A lot has improved about transit in Paris since I was last there in 1991, and certainly since I lived there in 1986. But I’m having trouble finding any positive angle on the partial re-branding of the crucial commuter rail and long-distance metro service, the RER. Because Paris does everything on such an operatic scale, the new RER brands may offer a useful parable about the perils of agency-centered communications, especially in an era where European public transit operating companies are expected to act like private businesses.
First, the product. The rapid transit network in Paris has long been formed out of two elements, which have had separate brands for a good reason: they offer substantially different types of mobility.
- The Métro is the standard subway system suitable for in-city travel, with very high frequencies and closely spaced stations — generally more than one per kilometre. Métro lines are simple and consistent: all lines make all stops, and there are very few branches, shortlines, and other footnote-worthy pitfalls to ensnare the customer. Métro lines are identifed by numbers, currently 1-14.
- The RER (Réseau Express Regional or “regional express network”) consists of electrified commuter rail lines — no different in technology from many intercity services — which come together into corridors that cross the city in special subways. The core segments crossing the city are a bit less frequent than métro but much faster, as they make far fewer stops, a spacing more in the range of 2-4 km. So if you’re going all the way across the city, the RER can be faster for you. RER lines have always been known by letters, currently A-E.
Métro and RER have long been presented as an integrated system where the same fare works on both, but there have always been good reasons for presenting them as two different service brands within that system. RER’s wide stop spacing makes it more useful for longer trips and less useful for short ones, and because its lines have outer branches that extend far out into the suburbs, the RER is also a little more complicated for a customer to understand. Describing them separately ensures that the complexity of the RER never affects the customer of the Métro.
But what about the operating company? For historical reasons, the RER network is actually operated by two different agencies:
- Routes A and B are run by the RATP, the Paris transit agency that also runs the Métro and city buses.
- Routes C-E are run by the French national rail company, SNCF, which also runs the rest of Paris’s outer-suburban commuter rail network.
Until now the customer has never needed to care. Has anyone ever chosen to ride Line C rather than Line B because they prefer the SNCF brand to the RATP brand? Don’t they always choose a line based on whether it goes where they’re going? (By global or even European standards, both operators deliver an excellent product.)
Sometime in the last decade, it got more complicated. Friction arises wherever two agencies doing the same thing have to interact and negotiate their borders, and no agency likes to have its effort vanish into an integrated system, even if that would be clearer for the customer. The new European privatisation regime has also caused agencies to behave more like private companies, which inevitably includes compulsive “image” marketing even where there’s no customer choice.
For some combination of these reasons, SNCF has begun taking over the customer communications and branding for the RER lines it controls, and merging them with a new brand it’s created for all the regional commuter rail services — Transilien, the leaf logo on the sign above. Whereas the RER brand refers specifically to commuter rail lines that run across Paris and thus also function as part of the city’s rapid transit, Transilien refers to any and all commuter rail services in the Paris region, including the RER but also many other services that just terminate in the main Paris rail stations and thus don’t provide intra-Paris service.
So where we once had one brand, RER, which described a distinct product in a way that was directly useful to the customer, we now have three. The three-logo sign at the top of this post means something like “RER, brought to you by Transilien, a department of SNCF.” Why do we need all these brands? What emotions are they trying to arouse? And how much of the clarity and legibility of the transit network should be sacrificed for their sake?
More disturbing still, when riding SNCF’s RER lines, I began to pick up signals that I should think of myself as an SNCF customer rather than a passenger on a Paris integrated network. It came most strongly when I emerged from the Métro line 14 at the new Bibliothèque Francois Mitterrand station, which is shared with the RER line C, and looked for a map of the local area. I had heavy luggage, and wanted to find the station exit closest to my hotel. But what I found was this:
The station is marked with the Transilien leaf and SNCF logos. A wide dark line shows the path of the RER line C, so that riders of that line can quickly identify where they are. Just to the left, a tiny box marked ‘M’ indicating the RATP Métro Line 14. There’s no indication of the path of Line 14, which you need to have if you’re going to figure out where you are based on the orientation of the train you arrived on.
