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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Le Train fou de la sous-traitance

by Marion d’Allard

SNCF: Safety has Derailed

The Crazy Train of Sub-contracting

Translated Saturday 14 December 2013, by Henry Crapo

At the heart of the policy of the SNCF and of the RFF concerning maintenance of the rail network, the practice of sub-contracting has assumed a major rôle. Yet the obsession with cost-reduction has at times dramatic consequences in terms of security. The railway workers denounce this practice.

On one hand, there are public relations, on the other, the facts: on one hand the reassuring announcements by the directors of the SNCF and RFF, on the other, the figures: 3188 kilometres of track at reduced speed for reasons of safety, that being 10% of the national network, plus 27,500 railway workers’ jobs eliminated in 10 years, of which 7,750 in equipment maintenance, 1,063 incidents affecting security detected on the national network in one year ... figures and dramatic events.

There was the derailing, last July 12, of the Inter-city train Paris-Limoges in the station at Bretigny-sur-Orge (Essonne), which caused 7 deaths, to be sure. But not just that. In 2012, in the context of work on the line Figeac-Aurillac, four employees of a sub-contracting firm were killed, carried off by a small wagon that was not of approved design. Last September 14, on the freight work site of Toulouse-Saint-Jory, during the night, an interim employee of Colas Rail (subsidiary of the group Colas, itself a subsidiary of Bouygues) died, electrocuted by a catenary. "One week later, some Moroccan workers, employed by a Spanish company, found themselves in the same situation, at the same spot, and it was the railway workers who dealt with the situation in emergency, to close the work site," reports Gilbert Garrel, general secretary of CGT Railway Workers.

The Politics of "Calculated Risk"

The alerts don’t date from yesterday. In 2005, an audit of the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne on the state of the French railway network already painted an alarming picture. Yet it took the disaster Brétigny to highlight what, for years, the railway workers had been denouncing. At the heart of the policy of the SNCF, dictated by neo-liberal imperatives of profitability and a strategic vision of downsizing of the so-called "status" railway workforce, the use of private contracting for work on the rails has become legion .

So much so that Frédéric Cuvillier, Minister of Transport, has taken up the issue , asking the officers of the SNCF and RFF to answer for their policy on the matter. Officially, the SNCF, as manager of a delegated infrastructure, works with "a hundred private companies," some of which 100% owned by SNCF. "The will of Guillaume Pepy (SNCF Director), on a more or less long term, is to make the SNCF a railway company without railway workers, just a manager of a myriad of private companies, 100% subsidiaries of SNCF or of others" says Rémy Baudot, of the equipment collective of CGT railway workers.

Eliminating local brigades, designed to intervene quickly in incidents, and merging them in large centers distant from one another, the director of the SNCF has chosen the policy of " calculated risk." To be clear, "where before we covered risks at 130%, we now struggle to reach 100 %," notes the CGT. Between 2007 and 2013 , 110 security sectors, each comprising several local brigades, were wiped off the map. In doing so, the direction of the SNCF took the dangerous decision to substitute a curative approach to security for an existing preventive approach.

"I have been working on the railways for thirty years, and I’ve seen the maintenance work force melt away, and outsourcing grow at full speed ," says a railway worker in Clermont- Ferrand . "A dozen years ago," he says , "a brigade was responsible for the supervision and maintenance of 20 km of track. Today, they are responsible for 50 km!" And when the local brigades are not deleted or merged, where their numbers were 5 to 6 per railway brigade, they are now no more than 2 or 3 in some areas. Worse, high security positions, such as those of announcers responsible for warning those working on the tracks when a train is about to pass, have been outsourced!

"The numbers have been so reduced that some missions, such as maintenence of the borders of the tracks are simply not carried out by anyone ," says a railway worker . Tree pruning, clearing undergrowth, snow plowing, tasks that were previously the responsibility of the railway workers, are now outsourced, at best, or at worst, ignored. "Last August , trees fell on a catenary of Paris-Clermont line. We had to stop a Téoz train and to ask 300 people to sleep on board, the time needed to collect the necessary teams to clear the tracks and to prune trees that threatened to fall, and all this at night!"

