Sunday, 29 January 2012

Brutal Bercy, the concrete coffin

On December 11th, a group of mayors from France's Auvergne region organised a protest in Paris against the transfer of their trains from the Gare de Lyon to the Gare de Bercy. Smartly dressed and wearing their stripes of office, the mayors were also carrying a coffin, a sign that - for them - this move represented a ‘burial’ for their region.

"Les Auvergnats sont déprimés de devoir arriver dans une gare qui ne procure aucun confort, aucun hôtel, on a l'impression d'être traités comme des gens arriérés, comme des ploucs" (the Auvergnats are depressed about having to arrive at a station without comfort or hotels, and we feel as if we are being treated like backward people, like hillbillies), said Claude Malhuret, the Mayor of Vichy. But is this train station really so bad?

What is true is that it is difficult to find. It is hidden away up on a plateau, with no direct links by Metro or bus. Access by foot is along a busy road, under a succession of dark and noisy railway bridges.

In reality, the station is simply an annex of the Gare de Lyon, built in the 1970s specifically for the 'auto-trains' service that ferries cars across the country. It replaced a simple goods station, where wine production from across France would arrive, before being stocked in the famous nearby Bercy 'chars'.


Arriving in front of the station, the lack of any distinctive design is immediately striking. There is no neo-classicism from the railway's golden age, only 1970s functional architecture. The ensemble is curiously colourless. Apart from the sparsely decorated Christmas tree in the car park, nothing justified the use of colour photography.

Inside it is the image of a small, provincial station. There is no buzz of arriving and departing trains, but rather small groups of drowsy and listless passengers. There are no shopping arcades to keep them amused, and they sit in rows, their eyes sweeping the room in search of a single decorative feature that they might focus on.

Above there is a second level - another rather sinister waiting room, with plastic chairs and plastic plants. A door offers access out to the car park, where vehicules wait before being loaded onto the car trains. A group of youths are sit broodingly on a wall, but whether they waiting for a train or for life to catch up with them is not clear.

For a brief time, perhaps the station's glory years, it had a touch of glamour. It was the Paris home of the night trains to and from Rome and Venice, trains that I took myself on several occasions. In the evenings, the station was filled with the multilingual agitation of international travellers. Early mornings, the same travellers arrived back in Paris, bleary eyed and fuzzy brained. This service ended last year, but a new one has now begun - departing from the Gare de Lyon of course.

All that is left - beyond a sprinkling of slow regional trains, is the auto-trains service. The thick slabs of dark, heavy concrete that make up the infrastructure give it a film-noir atmosphere, especially when it is empty. Indeed, it seems entirely natural to read that a member of the ETA Basque separatist movement was spotted by police here then trailed to his point of arrest.

Finally, what seems to typify this station is not disdain, but instead a heavy feeling of ennui. Rather than a burial, it is in reality more like being relegated to the second division, or losing your triple A rating. Renovations are promised soon, with - for the first time ever - real public transport links. Perhaps then it will finally be adopted as a home by somebody.


Tim said...

All I really remember of this station is of spotting it down the bottom of a side-street/alley and thinking "hey, that's a railway station there" when I'd never heard of it, let alone caught a train there. It really is the ultimate Paris ghost station and it's interesting how these mayors feel so strongly about both the prestige and the comfort of departing and arriving from one of the main entrances into the capital rather than through its trap door.

Does it have a "Relay" newsstand at least? If it doesn't, I'm not sure it can be officially regarded as a Parisian railway station. It all feels so far away from this.

Adam said...

Tim - that's just showing off!

I don't remember a Relay newsstand, but there might have been some kind of combined press/snack outlet. Actually, it wouldn't have been a surprise to come across Russian grandmothers selling cups of char and pickled gherkins.

Kiki said...

Adam; this is unbelievable.... on Sunday I spotted the sign 'Gare de voiture-trains Bercy' and I asked Hero Husband whether he knew anything about this train station. He said that he thinks they have still certain trains for 'ferrying' cars to the South but maybe only in summer.... and now, voilà, before I even had a chance to look Gare de Bercy up on the web, Adam has done all the work!
I shall forward this to HH asap and I shall read through it in detail tomorrow. Thank you very much

rgsoundf said...

Would be a great scene for a Kool Shen photo shoot :) Or a part of Tarkovsy's Stalker set.

Bigfish said...

In 2004, my wife & I caught a train from a little town along the Canal de Bourgogne (Laroche-Migennes?) that ended up at Bercy. It reminded me in a lot of ways of the Port Authority bus terminal in NYC.

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