France's national railway operator announced on Tuesday evening that it was abandoning the gigantic and controversial project to transform the Gare du Nord in Paris, citing "unbearable deviations", particularly in terms of cost.
The redesign had been conceived with Ceetrus, a subsidiary of the Auchan supermarket chain.
"In view of the unsustainable deviations from the contractual commitments, SNCF Gares & Connexions "can only note the serious failure of its concessionaire and declare its withdrawal", the SNCF subsidiary responsible for stations said in a statement.
The project was to triple the surface area of Europe's largest station in preparation for the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games, to be held in the French capital.
Following the SNCF's announcement, Paris City Council called for "no further postponement of the modernisation and renovation of the station".
"We are available and willing to undertake a new renovation project for the Gare du Nord that will serve everyday users, urban integration and intermodality," Emmanuel Grégoire, first deputy mayor, said in a statement.
Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari told BFMTV on Wednesday morning that the government has asked the SNCF "to rethink a project, but much smaller in scale — in the order of €50 million — in order to make improvements and meet the challenges of 2023 and 2024".
SNCF Gares & Connexions had been warned in July that the projected cost of the work had slipped, bringing the bill to more than €1.5 billion, compared to the €500 million still envisaged at the end of 2020, and that there was a "considerable delay" preventing it from being completed by the 2024 Olympics as initially planned.
After abandoning the project with Ceetrus, SNCF Gares & Connexions is now promising "rapid adaptation of the Gare du Nord to the challenges" of the Rugby World Cup in 2023 and the Olympic Games in 2024.
It is also committed to "designing a new transformation project (...) drawn up in close consultation with the public players concerned".
The concession was awarded to SA Gare du Nord 2024 (StatioNord), a joint venture formed by the real estate company Ceetrus (66%), a subsidiary of Auchan — responsible for the design, works and financing — and SNCF Gares & Connexions.
In the initial version of the transformation project, the Gare du Nord was to have a total surface area of 124,000 square metres with an additional 88,000 square metres, of which nearly half would be devoted to an auditorium, cultural facilities, a sports hall as well as shops and offices.
The project had been the subject of a long polemic with the Paris City Council, which had judged it to be too commercial and disconnected from the neighbourhood, even though it had originally approved it.
In September 2020, some twenty renowned architects, including Jean Nouvel and Roland Castro, denounced an "unacceptable" and "pharaonic" project in a column published by the daily Le Monde, calling for it to be "rethought from top to bottom".
A less ambitious version of the project was adopted in November which reduced the surface area of shops and services by 15% (or about 7,500 square metres) and removed the auditorium.
The timetable also pushed back the project's deadlines.
It provided for a reconfiguration of the Eurostar terminal before the Rugby World Cup in September 2023, and the delivery of the new departure terminal for June 2024, just in time for the Olympic Games.
But the inauguration of the new complex was no longer expected before 2025.
More than 700,000 people pass through the Gare du Nord every day "and 900,000 are expected by 2030", said Aude Landy-Berkowitz, chairman of the board of StatioNord, in January.