A method modestly called "key in hand"

Once provided exclusively by railway workers trained to face risks (electrical, chemical ... ), security and maintenance of the rail network is thus now increasingly in the hands of private providers "whose employees are often poorly trained, sometimes do not speak French, and therefore do not understand security standards," says Nathalie Bonnet, Federal Secretary SUD rail.

In its mad race to subcontracting , SNCF has developed, regarding work on the network, what they call closed working sites, that is to say, where the movement of trains is prohibited, and thus where there are no railway workers to control the work. The portion of the rails, and thus of the network, is reopened to traffic only after a visit, at the completion of construction, by teams from the SNCF. These teams are often forced to "re-do the work, for non-compliance of installations," as testified by several railway workers. And for good reason: platforms too short, trains rubbing, catenary loose, edges of roadbeds congested with rubble , rail ties without lag screws ... examples abound. "On 29 July , on the Creil-Beauvais line, a freight train struck two trees fallen on the road after a storm. Immediately an Infra team is dispatched to the scene (...) and discovered that lag screws and bolts are missing, while others are loose. Materials littering the surrounding area (a piece of rail, an attaché case, diesel oil), loose ties are found on a curve! A private company was sent to perform welding, and no visit was made at the end of the work, a method euphemistically called ’key in hand’ ", as revealed this summer by FO railway workers .

And in such a leading sector as the railway, such an incident can quickly turn to tragedy. It is an emergency situation for the SNCF, as demanded by unions, to change their priority. Because ultimately , asks Gilbert Garrel, "when talking about the famous ’price of labor’, what is the price of a life? " .

More liberalization ...

The law on railway reform, which plans to reassemble the RFF and SNCF in a single structure, is presented today [1] before the Council of Ministers. Yesterday, the Authority on Competition, in its very liberal manner, ruled that the reform does not sufficiently guarantee the independence of RFF vis-à- vis the SNCF. "The objectives of industrial integration and competition can join and produce their full effect if the independence of the infrastructure manager ( RFF) is preserved."

The Employees of Private Freight are on Unlimited Strike [2]

The employees of Euro Cargo Rail have been fighting for more than a week over their working conditions

"The conflict is entering its seventh day, and, for the moment, there is no sign that it is close to being over." Nicolas Soumirant, conductor of merchandise trains for Euro Cargo Rail (ECR) is on strike, as are 80% of his colleagues. An unlimited strike called by the CGT and the CFDT for "improved conditions of life and work for wage-earners, and guarantee of respect for reglementation of work", the CFDT makes clear in a communiqué.

A subsidiary of the German company DB Schenker Rail, itself property of Deutsche Bahn, Euro Cargo Rail has operated since 2005 on the French network, thanks to the liberalisation of the rail freight network. Profitability and productivity are the main aims; the directors of the company are betting that the degradation of working conditions will decrease the costs of production. Today, the workers denounce an internal social dialogue that has become "Arlésienne " [3]: "the absence of any veritable social negotiation has become a sore point for everyone."

The origin of the conflict was a new blow delivered by the management of Euro Cargo Rail to the empoyees with regard to their working conditions. In the framework of obligatory annual negotiations (NAO), management tried to place in question a clause signed in 2008 with the unions at the end of a union walkout.

"The CGT and the CFDT rightfully refuse to sign what constitutes a new social regression: to earn less while working more, and never to see the colour of their retirement, all this built on the famous ’German model’ ", explains Nicolas Soumirant. "They are asking us to be more and more available, but paid less and less. The management counts for example on subtracting from our working time the periods of travel to go to find a train; we are becoming the flying firemen of freight transport, and what’s more, they want to start gnawing away at our rest periods," he continues.

