History of the Petite Ceinture railway line of Paris

, by Bruno Bretelle


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

Built between 1852 and 1869, during the reign of Napoleon III , the Petite Ceinture (Little Belt) railway line offered the first public urban transportation service in Paris, and thus was a forerunner of the parisian subway network, “le Métro”. This circle line was built mainly for transporting goods, but it offered a public urban transportation service between 1862 to 1934, for over seventy years. In its approximate first eighty-years existence, the Petite Ceinture had a tremendous impact on the development of industry and parisian districts that can still be seen to this day.

In the middle of the Nineteenth Century, the booming railroads which radiated out of Paris needed to be connected for transporting goods. The growth of Paris needed goods yards in order to transport goods to the city that relied on raw materials and manufactured goods. The built of fortifications that encircled Paris in the 1840s, the « Fortifications de Thiers », needed in a strategic purpose the transport of troops along them. On 10 December 1851, just a few days after the coup of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, the future Napoleon III, the Petite Ceinture was created by decree for all these purposes.

The operator of the Petite Ceinture was the “Compagnie du Chemin de fer de Ceinture” (the Belt railway line Company), a syndicate whose members were the five private railroad companies who owned major stations and good yards in Paris :

  • The Compagnie des Chemins de fer du Nord (which owned the Nord station),
  • The Compagnie des Chemins de fer de l’Ouest (which owned the Saint-Lazare and Montparnasse stations),
  • The Compagnie des Chemins de fer de l’Est (which owned the Est station), the Compagnie des Chemins de fer Paris Lyon Méditerranée (which owned the Lyon station)
  • The Compagnie des Chemins de fer Paris-Orléans (which owned the Austerlitz station).

 Tracks and stations

The Petite Ceinture encircled Paris in a thirty-five kilometers (around twenty-two miles) loop. This line was composed of four sections :

  • The Petite Ceinture Rive Droite (the Little Belt Right Bank) was located on the right bank of the Seine. This section was sixteen kilometers (around ten miles) long and connected Les Batignolles (17th district) with Ivry (13th district). Opened in 1854 for transporting goods, it offered a passenger service after 1862.
  • The Petite Ceinture Rive Gauche (the Little Belt Left Bank) was located on the left bank of the Seine. This section was ten kilometers (around six miles) long and connected Ivry (13th district) with the Porte d’Auteuil (16th district). It was opened in 1867 for transporting both goods and passengers.
  • The line from Les Batignolles to the Porte d’Auteuil, commonly called « the Line of Auteuil », was independently opened in 1854 by the Compagnie des Chemins de fer de l’Ouest for only a passenger service. The company of the Chemin de fer de Ceinture had just a right of movement on this section for transporting people and exceptionally transporting goods.
  • The connecting railroad of Courcelles was opened in 1869 to complete the loop between the Petite Ceinture Rive Droite and the Line of Auteuil for transporting people and exceptionally transporting goods.


The urban passenger service of the Petite Ceinture consisted at its peak years, around 1900, the year of the Universal Exposition, of an average movement of 85 000 to 90 000 passengers a day, and thirty-nine million passengers a year. The Petite Ceinture had twenty-nine stations. The main station was the Courcelles-Ceinture station, in the North-West of Paris. At this station, trains arrived and departed for clockwise and anticlockwise movements. In addition, as the Petite Ceinture was connected to the major stations Gare du Nord and Gare Saint-Lazare, urban passenger trains could arrived from and departed to one of theses stations. During rush hours, a train departed every ten minutes in each direction.

0-6-0 T locomotive of the Ceinture Railway at the Vaugirard station
A design inspired by the British locomotives. On the smokebox door, a plate indicates that the service is circular.
Diagrams of second class compartment coaches with brakeman’s cabin of the Petite Ceinture railway
These coaches were introduced for the passenger service in 1896 and used until 1934.

The rolling stock was composed of steam locomotives and passenger coaches. The duration of a tour of Paris gradually decreased by reducing stops and by using more powerful locomotives : from one hour and a half in 1900, it was reduced to one hour and twenty minutes in 1901 and even to one hour ten minutes, or a speed of twenty-nine kilometers (eighteen miles) per hour, for an express service.

Along with the immense urban passenger service, the Petite Ceinture hastened development of goods yards, factories and slaughterhouses that sprung up along its tracks :

  • Along the Petite Ceinture Rive Droite, there were the Belleville-Villette goods yard and the La Villette slaughterhouses in the 19th district, the Charonne and Bercy goods yards respectively in the 20th and the 12th districts,
  • Along the Petite Ceinture Rive Gauche, there were the Les Gobelins and La Glacière-Gentilly goods yards in the 13th district, the Vaugirard slaughterhouses and the Grenelle goods yard in the 15th district.
View of the Ménilmontant station, near the current Belleville park.
Behind the station, the Ménilmontant and Sorbier streets (click to enlarge).
View of the platforms of the Ornano station.
This station is located near the Porte de Clignancourt and the flee market (click to enlarge).

After 1881, the Chemin de fer de Grande Ceinture (the Great Belt Railway), built in the suburb of Paris, replaced the Petite Ceinture for transporting goods between the railroads radiating out of Paris.

