Brief history of the Petite Ceinture circular railway of Paris

, by Bruno Bretelle

 Establishment during the Second French Empire (1852-1869)

During the first half of the nineteenth century, the French rail network was built radially around Paris, the political capital of the country, in order to connect it directly to other big cities. But in 1850, a circular railway line was still needed to interconnect all these rays and allow the development of the national transport of goods by rail. At the end of 1851, just a few days after the coup d’État that will give birth to the Second Empire of Napoleon III, the government decided to remedy this by building in the north and east of Paris the Petite Ceinture Rive Droite (the section of the Little Belt railway located on the Right Bank of the Seine). This line crossed territories annexed by Paris in 1860 and followed the last fortifications of the city.

The Petite Ceinture railway line around 1920.
The Petite Ceinture is represented by the bold line (click to enlarge).

It was commissioned progressively from 1852 to 1854. Its operation was managed by a syndicate, the “Syndicat du Chemin de fer de Ceinture de Paris”, which combined private railway companies which owned a terminus station in Paris. Quickly local freight stations and industrial branches, such the branch of the slaughterhouses of La Villette, were opened along the line in order to improve supplies to Paris.

A freight train crossing the Ménilmontant station around 1910

 1854-1862 : opening of the urban passenger service

Following the decision to build the Petite Ceinture Rive Droite, the project of a beltline, designed to carry goods and located in the west of Paris, was abandoned. Taking advantage of this lack of interest, the Compagnie de l’Ouest (the French Western Company) started up in 1854 a dedicated line for carrying passengers between the St. Lazare railway station and the Porte d’Auteuil : the Auteuil line. This line served the Bois de Boulogne and residential areas under development. In 1860, the integration the territories it crossed in Paris made its passenger service the first one fully Parisian railway line. On the July 14th, 1862, the French National Day, the Petite Ceinture Rive Droite, where passenger trains were operated at the request of political authorities, became the second one.

 1867-1903 : development of passenger services stimulated by Universal Exhibitions

The railway station built for the 1900 Universal Exhibition
It was located near the Champs de Mars and the Eiffel Tower.

From 1867 to 1900, both the passenger services of the Auteuil line and of the Petite Ceinture developed at the pace of the Universal Exhibitions held in Paris every 11 years : in 1867, 1878, 1889 and 1900. For each exhibition, new stations were created and the number of trains was increased, gradually transforming trains into a really popular form of public transport.

For the Universal Exhibition of 1867, the Petite Ceinture Rive Droite and the Auteuil line were connected by a line passing through the southern neighborhoods of Paris : the Petite Ceinture Rive Gauche (the Left Bank Petite Ceinture). The commissioning of the Petite Ceinture Rive Gauche allowed traffic of the first circular trains between the St. Lazare and Avenue de Clichy stations. These trains ran around Paris via the Auteuil line, the Petite Ceinture Rive Gauche and the Petite Ceinture Rive Droite. On the Auteuil line, they cohabited with the existing passenger trains of this line. A branch, built along the Seine River from the Petite Ceinture Rive Gauche, served the Exhibition organized on the Champs de Mars. In 1869, a few months before the fall of the French Second Empire, a new section opened between the Avenue de Clichy station and the Auteuil line, near the Courcelles-Levallois station, closing the loop and allowing trains to make the full tour of Paris.

For the Universal Exposition of 1878, new stations were built, the number of trains increased and the branch serving the Champs de Mars became permanent.

For the Universal Exhibition of 1889, marked by the inauguration of the Eiffel Tower, the last crossings of the Petite Ceinture Rive Droite were removed while maintaining the traffic. On this occasion, many bridges were constructed, stations re-built and the number of trains was further increased.

Finally, the Universal Exhibition of 1900 marked the high point of the Petite Ceinture urban passenger service : around 39 million people were transported, an average of over 100,000 per day. Up to 12 trains per hour in each direction ran during peak hours, at 5 and 10 minutes intervals. After the Exhibition, up to 8 circular trains ran each hour in both directions, to a limit imposed by the Auteuil line which owned its own traffic.

At that time, the complete tour of Paris served 29 stations : 6 stations on the Auteuil line and 23 for the Petite Ceinture. Travelling times were 1 hour 30 mins and 1 hour 21mins. In 1903, travel time was reduced during slack hours to 1 hour 10 mins or a commercial speed of 27 kilometers per hour, equivalent to a current metro line.