Rather than navigating people to the surface from whatever line they’ve arrived on, the sign seems to say “Thank you for riding the SNCF Transilien RER. Oh yes, by the way, RATP’s Métro Line 14 also stops here, somewhere, but that’s not an SNCF-operated line so why would you want to know?” Whereas most Paris stations have a map of the district whose purpose is to enable anyone to see their way out into the city, this map is more concerned with guiding SNCF riders without helping RATP riders. Since I had arrived on an RATP service, SNCF’s signmakers were telling me (literally) to get lost.
At this point in the story, the brands SNCF and RATP may be starting to sound like Monty Python’s “Judean People’s Front” and “People’s Front of Judea,” a distinction without a difference that boils down to nothing but institutional ego. In fact, these two huge companies have mostly separate mandates that overlap only here on the edges of Paris. But even in a well-organised region there’s going to be strain between different operators where their functions overlap, and it takes a lot of discipline to keep the information system focused on informing the customer rather than manipulating her.
What’s the moral of this story? It probably depends on your point of view. Here’s mine: I want more people to ride public transit, and for transit to become a more embedded and essential feature of urban life for the sake of sustainability. Crucially, I don’t work for any French government transit agency or operator, or own stock in one. So it’s easy for me to say that a customer information system should be about presenting an integrated citywide network that’s there to serve the user’s own life choices — just like the street network is. From that standpoint, the most crucial work of branding is to help the user understand the real distinctions between types of mobility — such as between RER and Métro — so that she can better use the network for her own ends. We all know the difference between an arterial boulevard and a gravel road; in transit we need help seeing similar distinctions, and anything that distracts from that message is making the whole system harder to use.
Again, it would be different if SNCF and RATP were like airlines, competing for the rider’s choice, but that’s not the situation, and in rapid transit it never will be.
UDPATE OCT 6: In response to Angus Grieve-Smith’s excellent comment, second in the string below, let me expand on the best possible justification for SNCF’s branding: The “Transilien” regional brand, which is supposed to encompass all suburban commuter rail service in the Paris region, including the RER, helps people to see it as one network. As Angus notes, SNCF operates not just RER lines C, D, and E but also a range of other commuter rail lines that terminate in various rail stations around Paris, but do not run across the city as the RER lines do. SNCF has given these lines letter codes as well, all from later in the alphabet.
Still, RER lines are not just another commuter rail line. The distinguishing feature of the RER lines is that they can be useful for high-frequency intra-Paris travel (including major near-suburban destinations such as La Défense).
All over France, SNCF (the French national railway company) runs networks of commuter trains that are confined to one urban region. It typically gives these a subordinate brand that honors the region in question. These brands appear on the train vehicles and thus say, in effect, “look, we may be a huge national rail company, but these trains belong to your region; we’re not going to take them away.” Deutsche Bahn does the same thing with their ‘Regio’ commuter rail product all over Germany. The Transilien brand makes sense in this spirit.
But a Transilien brand that presented all of the greater Paris region’s commuter rail as one network would need to include the RER lines controlled by RATP, and Transilien doesn’t. Transilien is very clearly SNCF’s product. What we may have here is a case where no government exists at the appropriate level of regional authority to dictate a single brand for a single coherent layer of the transit network regardless of operator. Instead, we have SNCF creating its own brand that effectively distinguishes the services it operates from those operated by RATP, thus confronting the passenger with complexity that she doesn’t need.
If the RATP picked up the Transilien brand and applied it to its own RER services, thus presenting a complete commuter rail network for the Paris region, then this would be a useful brand. The current moment may be a transitional situation in which SNCF, as the owner of the majority of the suburban network, has introduced a brand that they hope RATP will use as well. Such is often the process by which one organisation influences another. But at the moment, on the ground, things are pretty unclear.
More on the RER branding issue in the next Paris post.
Thanks to Russell in Cincinnati for photoshopping the station map.