The under-construction Grand Paris Express took a step nearer completion last month with the successful test run of a train along a section of line 15, one of several new routes.
Paris CNN  — 

With gorgeous art nouveau entrances, maze-like tunnels and trains that rattle briskly under, and occasionally over, some of the world’s most famous streets, it’s a transport network that has inspired moviesnovels and poetry.

It has stations named after a South American revolutionarya US president and a Soviet victory. Fittingly, in a city that is home to some of the world’s most famous galleries, some of the stations are considered works of art in their own right.

But the Paris Métro railway system, built in the 1900s and now carrying nearly four million passengers every day, is struggling to cope with the demands of modern commuting, its ageing facilities and infrastructure creaking under the city’s growing population.

For many in Paris, particularly those living or working around its less fashionable outer suburbs, it’s a challenge to navigate across the city without having to route each journey through the central districts, adding travel time and worsening congestion.

But change is coming – and on a huge scale. The venerable Paris Métro is about to get its most significant upgrade in decades with the arrival of the Grand Paris Express, a new 200-kilometer (120-mile) system that will add four lines and 68 brand-new stations to the network.

These will mainly be connecting suburban towns without passing through the densely populated city of Paris – adding outer rings to an underground map of Paris that has, until now, been made of 14 lines that only reach out from the center like spokes.

It’s been an epic undertaking. Construction of the lines, which began in 2016, is the biggest civilian infrastructure project in Europe, according to the French government. Inevitably, given the scale, it has been hit by delays.

Some of Paris' older Métro stations are works of art.

Driverless trains

But that didn’t stop the city from showing some Parisian pzazz late last month as the first train for the new Métro lines was taken for a test drive, attracting crowds of invited onlookers to a railway depot in the suburb of Champigy-sur-Marne.

The 108-meter-long six-car train, the first of its kind produced by Alstom for the Grand Paris Express, made its debut amid triumphal music and a light show of lasers in the French flag colors of white, blue and red.

“To change people’s lives, we will have to change how they move,” French Transport Minister Clément Beaune said at the November 28 event, which saw the train make a successful two-kilometer test run along a section of line 15, one of the new routes.

France hopes the Grand Paris Express will significantly cut transport time for suburb-to-suburb movement on public transit and reduce car usage for residents in the Greater Paris region.

A rendering showing how part of Gare Villejuif, one of the stations on the new Grand Paris Express network, will look.

Unlike other Métro lines, it will use driverless trains to create a fully automatic rapid transport network, meaning there will be no need to hire and train new drivers, plus there will be greater resilience against disruptions from strikes.

“We are on the right track for success,” Beaune laughed. “It will serve as a good example for cities across France.”

Paris was among the world’s first cities to have a metro system. Its first line opened in 1900 as part of the city’s construction efforts to host the Olympic Games that same year. It expanded rapidly and extensively during the decades that followed.

Prior to the opening of the Grand Paris Express, it had already evolved into a sprawling 800-kilometer mega system encompassing 16 central city metro lines and five Réseau Express Régional, or RER, commuter rail lines for the surrounding suburbs.

The new project will introduce four new lines – 15, 16, 17 and 18 - plus extensions to existing lines 11 and 14.

The new services will add to the RER lines which serve the suburbs surrounding Paris.

A greener future

For many living in the city, the new routes can’t come quickly enough.

“I love living in Versailles but sometimes it’s just a lot,” said Lauren Bain, 26, a journalist working in Paris but living in the city of Versailles, roughly 20 kilometers southwest of the capital.

Bain says she attends church in the neighboring town of Saint Aubin, ostensibly a 20-minute drive away, but two hours by bus, which is how she currently makes the journey. It can take even longer; she was stuck on a bus half-submerged in water during heavy rainfall.

She commutes to work in the center of Paris via the RER C line, which she has little love for despite the convenience of a station in Versailles.

“That thing is terrible,” she said. “I arrive late at work all the time! Just earlier this week, my train was canceled for no reason.”

Once the new Grand Paris Express line 18 opens, connecting Versailles directly to Saint Aubin, as well as Paris Orly Airport, the city’s second-busiest, her options are set to improve.

“Line 18 cannot open sooner,” Bain said.

Mohamed Mezghani, secretary general of the International Association of Public Transport, based in Brussels, says the new lines puts Paris at the forefront of city public transport networks – alongside Tokyo, Moscow and Washington D.C., looking to reduce environmental impact through suburban interconnectivity.

“The Grand Paris Express, with its circular lines, encourages movement from suburb to suburb,” Mezghani said.

“People in big cities are realizing that cars are not a solution, congestion keeps worsening and building more roads will only attract more traffic.

“We need this updated version of public transportation.”

The new lines will connect with Paris' two main international airports.

The Olympic finish line

One big question for many Parisians – and for visitors to the city – is whether the new network will be operational in time for the 2024 Olympic Games, which will mostly be staged around the French capital.

This was the original plan when the project was announced by then President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2009, long before the city won its Olympic bid. But numerous delays have stretched the timeline.

A full opening of line 14 by now, plus partial opening of lines 15, 16, 17 and 18, which together connect to both Paris international airports, had been promised by Sarkozy and his successor François Hollande.

However, the project has been hit by various setbacks during the years, including construction site floods, delays in equipment delivery, and perhaps most crucial of all, the Covid pandemic.

And eight months before the 2024 Olympic Games, only the extension of line 14 to Orly Airport is expected to open in time. The other lines will gradually come on line starting in late 2025, according to the project’s official website.

France’s Transport Ministry remains upbeat about the impact the new rail lines will have on Paris, insisting that network capacity will be increased by 15% in time for the Games, which are forecast to attract millions of visitors to the city, already a popular summer destination.

“Our action plan is clear, and we’re on schedule,” it told CNN.

Even behind schedule, the new lines are likely to enhance the French capital’s appeal.

As writer Ernest Hemingway once remarked: “There are only two places in the world where we can live happy: at home and in Paris.” And once the new Grand Express lines open, hopefully the distance between them will shrink a little further.