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Monday, 3 August 2015

Lausanne's Métro

Photos; WC News Service/Richard Carreño
[WC News Service]
LAUSANNE, Switzerland -- Most subway straphangers consider themselves lucky if the train they're riding foretells an upcoming station stop with a PA update (too often muffled, too heavily accented, and/or generally unintelligible), or, at best, with a visual announcement that requires a neck-straining contortion to check it out. Lausanne's Métro has such methods beat: Welcome to the world's smallest city with a full-fledged subway. And, arguably, also the world's quirkiest, where approaching stations are announced by animal sounds. As from horses and cows. And rushing water, as in a waterfall.

Forget verbal announcements or visual legends. In their place, at alternating stations, are the amplified sounds of cows mooing and the hoof beats of stampeding horses. The pattern seems random: As I approached the Line 2's Croisettes stop, it might have been the horses that I was hearing. Thirteen stops away, at Ouchy, mooing might have been cued up. Either way, be forewarned to alight if your stop were next.

It wasn't always so. When Lausanne, with a population of about 140,000, French Switzerland's second largest city after Geneva (200,000), opened the its first version of public transport in the late 19th century, the 'métro' was no more than a clanging funicular cranking up and down the hillside on which Lausanne is perched. The funicular, like the now later-day subway, was simply a municipal necessity as steep inclines, interspersed with narrow plateaux, mark the city's hard-to-negotiate urban topography.

Though Switzerland is quite-rightly thought of as being mountainous, even with its own well-known range of Alps, few of its big cities, including Zurich, its largest, and Geneva, its runner-up, feature undergrounds. Built in valleys on lake-side plains, these cities' preferred modes of transport are buses and trams.

Lausanne's hillside setting thus presented a different challenge in people moving. A funky, iron-cast funicular, built in 1877, was the answer, and, though modified over the years, 'La Ficelle," or The String, as the metro system is now nicknamed, didn't open in its most recent state-of-the art reincarnation as a fully-operating subway until 2008. (It was then that Lausanne grabbed the distinction -- away from Rennes (210,00) -- as being the smallest municipality served by a subway).

It was an earlier iteration -- more 'funicular' than 'métro' --  that I remembered, from the late 1960s, when I was last visited Lausanne. 

The 'new' métro I now discovered is less funky than French chic. 

For one thing, the four miles of the Line 2 'Ficelle,' the heart system's rapid transit, embraces an all-French technology. (Line 1 is more traditional light-rail).  As such, no one can be faulted in confusing Lausanne's Line 2 with the Paris Métro's Line 1, that city's premier route running through the heart of the Right Bank. As with Line 1, Lausanne subway platforms are divided from the open track wells by protective barriers that only separate when a train comes to a complete halt. As in Paris, too, trains glide in hushed silence on rubber-tired wheels.

French roots aren't surprising in a city that is generally-regarded as the most 'French' in appearance and temperament in French Switzerland, or Suisse Romaine. Narrow streets in high points of the city are reminiscent of parts of older French cities. At its lowest level, a sun-kissed promenade in the Ouchy neighbourhood  on Lac Léman (known, in English, Lake Geneva) radiates the Gallic feel of the Côte d'Azur.

And international panache. It was in Ouchy, at the luxurious Beau Rivage hotel, where the recent, first round of the Iran nuclear talks were held. The International Olympic Committee head offices and museum are also based in Ouchy.

There's other endearing oddities about the system: In a city that has no lack of well-known native sons (Benjamin Constant, the prominent 18th century novelist and diarist; and Jean-Luc Godard, the father of French New Wave cinema, are just two), one of The String's stops honours French-born Maurice Béjart, the late ballet super-star whose dance company is still based here.

Every three to six minutes, depending on the time of day or night, trains move passengers up and down Lausanne's hillside. Trains are never late. (This is clock-work Switzerland, after all)

But another key element of the Métro -- again, based on French technology -- is that the subway is fully automated. No driver. No conductor.

As for the mooing, that's an extra that comes thanks to singular Swiss technology -- and sense of humour.