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Politics

ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: SNCF 1937-2007. Un anniversaire au goût amer

by Pierre-Henri Lab

SNCF 1937-2007.

Translated Friday 21 September 2007, by Jonathan Pierrel

The SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français - French National Railway Company), which celebrates its seventieth anniversary this year, is going through a major restructuring programme. Profitability concerns override public services.

What will be the next subject at the ministry of the environment? The future of bullfights? The reintroduction of bears in the Pyrenees? In any case, many people wonder about the actual impact of the presidential election regarding transport policies. Even though this sector is responsible for most of greenhouse gases in France, the French government increases its actions which favour road usage to the detriment of rail usage. Between the non-respect of the government commitments which threatens the project of the Lyon-Turin line, the speeding restructuring process within the SNCF and the decisions in favour of the lorry industry taking shape, associations, the town councillors and the trade unions who are invited to think about measures to reduce climate change will be facing a government policy already well lined up.

Freight restructuring programme

Created in 1937, the SNCF celebrates its seventieth anniversary but the birthday cake has a bitter taste for rail supporters. Now plunged in a competitive sector, facing colossal debts in the rail industry and the disengagement of the government, the rail company has undergone a dramatic transformation in which profitability overrides public services little by little. The new restructuring programme in the freight, which should end up with the closure of 262 train stations, isolated wagons, the likely potential of laying off large numbers of people – is symptomatic of that new management. To balance the budget, what is not financially profitable is left aside and there is a withdrawal into niches with a high added value. “Making profit is the main theme of the management of the SNCF,” announce the trade unions.

Transport of passengers does not escape to this deadly logic regarding public services. The development of the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse – high-speed train) absorbs most of the funds available. The TER (Transport express régional) expansion has been possible only with huge investments made by the regions. The maintenance of the less profitable Corail trains is threatened. All this is accompanied by a realignment challenge between the different activities. On this issue, the end of rate per mile that the SNCF should announce on 11 September to reveal its new policies is nothing else than the latest manifestation.

Right to transportation challenged

If this management allows the SNCF to improve its financial situation (and it has been the case for the last two years), it challenges the citizen’s right to transportation. Deterioration of the service quality, of the working conditions and the weakening of the security are the consequences of the financial choices of the board of the national company and of the government. The consequences are also disastrous for the environment. Between 2000 and 2006, the SNCF freight decreased from 55 to 40 billion of tons by kilometres transported each year. Only 1% of the lost traffic has been captured by its competitors. The rest has been transferred to roads.

The withdrawal of the freight activity in the state-owned company has been accompanied by decisions favourable to the lorry industry. In July, the minister of ecology, Jean-Louis Borloo, has renewed traffic authorisations for 44-ton lorries on an “experimental” pretext. This decision goes with the demands of the FNTR (Fédération nationale du transport routier – National Federation of the lorry industry) which has recently asked again that lorries’ capacity should be raise to 44 tons instead of 40. The lorry industry does not lack cynicism when it presents its measure as a means to preserve the environment because it is meant to “reduce the number of lorries on the roads.” This statement is a matter of trick as it is known that transportation of goods should increase of 40% by 2040.

The President of the Republic, who has recently claimed he would transfer 25% of the road freight to the rail transport by 2025, is in fact a supporter of road transports. This statement sheds a different light on the minimum service bill and it substantiates the trade unions theory that the only aim of this bill is to muzzle the social movement.


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