk from a métro station. Some 4.5m people use the métro daily, and it’s one of the most efficient and cheapest urban transport systems in the world.

Trains run from 05.30 until around 01.00 and there’s a frequent service during the day with trains running every 40 seconds at peak times and every 90 seconds at other times. The métro is operated by the Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens (RATP), and a single all-purpose ticket is valid for all public transport in the capital ( métro, RER, buses and suburban trains). A flat fare is charged for journeys irrespective of distance, although you aren’t permitted to break your journey and cannot make a round trip.

Tickets are sold at métro stations, bus terminals, tobacconists’, RATP offices and ticket machines. A ticket for a single journey costs €1.40 and ten tickets (called a carnet although actually issued as ten separate tickets) cost €10.70. Children under four travel free and those under ten for half fare.

Ticket control is automated at all stations and you must insert your ticket in a ‘turnstile’ date/time stamping machine ( composteur) to gain access to platforms. Always retain your ticket until you’ve completed your journey and pass the point marked Limite de Validité des Billets. If you travel without a valid ticket and are discovered during a random check by a ticket inspector ( contrôleur), you must pay a fine of around €15 on the spot (there’s a fine of €30 if you’re caught jumping over a turnstile at a station). Ticket checks are often made at the beginning of the month when monthly tickets are renewed.

Métro stations are easily recognisable by a huge ‘M’ sign (some have distinctive art nouveau designs). Métro and neighbourhood maps ( plan de quartier) are displayed outside and inside stations, and there are computerised maps ( système d’information de trajets urbains/SITU) at many stations: simply enter the name of the street you want and you’re given a print-out showing the quickest way to get there, including on foot.

Main lines are numbered from 1 to 13, and the two supplementary lines are numbered 3b and 7b. To make sure you take a train going in the right direction, note the name of the station at the end of the line (or lines) you intend to travel on and follow the signs indicating that direction, e.g. Direction Porte d’Orléans. If you need to change trains, look for Correspondance signs. Up to six lines may cross at an intersection. When changing lines, there’s often a long walk, although some stations have moving walkways.

To open the door on older trains you push the silver handle upwards. New trains have pushbuttons. Doors on trains close automatically and a warning signal is sounded just before they close. You should be wary of pickpockets when travelling on the métro, particularly when boarding trains, as they tend to ‘strike’ just as the doors are closing, leaving you bagless or walletless on the train as it pulls away. However, serious crime and violence are rare, although it’s wise to avoid empty carriages and some stations (such as Château Rouge, Châtelet-Les-Halles, Gare du Nord, Réaumur, Saint Denis, Sébastopol and Strasbourg) at night. There are alarms ( borne d’alarme) on stations.

Certain seats are reserved for the disabled, elderly or pregnant, although the French aren’t usually eager to give up their seat and you may need to ask (and experience Parisian indifference first-hand!).


The RER ( Réseau Express Régional) is an express underground rail system that’s independent of the métro and links most suburbs with the centre of Paris. It’s much quicker than the métro, as there are fewer stops. There are four RER sectors (A, B, C and D), each comprising up to eight lines (e.g. A1, B2). Sectors A and B are operated jointly by the SNCF and RATP, and sectors C and D exclusively by the SNCF.

The RER generally operates from 05.30 until around 00.30, with trains around every 15 minutes. Line B3 goes to Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport, line C2 to Orly airport and line C5 to Versailles. Line A runs to a specially built station at Marne-la-Vallée-Chessy for Disneyland Paris. The journey from central Paris to Disneyland takes around 40 minutes and trains run every ten minutes in peak periods and every 20 minutes off peak. The RER also links Charles de Gaulle airport with the Gare du Nord, and the Gare du Nord with the Gare de Lyon and is to be extended further east in the next few years.

Within the central area ( Ville de Paris), a métro ticket is valid on RER trains. Outside this area the RER has a different ticket system from the métro, prices increasing according to the distance travelled. RER tickets can be purchased only at RER station ticket offices. A ticket for the central zone costs €1.40, as for the métro. RER tickets must be machine-stamped before journeys are commenced and also, unlike métro tickets, when exiting an RER station. If you’ve completed your journey, the machine will display Passez (‘proceed’) and retain your ticket. Where you’re able to continue your journey, the machine will return your ticket and display Prenez votre ticket (‘take your ticket’).

