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Row erupts over claims of 'severe safety risks' at Paris Gare du Nord

The Local France
The Local France - [email protected]
Row erupts over claims of 'severe safety risks' at Paris Gare du Nord
(Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP)

Paris' Gare du Nord station is notoriously grotty, but now a new report - which has been fiercely disputed by French rail operator SNCF - claims that its station infrastructure is crumbling and dangerous, including around the Eurostar boarding zone.

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The Gare du Nord station in Paris has been a sore point for city authorities for years - partly because, as well as being a main rail hub for France it is often the first thing that tourists see, since it contains both the Eurostar arrival and the local train to and from the city's airports.

The station is old, crumbling, confusingly laid out and is frequently plagued by pickpockets.

But now a new report that was leaked to the French press after forming part of a court battle, claims that the infrastructure itself might be dangerous - a suggestion hotly disputed by French rail operator SNCF, which described it as "malicious".

The report

There was a plan for a major refurbishment of the station in time for the Paris Olympics in 2024, but it was scrapped in 2021 after concerns of cost and time over-runs, and fierce objections from locals. 

Ceetrus, the company commissioned in 2018 to carry out 'modernisation' work to the train station ahead of the 2024 Games, is now locked in a legal dispute with SNCF, and the report is part of the ongoing court battle.

The 120-page report, authored by engineer and legal expert François Pinchon as part of the StatioNord project, was leaked to French daily, Le Parisien.

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It notes three particular areas of concern at the station, which welcomes over 600,000 visitors per day and is one of Europe's busiest train stations; a fire risk on the Eurostar boarding bridge, concrete slabs falling onto Eurostar tracks, and the possible collapse of two Transilien overground lines onto RER commuter line tracks below.

The Local asked SNCF for comment, and they said: "We contest the method and conclusions of the document by Mr Pinchon, commissioned and paid for by Ceetrus, the company that was dropped by SNCF for the project of renovating the Gare du Nord".

"This document, used maliciously, is not the work of an expert, but is based solely on the evidence provided by Ceetrus, without any field visit or verification with SNCF's departments.

"Moreover, it is inaccurate and biased with the aim of clearing Ceetrus in the context of the lawsuit against SNCF Gares & Connexions."

The Eurostar boarding bridge

According to Le Parisien, the report said that there was a risk of fire on the Eurostar boarding mezzanine, specifically along the wooden floor due to tangled cables and wiring. 

The report says "if a fire develops, [it] would destroy both platforms" and cause "major risks for the lives of people travelling in these places".

SNCF contends that the train station is "subject to regular audits and checks" and that the fire safety commission of the Paris Police Department has validated the station's compliance with safety measures.

Regarding the Eurostar footbridge, SNCF said that the Paris police prefecture have issued "several favourable opinions" when inspecting the Eurostar lounge area and that "existing fire detection systems are in compliance with regulations".

READ MORE: From ferries to Eurostar: How Brexit has hit travel between France and the UK

Risk of falling concrete onto the Eurostar tracks

One of the buildings alongside the Eurostar tracks hangs over part of the tracks and part of its facade carries a risk of collapsing onto the rail line, the report claimed.

In response, SNCF told Le Parisien that interventions have been carried out to secure the building's facade, and that a report dating from November 2022 said that there was no risk of danger or falling concrete.

Nevertheless, in an interview with Le Parisien in February, Pinchon said that SNCF's denial of the danger is "inconsistent with the technical reality".

Risk of track collapse

As well as the Eurostar, Gare du Nord also houses mainline French train lines, the Paris suburban train network the Transilien and the RER B and RER D commuter lines.

Pinchon's report says there is a risk of Transilien lines H and K collapsing and falling onto the tracks of RER lines B and D, which are below them.

The risk area is reportedly related to the supports for the tracks - columns 34, 35 and 36. Le Parisien wrote that in the event of a railway collision, these supports would crumble "like a house of cards". If this were to happen, the floor where the Transilien line, and several shops, are located would collapse onto the RER B and D lines below.

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The SNCF has responded to this accusation in the report, claiming that there is "no risk of collapse". 

The national rail service said that discussions with Ceetrus had included reinforcing support columns at tracks 33 and 34, but the work was eventually rendered unnecessary when a large structure was added to the referenced-platform. 

One of the unions representing rail workers, Sud Rail, has requested that special council look into the issue of tracks 33 and 34, saying in a statement that they were aware that Pichon's report "should be taken with a grain of salt", but that they "would like more concrete elements than just the statements made by SNCF".

SNCF, on the other hand has responded to the report in its entirety by saying that the company "never compromises with safety" and that it will ensure that the "truth to be restored in court".

Other trouble areas for Gare du Nord

The station has other security issues unrelated to the building's infrastructure. These concerns are mostly related to pickpockets, unlicensed taxi drivers, illegal street vendors and the presence of drug dealers.

READ MORE: ‘Drunks, drug-dealers and pickpockets’ – French police crackdown at Paris Gare du Nord

Gare du Nord is also known for having a large homeless population, some of whom have experienced mental health crises in the station.

Paris police have highlighted pickpocketing – especially of confused, newly arrived tourists – as a focal point and reason to step up police presence in the station. 

There have been some more serious incidents as well, such as the attack on January 11th when a man randomly assaulted seven members of the public with a sharpened chisel.

A year previously, another knife-wielding man, later revealed to be homeless and with mental health problems who frequented the station, was shot by police.

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In January, the police department added dozens of officers to the patrol teams for Gare du Nord - at all hours of the day and the night. They are accompanied by some soldiers from Operation Sentinelle who make regular patrols of Gare du Nord (and other sites that have the potential to be terror attack targets).

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