 1867-1895 : debate on the project of a metropolitan railway

The elevated station Point du Jour in the 16th borough, opened in 1867

Since the opening in 1867 of the Petite Ceinture Rive Gauche and of the first elevated station built on a viaduct in Paris - the Point du Jour station – the circular train service of the Petite Ceinture was considered as the first step to building a metropolitan railway network.

Private railway companies, associated to operate this circular service, continued to develop it, hoping the operation of the future metropolitan railway would be granted to them. But the City of Paris opposed their plan, because it wanted to develop a purely local railway network, while the Petite Ceinture, with its connections to the radial suburban railway lines, played a regional role. It also wanted to keep control of the future Metro lines, which was to follow take the route that belonging to the communal area.

Finally, in 1895, after thirty years of fruitless discussion and with the approaching 1900 Universal Exhibition, the French government granted the City of Paris the task of building the Metro and choosing its operating mode. The first Metro line is opened in 1900. From then on, the people of Paris and its suburbs had two metropolitan services : the circular steam trains of the Petite Ceinture and the electric railcars of the Metro.

 1903-1934 : decline of the circular passenger service

In the early twentieth century, the various modes of public transport, operated by separate companies whose tariffs were not coordinated, competed strongly. The Petite Ceinture urban passenger service suffered razor-sharp competition from the new Metro and electric tramway lines. Faced with this competition, the circular service was reorganized, the tariffs reduced and the commercial speed of trains increased. But these measures did not prevent sudden drop in passenger figures in just a decade. The Metro’s modernity, where walls of underground stations were covered with white tiles, and whose service was provided by electric railcars, contrasted with the old-fashioned aspect of stations and steam trains of the Petite Ceinture, inherited from the nineteenth century.

External competition was not the only explanation for the decline of the urban passenger service afforded by the Petite Ceinture. An internal competition between the passenger and freight transport services took place. The last one was far more profitable for private companies operating the Petite Ceinture. Freight traffic halted further development of the urban passenger service by electric traction studied at the end of 1900.

Finally, on the night of the 22th to 23rd July 1934, after more than 70 years of existence, the urban passenger service of the Petite Ceinture was transferred to the road, becoming the PC bus line which takes its name from the initials of the Petite Ceinture. In the west of Paris, the Auteuil line, electrified in the 1920s, operated a passenger service until 1985. A part of its route is used today by the RER C line.

 Après 1934 : continuation of railway activity

Despite the disappearance of the urban passenger service in 1934, the railway history of the Petite Ceinture continues today.

 Freight trains

The goods service continued to thrive until the 1970s, before beginning a long decline that ended in 1993. It was operated between goods yards of the Parisian radial lines (Batignolles, La Chapelle-Charbons, La Villette, Bel-Air, Bercy, Ivry and Grenelle Marchandises) and local goods yards of the Petite Ceinture (Belleville-Villette, Paris-Bestiaux, Charonne, Gobelins, La Glacière-Gentilly and Vaugirard).

The maximum speed was 60 km/h. The maximum composition allowed for trains was 40 wagons, which corresponds to a weight of 800 tons. In 1948, the freight service of the Petite Ceinture accounted for an average of 105 trains a day.

A view of a freight train in the Les Gobelins yard, in the 13th borough, in 1985

 Royal trains

From 1900 to the late 1950s, the Avenue of the Bois de Boulogne station (now Avenue Foch) welcomed foreign royalty and presidents visiting Paris. One of the most striking of these visits was that of the British royal couple in July 1938. The station thus earned itself the nickname of “Station of Sovereigns.”

 Junction trains

Until the late 1980s, the Petite Ceinture was crossed by major European passenger trains between the Nord and Lyon railway stations. The most prestigious of these trains was the Blue Train (linking Calais to Nice), which inspired Agatha Christie : in the eponym novel, a crime is committed aboard during the route of the Petite Ceinture.

 Adventure trains

From 1965 to November 2003, the Petite Ceinture experienced tourist activity on circuits organized by associations wich were partners of the SNCF or RFF. Our Association organized several train trips between 1999 and 2003.

 Various other trains

In 1996, a section located in the 13th arrondissement, welcomed a train of the future automated line 14 of the Metro for automated driving trials.

Finally, a train consisting of several passenger cars circulated on the January 18, 2012 in the 15th, 14th and 13th boroughs.