Disabled Travellers

Disabled people who aren’t in wheelchairs can book a free travel companion ( voyage accompagné) a day in advance for métro and RER (and many bus) journeys between 08.00 and 20.00, Mondays to Fridays. Contact the RATP. The métro isn’t suitable for wheelchairs, but RER lines A and B allow wheelchair access. An RER access guide is published for wheelchair users and is available from RATP head office, 54 quai dea l Rapée, 75012 Paris (01 58 78 20 20 or 08 92 68 77 14).

There’s also information for disabled travellers (and people with push-chairs!) on the RATP website (www.ratp.fr ), and general information for disabled people in Paris on the websites of Pauline Hephaistos Survey Projects (PHSP, www.accessinparis.org ), which publishes a useful book, Access in Paris, the Association des Paralysés de France (www.apf.asso.fr ) and a group called Mobile en Ville .


The RATP provides weekly, monthly and annual season tickets, plus tickets for visitors, groups of children and certain other categories of passenger, as follows:

Carte Orange: The Carte Orange allows unlimited travel within the Ile-de-France. The cost varies according to how many fare zones you wish to include. Central Paris (as far as the Périphérique) consists of zones 1 and 2, and zones 3 to 5 encompass the outer suburbs and the airports. A further three zones (6 to 8) extend to outer parts of the Ile-de-France. The SNCF publishes a Plan des Zones Carte Orange.

A monthly card ( Carte Orange Mensuelle) is valid for a calendar month, irrespective of when you buy it. A weekly card ( Carte Orange Hebdomadaire) is valid for the current week if you buy it before Thursday or for the following week if purchased after Thursday. To buy a weekly or monthly Carte Orange, you need an identity card with your photograph, full name, address and signature. There are instant photo booths at many Paris railway and métro stations. You must complete a coupon vert for a weekly card or a coupon orange for a monthly card the first time you buy one. After obtaining your identity card, you can buy a Carte Orange from ticket machines.

You should carry your card in the slot in the plastic wallet provided along with your identity card and write the number of your Carte Orange on the card. This prevents cards from being used by someone else, as they aren’t transferable. Failure to do this can result in a fine if it’s discovered during a spot check. Weekly and monthly cards can be used within the applicable zones on all four levels of Paris public transport ( métro, RER, SNCF and buses, including buses operated by private operators that are affiliated to the two main groups of companies, APTR and ADATRIF).

If you commute to work for a company with more than ten employees, you pay just 40 per cent of the price of your season ticket, 40 per cent being paid by your employer and the remaining 20 per cent by central and local governments.

Carte Imagine-R: In the Ile-de-France region (including Paris), schoolchildren and apprentices under 26 can obtain a Carte Imagine-R, which functions like a Carte Orange (see above). It’s sold at train and underground stations.

Carte Intégrale: The Carte Intégrale is an annual ticket costing €520.30 for zones 1 and 2 and €1,413.50 for all eight zones. It’s also possible to buy a ticket covering any combination of zones, from two to seven. You can pay monthly by standing order ( prélèvement) at no extra cost.

Visitors’ Tickets: Visitors to Paris can buy a Paris Visite ticket for zones 1 to 3, zones 1 to 5 or all eight zones plus Orlybus, Orlyrail, Roissyrail and Marne-la-Vallée-Chessy (for Disneyland Paris). Tickets can be purchased for one day two days, three days or five days. A Paris Visite ticket allows unlimited travel on all public transport, including the métro and RER, the SNCF Paris network, the bus network (including Montmartrobus, Noctambus and Orlybus), and the Montmartre funicular. It also entitles holders to discounts on admission fees to various tourist attractions and a 50 per cent reduction on the cost of bicycle hire.

A one-day Mobilis ticket is also available, the price of which depends on the number of zones required (from €5.40 for zones 1 to 2, up to €18.40 for all eight zones). Note that the Orlybus, Orlyrail and Roissyrail services aren’t included in the Mobilis ticket. Neither are there any reductions on visits to cultural sites.

Visitors’ tickets are available from main métro and RER stations, Paris tourist offices, main SNCF railway stations and Paris airports. Note that, unless you travel extensively on public transport, it’s cheaper to buy a carnet of ten métro/bus tickets than a visitor’s ticket. This is particularly true if you will be spending most of your time in central Paris, where walking between areas and attractions is possible.


Prices for all RATP rail and bus tickets are available from métro stations and RATP offices. For RATP information telephone 08 92 68 77 14 (in English) between 06.00 and 21.00 or consult the RATP website (www.ratp.fr ).

This article is an extract from Living and working in France. Click here to get a copy now.

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