Discover the Petite Ceinture: The Forgotten Railway in Paris

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Discover the Petite Ceinture: The Forgotten Railway in Paris
Walk around the outer arrondissements of Paris and you will often spot railway bridges criss-crossing the streets, but no trains ever pass. Why? Because the bridges belong to the Petite Ceinture, or “Little Belt” – a railway line built in the 19th century to supply troops manning the city’s new fortifications. It finally closed in the 1980s but over the past 15 years, sections have reopened to the public. Now the Petite Ceinture is becoming a linear park brimming with wildlife for Parisians to enjoy. The original line stretched from Auteuil in the west to Ivry in the southeast, opening between 1852 and 1854. Auteuil was a smart, semi-rural suburb and the new railway soon became a speedy commuter line for bourgeois passengers, as well as freight. Original tracks in the 15th arrondissement (C) Pat Hallam In 1867 the Left Bank section opened, forming a circular railway. By now, the rural villages behind the fortifications had been absorbed into new arrondissements and urbanized. The Petite Ceinture, in addition to its freight traffic, became an important passenger line for commuters. It was, in effect, a precursor to the métro. Rear view of building (studios, workshops) overlooking the railway in the 15th arrondissement (C) Pat Hallam The Belle Époque saw the heyday of the Petite Ceinture. It was now serving the abbatoirs (slaughterhouses) at Vaugirard and the massive Citroën factory, both on the Left Bank, as well as the huge abbatoir complex at La Villette. The train was increasingly popular with passengers, including tourists visiting the Universal Expositions of 1889 and 1900. But in 1900 the métro opened and as it expanded, passengers on the Petite Ceinture dwindled. In 1934 passenger services stopped altogether although the railway continued to be used for freight for another 50 years. Over time, a section running south from Auteuil was incorporated into the RER C. A section of the Petite Ceinture in the 14th arrondissement (C) Pat Hallam By the early 2000s the closed line was in a sorry state: overgrown, walls covered in graffiti, and the tunnels squatted by homeless people. You could still get on to the tracks if you knew someone who knew an illegal way in. It was a bit like getting into the Catacombs illegally – in fact, one of the disused stations on the Petite Ceinture is allegedly an illicit entrance to the Catacombs.

Lead photo credit : The garden of La Recyclerie (C) Pat Hallam

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Pat Hallam fell in love with Paris when she was an adolescent. After many years of visiting, in 2020 she finally moved from the UK to live here and pursue her passion for the city. A freelance writer and history lover, she can spend hours walking the streets of this wonderful city finding hidden courtyards, bizarre and unusual landmarks and uncovering the centuries of history that exist on every street corner (well, almost). You can find the results of her explorations on Instagram @littleparismoments.


  • Michele Kurlander
    2021-11-11 06:00:37
    Michele Kurlander
    How wonderful! I am a Paris lover - I arrive there maybe twice a year to wander the streets and maybe take side trips and imagine I am a resident (been doing that for over 35 years - except of course between 2019 and 2021 when I was barred from entry; made up for it with a month this September in an air bnb on rue Mouffetard, my quartier, and side trips to Montreux, Cabourg, and Antibes). I of course write about it on bonjour paris. But I never knew of any of this!!!! So seldom do I read something here with which I a m totally unfamiliar! Thanks so much. Cannot wait to explore during my next visit. (I'm hoping for the Spring). Thank you for this truly exciting article. (will have to find a map).


    • Pat Hallam
      2021-11-12 02:45:24
      Pat Hallam
      Thank you for enjoying it. I could only touch the surface in this article but the line is really interesting (but then, I come from a rather railway-obsessed family so I'm not typical!). There are several videos on YouTube as well.