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The RATP and CNIM shut the Gateway down within days of launch and relaunched three months later, with new video and audio warnings instructing passengers on proper behavior. As Lucien Le Gousse, the RATP maintenance engineer for the Gateway, says, the goal was to “make the users understand, in some fractions of a second, that they were not on the rolling walkways they had taken for 30 years.” Around this time, says Le Gousse, RATP also slowed the walkway’s top speed to 9 kph.

The result was a much safer system. In 2004, RATP demonstrated that the Gateway injury rate was comparable with existing walkways and escalators (about eight accidents per 10 million trips), earning the mechanism a permanent operating permit. And it’s probably even safer today, since the fastest it runs now is about 6 kph – and then only during the morning and evening rush hours. As a result, merchants who work nearby say accidents are few. “The people who fall – it’s their own fault,” claims Messa, a florist stationed at the south end.

Reliability, however, is another issue. RATP’s Le Gousse insists that he is satisfied with the 87 percent availability the Gateway achieved last year. The local merchants, however, describe a walkway that’s forever breaking down – sometimes as often as twice a day. Making the breakdowns even more maddening are the reasons, such as a pebble stuck in the complex roller system, grinding the walkway to halt. “It’s always out of service,” says Ahmed Abderemane, who sells magazines and snacks five days a week at the Gateway’s northern end.

Is it worth the trouble? Abderemane doesn’t think so. He says that at first the system was truly rapid, but now it’s both slow and unreliable (“To Parisians it’s just nonsense”).

On the other hand, when the system is running, it’s full. And when it’s running well, it’s almost exhilarating – especially if one strides on it. (This TR correspondent’s four-year-old is sorely disappointed whenever the Gateway is out of service.)

With a flood of new airport construction, especially in Asia, walkway manufacturers continue pushing for the next breakthrough. Düsseldorf-based ThyssenKrupp Elevator recently unveiled a 7-kph walkway system that employs overlapping panels, replacing both the belt and rollers used in the Gateway. The panels telescope out at the front end to ease passengers up to full speed, then telescope back in for the step off.

ThyssenKrupp spokesperson Rembert Horstmann claims the firm has sold its first units, but also says they will remain “in development” with the buyers for at least six to eight months. Horstmann says they won’t be demonstrating the walkways for the media until they’re installed and running.

A wise decision, no doubt. If there’s one thing everyone has learned at Montparnasse, it’s that, as Pourquey puts it, “having a prototype working in a factory is a long way from having a proper unit operating in a public environment.”

Peter Fairley is a freelance writer living in Paris.

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