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Yonah Freemark

I think you're exactly right -- the observation about the problem with Versailles is spot-on; you can take a train in both directions and end up in the same place. I think that SNCF would be doing its customers well by advocating more use of the numbers-ending of the RER names.

That said, the problem in Paris itself is that it isn't always clear which direction you're going in, and the numbers only complicate that issue if you don't know the system by heart. One way to solve that would be to have direction signs within Paris that say which end point in Paris you're heading for. For instance, if you're on the A at Auber, you would see one sign for A1/A3/A5 to Charles de Gaulle-Etoile and another in the opposite direction for A2/A4 to Nation.

On the other hand, this might make things even more confusing...

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This is a fascinating post, especially since I'm planning to talk to my class about levels of detail on Friday. In fact, I learned about the value of different levels of description in my class with Jacques Filliolet at Nanterre.

I actually don't remember ever paying attention to the branch numbers - odd/even or beyond; I just knew that the trains that went to Saint-Germain always stopped at Nanterre-Université.

The RER and Transilien have an additional level of detail for employees, transit geeks and customers who are regular enough to pay attention to things like this. Every train has a four-letter route code. These codes are shown in the posted schedules, in the platform departure boards, and in LEDs on the front of the train itself.

The first of the four letters always indicates the actual terminus of that run, not the end of the line. The others are usually chosen to be as pronounceable as possible (like YGOR), and each combination is assigned to a particular sequence of stops.

So for example, the Saint-Germain branch of the A line (PDF) starts the morning with eight ZEBU runs about fifteen minutes apart. These make all stops between Boissy and Saint-Germain. Just before 7AM, as things start to get a bit busy, they alternate between ZARA, which goes from La Varenne-Chennevières to Saint-Germain skipping two stops in Chatou and Le Vésinet, and XUTI, which goes from Boissy to Le Vésinet-Le Pecq skipping Nanterre-Ville. At around 8AM, an YCAR route from Torcy to Rueil is added to the mix. Shortly before 9AM, they go back to the all-stops ZEBU run every ten minutes for the midday period. You can read the rest yourselves.

Regulars on the Long Island Railroad, for example, always know that the 6:36 to Wantagh skips Lynbrook, but the 6:46 to Babylon stops there. The four-letter designation allows regulars in Paris to know that the 6:45 and 6:55 ZINC trains out of Etoile won't stop at Chatou, so they need to be on the 6:50 XOUD run.

Louis Haywood

Kudos for mentioning the 4-letter signs, I always enjoyed ZEUS on the RER A, but I can't remember my old RER C train.

However, Jarret's complaint about the SNCF services is somewhat diminished because of the 4-letter signs, but also, and more importantly, because each RER platform has multiple flip-boards or LED signs (in the case of the RER E) which list EACH and EVERY stop on that train. So by reading the sign, one can get all the information one needs.

This information is really more critical than the simple branch numbers. For instance, if I am at Chatelet-Les Halles taking the RER B to Antony to catch the OrlyVAL to Orly Airport, then "B" or "B4" isn't enough, and neither is "St-Remy". I need to see the "ANTONY" box lit on the platform screen to know I can take this train to Antony and catch my flight.

I can say from experience that no tourist has ever been able to figure out how to take the RER C from Champs de Mars Tour Eiffel (Eiffel Tower) to Versailles, without asking five different people. There are two Versailles (Chantiers and Rive Gauche). SNCF tries by putting an image of the Palace on the switchboard next to the name, but taking branching trains into the distant suburbs is something any tourist will want to be absolutely sure of, especially in Paris.

grvsmth

Good points, Louis! There are actually three train stations in Versailles including Versailles Rive Droite; it's a big town. I agree that tourists are always confused. Probably the best thing to do would be to rename Versailles-RG to "Château de Versailles."

Scott Workman

Thanks for putting this in such succinct terms as I am finding all of your posts to be. When coming to a new place, I think this is incredibly important to have a hierarchical (simple to complex) set of directions. In my own experience after a week or so getting used to a city, San Francisco & St. Louis being the last couple of cities I was in with good and decent transit respectively, riders inevitably just want to make sure they are heading in the right direction. They have a mental map seared in their brain of the things that they need for their daily trip and just need to be on the right (or left) side of the platform.

Going back to your recent post about first impressions of a city and its transit amenities, this is also a very important impression to make for a first time rider who is considering becoming a transit commuter vs. a motorist. A potential customer could be equally turned off by a system with poor signage as he/she would be by a woefully inadequate ticketing system and poor customer service.

anon

I would have a slight quibble with the 1st of the four tiers you mention. Coming from New York's highly-oversimplified 'uptown/downtown' scheme, I find it can be challenging to remember two/three terminal stations for 14 different lines (some with branches) for rapid cognition when choosing a direction to take on the métro. The one mitigating factor being that there are often signs when you get to the 'point of no return' listing all of the stations going to that terminus (similar to RER).

J

The C branch has always been a clusterfuck from an outsiders perspective. In the north everything is fine and then WTF is happening.

agus

you have a great site, an valuable information. thanks

Andrew

Yes, I certainly recall getting lost on the RER to Versailles on our trip to Paris several years ago (this being in the pre-Google Map days, so we didn't know our way around). A major problem is that it is not immediately obvious to tourists that Versailles-Chantiers and Versailles-Rive Gauche stations are only a 10 minute walk apart, so it is probably faster to take the first train to Chantiers rather than waiting for a train for Rive Gauche at least at certain times of day. Another problem is that Versailles-Chantiers is also served by Transilien trains to Paris Montparnasse; we accidentally got on one by mistake when going back to our hotel, which fortunately was reasonably convenient for us.

John G.

Agreed, C Branch definitely messed up.

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