Those in the movement, mainly carried by the engine drivers, who make up more than half of the 1000 wage-earners of Euro Cargo Rail, are beginning today their seventh day on strike. "The management is adamant, refusing to negotiate anything at all while we are on strike", complains Nicolas Soumirant. "But we’re not going to budge, and the trains will remain stopped," he warns.

In the meanwhile, the strike lasts and is spreading; yesterday the operational center of ECR in Paris counted 90% of their personnel on strike.

"A Rail Network that is Thirty Years Behind in Terms of Maintenance ..." [4]

The secretary general of CGT Railway Workers, Gilbert Garrel, returns to the question of obsolescence of the national network, in line with the forced march into liberalisation of the sector.

Huma: What, today is the state of the national rail network?

Gilbert Garrel: The state of the network is as identified by the Polytechnical School in Lausanne in 2005, that is, a network that is thirty years behind in terms of maintenance. This doesn’t mean that security is no longer guaranteed, but the network is completely obsolete, abandoned since the 1980’s. Concretely, this means that more than 3000 kilometres of lines are today restricted to low velocity traffic, for reasons of security, and that on the traditional lines, notably for regional trains, users have a strong feeling of discomfort. The network is at its last limits of wear. The rail workers maintain it in its present state as best they can, but it needs, as has been clearly shown by all those involved, including the government, a profound renovation.

Huma: How did we end up in this situation?

Gilbert Garrel: In the 1980’s, we created the high speed lines (LGV), and this, with no financing by the state. The construction was financed by loans contracted by the SNCF alone. And when we got to the end of our possibility of credit, as is the case today, we realise that the choice of developing the LGV means abandoning the classic network in terms of renewal and maintenance.

Huma: The SNCF and RFF, with their logic of cost reduction, call more and more upon private enterprise. What are the consequences?

Gilbert Garrel: The SNCF and RFF are today confronted with flagrant contradictions. On one hand, the need to renew an obsolete network, which requires investments, and, on the other, a permanent logic of cost reduction. So the SNCF tries to do more and more work with fewer and fewer resources. Concretely, the policy is to call increasingly upon sub-contracting outfits, to make agents work to the limits of their productivity, to outsource certain expenses, to use workers with precarious jobs (CDD [5], interim, ...). For the CGT, these permanent economies that the SNCF and RFF seek to make are economies only in appearance. Actually, by using these means to reduce costs of production, the work is necessarily of lower quality, and often requires railway workers to repair the work done by private enterprise. We are there in a totally incoherent system, piloted only by the dogma of refusal to work with an adequate nmber of qualified and trained railway workers. The permanent objective of the SNCF is to reduce the work force of railway workers.

Huma: In parallel, Europe is pushing for a liberalisation of the sector, and the government is preparing a reform of the rail system. A system which is also out of breath?

Gilbert Garrel: Today, everyone realises that the separation of the SNCF and the RFF is not working. The RFF was created, they say, to solve the problem of debt, and of modernisation of the network. In fact, the creation of the RFF did neither. The network has deteriorated and the debt has increased. Behind the scenes, there is the objective of opening the system to competition, and the SNCF is organised into compartmentalised activities, which was supposed to render the system more efficient. Once again, this has not been the case. And today, the SNCF has called upon outside companies, because we are no longer capable of doing our work. The SNCF, the RFF, the unions, the politicians, everyone knows the present system is not working. The reform phase of the railway system that we know today should be the occasion to reflect upon the problem, and to improve things. Unfortunately, this reform, as it is presented, does not reconsider this compartmentalised organisation of the SNCF, makes no propositions concerning the debt, does not finance the system, does not reopen the question of reduction of manpower, of disqualifications, of calls for sub-contracting, practices of the SNCF which have continued already for decades.

The CGT has launched its own propositions in the public arena. We demand the reunification of the system, paying the debt, even partially, which would permit investment also in terms of manpower and in terms of material, properly to advance the necessary renovation.

[116 October 2013. This article appeared in l’Humanité on 16 October, but was not translated at that time. We publish it in English now, the subject still being more than timely.

[3Lots of talk, no action.

[5contracts of fixed duration

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