The mysterious case of RER B

The line B of the suburbian trains, also known as “RER B” in French, has seen me grow up. As a child, I lived in Sceaux, at the Bourg-la-Reine station, in the south of Paris. A little later, my father worked at the Courcelles-sur-Yvette station. Once I was in graduate school on the Saclay plateau, while I was getting off at Massy-Palaiseau to access my campus, my parents moved to Villepinte, a town that can be reached by the Sevran-Beaudottes station.

During my year of study at Saclay, I had the opportunity to experience the so-called “social journey” offered by the RER B, leaving Massy-Palaiseau to go to Sevran, passing through Saint-Michel Notre Dame, Luxembourg, and Aulnay-Sous-Bois.

The RER B connects the two most socially opposed places in Île-de-France: the sixth arrondissement of Paris and the most disadvantaged areas of Seine-Saint-Denis. To travel on the RER B is to observe a change in population, and finally to see in the most obvious way possible the social inequalities in the Paris area.

The RER B connects Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport, Orly airport and the center of Paris. Every day, the RER B is the means by which the world’s most touristic country sees its visitors arrive.

No wonder then, that the RER B has been the subject of numerous podcasts, books, and even documentary films.

A bit of history

The RER B was born from the Sceaux line, a line that linked the southern suburbs of Paris to the Denfert-Rochereau station.

Listening to Life and Death along the RER B, an episode of the podcast Périphéries by Edouard Zambeaux, one can detect the clash of civilizations that takes place on this train. Professor of health geography Emmanuel Vigneron points out that six years of life expectancy are lost between Luxembourg and La Courneuve, a twenty-minute journey on the B.

The number of liberal specialists per 10,000 inhabitants is the most striking causal element of this increase in mortality in a few stations. The sixth and fifth arrondissements of Paris are the richest places in the Île-de-France. They benefit from a number of liberal specialists (such as gastrologists, rheumatologists, etc.) of 70 per 10,000 inhabitants, whereas the inhabitants of Le Courneuve have a number of 1.6 per 10,000 inhabitants, i.e. fifty times less.

In his book Les passagers du Roissy Express, published in 1989, the French writer François Maspero takes a journey along the RER B. Each day, accompanied by the photographer Anaïk Frantz, he sleeps in a new city served by the RER B. The journey lasts one month. For the 50th anniversary of the RER B, France Culture in La Série Documentaire proposes to repeat this journey thirty years later.

From the beginning, we are struck by the diversity within the B: in Roissy, tourists rub shoulders with working-class populations.

Contrary to what one might have expected with the creation of Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport, employment has progressed much more slowly along the RER B than in the rest of the Île-de-France.

Most of the time, it does not allow Seine-Saint-Denis to find employment, but rather other Île-de-France residents to go there to work. The inequalities are therefore still striking.

The RER B is plagued by the issue of flows, with one million passengers per day. It is the backbone of the Île-de-France region, connecting and serving all its inhabitants, without unfortunately reducing the social divide.

But thanks to the B, social inequalities in Île-de-France are visible. They cannot be dismissed out of hand. The RER B is a place to study Ile-de-France society, to which we must always refer to observe the progression of employment, wealth and access to healthcare.

To learn more, we recommend the podcast episode “RER B, Voyage Social” of La Série Documentaire