At its peak years, around 1900, on average there were one hundred and ninety-six urban passenger train movements a day on the Petite Ceinture Rive Droite and the Petite Ceinture Rive-Gauche, two hundred and twelve urban passenger train movements a day on the line of Auteuil, ten national train movements a day on the Petite Ceinture Rive Droite between the major stations Gare du Nord and Gare de Lyon and one hundred and forty-eight freight train movements a day, totalling five hundred and sixty-six weekday train movements on this circle line.

 1900 - 1934: passenger traffic decline and goods traffic growth

In 1900, the first line of the Métro (subway), more central, with a more modern and more rapid electrical rolling stock, more comfortable stations and more competitive prices than the Petite Ceinture, started running. The urban passenger service of the Petite Ceinture gradually faded out of existence after 1900 as a result of loss of passenger traffic due to competition from subway lines and to a lack of investment in the modernization of facilities and rolling stock. In addition, the local goods traffic grew, occupying an increasingly larger part of the total income. Therefore, the operator of the Petite Ceinture used the loss of passenger traffic to decrease the number of passenger train movements and increase the number of goods train movements. For private french railway companies (which existed in France until the nationalization in 1938) operating together the Petite Ceinture, the goods transport was much more lucrative than the urban passenger one. Finally, the urban passenger service ceased on 22 July 1934 and was replaced by a bus line, whose name : PC, means Petite Ceinture. Only the urban passenger service of the Line of Auteuil was electrified and continued to exist to 1985, before beeing partially integrated to the Vallée de Montmorency - Invalides (VMI) section of the RER C line.

Current state of the Petite Ceinture. In red, 23 kilometers disused.
Click to enlarge.

 Current state

If the urban passenger service traffic ceased in 1934, except for the Line of Auteuil, the use of the Petite Ceinture for freight and for rolling stock exchanges and national train movements, such the Napoli Express and the Blue Train, continued to 1993.

After 1993, only the North part of the Petite Ceinture is used for rolling stock exchanges beetween the major stations Gare Saint-Lazare, Gare du Nord et Gare de l’Est.

At the end of the 50’s, the viaducts of Auteuil and of Point-Du-Jour, in the South-West part of the Petite Ceinture, were demolished.

Today, twenty-three kilometers of the the tracks of the Petite Ceinture, between Porte de Clichy (17th district), in the North-West of Paris, and Boulevard Victor (15th district), in the South-West are unused for freight or passenger train movements. The inhabitants of the neighborhoods of its tracks know it, often partially, as a wild nature area that laid in the center of the parisian area. But one can recognize signs of its historical inheritance :

  • Its stations often assigned to an entertainment use, like a restaurant for the Passy-La Muette station or a café-concert for the Charonne station,
  • Its viaducts and bridges, like the one over the Ourcq canal,
  • Its long tunnels, like the Belleville one that is 1124 meters long, the Charonne one, that is 1300 meters long, or the Montrouge one, that is 904 meters long,
  • Its trenches, like the ones that cut the Buttes-Chaumont and Montsouris parks.

 The association for the preservation of the Petite Ceinture

Our association, the Association for the Preservation of the Petite Ceinture and its railway network (ASPCRF in French), was created at the end of 1992, to promote the reuse of the 23 kilometers of the Petite Ceinture currently disused as a lightrail line.
Our approach consists in combining, where it’s possible, a mixed use of the ground of Petite Ceinture by a lightrail service and public gardens (in French, “la mixité des usages”).

The main activities of our association are :

  • Interventions during debates on public transport projects, to suggest to reuse the Petite Ceinture railway line,
  • Organizations of special trains circulations on the Petite Ceinture, to allow people to discover its history, its heritage and its landscapes,
  • Conservation of the heritage of the Petite Ceinture, particularly its old stations (today 17 stations still exist in Paris).
Illustration of the concept of mixed use of the Petite Ceinture.
A part for the train, a part for public gardens, where the platform is large enough to create a garden. ASPCRF All Rights Reserved (click to enlarge).
Special train at the Pont de Flandre station, near the La Villette park.
Romain Mortelette All Rights Reserved (click to enlarge).



  1. Documentary «La Belle aux Voies Dormantes» (“The Sleeping railway Beauty”) - 2010

Here are the first minutes (in French) of the french documentary “La Belle aux Voies Dormantes” (“The Sleeping railway Beauty”). This extract presents the history of the Petite Ceinture railway.

Extrait de la Belle aux Voies Dormantes (2010) - en ligne
Les trois premières minutes du documentaire d’Amélie Maous et Richard Prost.

Directors : Amélie Maous and Richard Prost.

Our association organizes regularly a projection of this film in a parisian cinema, followed by a debate. The next projection will occur on 20 March 2012. More information here ’in French).

  1. Documentary «The wild abandoned railway in the centre of Paris» on the BBC News websiet - 2010.

A video where Bruno, the Vice-Président of our Association, talks about the promoting of the reuse of the 23 kilometers of the Petite Ceinture currently disused.

The video is in English, but the accents are definively french ;-)