Encore la France en grève


By Chris Elliott

Whereas the current spate of rail strikes may be little more than an irritation to readers of Languedoc Living, it may be of interest and worthwhile setting out what the government intends to bring into force by a system of decrees.

First, the contract of employment that railwaymen and women enjoy today dates back to the age of steam when drivers, firemen and locomotive cleaners had to work long hours in difficult, strenuous and dirty conditions, and by the time they reached the age of 50 they were likely to be no longer fit to work, so retirement at 50 became the norm. Likewise life expectancy was a lot lower.

Jump now to 2018, the conditions of work are radically different and changing at a rate of knots, so the government and the French tax payers are saying enough is enough, so these out dated contracts have to come to an end.

Then comes SNCF’s massive debt of over 50 billion euros which right now the government wants to eliminate but cannot do it overnight as the French budget deficit is already outside of what the EU allows.

All of the TGV High speed lines have been built on borrowed money. What is also lost sight of, is that whereas the government builds, maintains and pays for all of the roads except the toll motorways, the railways however pay to use the track, so a comparison is not valid.

So the new Macron government commissioned two analyses and reports.

The conclusions are that no new high speed lines should be built for the next few years. The underused cross country lines should be transferred to the regions that can go ahead and privatise, and one of the reports even went as far as suggesting the all of these loss making lines should be closed.

The government, in any event, has to comply with an EU directive, and that means privatisation by 2019-2022.

The freight section of SNCF loses money and has been losing market share for the past few years.

One can stand in Béziers station and watch the private sector freight trains pass with a German Railways DB red coloured electric locomotives in charge, others hauled by Europort, VFLI and our local private rail freight company Regio Rail.

The government intends to convert SNCF into what they call an epic (a Public Company with shareholders) with the government holding a majority of the shares.

Some two weeks ago the weekly rail newspaper/ magazine ‘La vie du Rail’ published a review of what is happening out there on these little used country lines.

That analysis is interesting and tells of unsuitable train times, trains not being used for large parts of the day, inappropriately times so no competition for those who need to travel for work, education or even tourism.

One only has to take a look at the Béziers to Bédarieux line in Hérault to see that there are no late evening trains for those wanting to spend an evening in Béziers.

And dare one say it; the trains are not fit for purpose. There are out of date refurbished stock with no wi-fi and not of the standard being used elsewhere in other countries such Germany, Spain, the Czech Republic and Italy, not to mention Switzerland.

RENFE Spain’s national railway company operated a very limited service of two returns per day in between Llerida and Pobla el Segur in the foothills of the Pyrenees. (The line between Llerida and Pobla el Segur is the only part of a line destined to be built between Baeza in Southern Spain and St Girons in France. It was part of the Chemins de Fer du Midi and the Spanish Norte’s plans. Both of these railway companies had a Rothschild’s participation and the same French founders the Pereire brothers. The part of the line between Baeza and just north of Teruel was started, the stations were built but the track never laid as Franco decided that it was no longer appropriate in Spain’s difficult economic times.) The service was taken over by FGC, the Catalonian Railway Company, they went out and bought new Stadler built trains equipped with all of today’s modern equipment wi-fi, access for those of reduced mobility. They then offered six return runs per day and introduced a train-bus-tram all-purpose ticket. The number of passengers went up by 170% in the first twelve months.

Stadler is in effect a very successful Swiss train builder with subsidiaries all over Europe west and east. They bought the former Vossloh train building works near Valencia, and started to build the latest state of the art trains, locomotives, electric and diesel plus commuter trains. They export and the UK has bought series of locomotives from them. In France the motto is buy French!

I suspect that when the reginal directors of SNCF, say that there is no demand one must assume that none of them have heard of the word “offer”, or “marketing” and I guess that they forget that when coca cola was first invented someone had to go out there, market it and generate a demand.

I am sure that if a train is close by and at the right times then people will get out of their car and take the train.

As the current wave of railway strikes continue with a slow but gradual return to work by those railway employees who cannot afford to lose pay when the summer hols’ are not far off, we can expect to see a whole raft of changes, but our local High Speed Line from Montpellier to Béziers and Perpignan seems that it will not be built for the foreseeable future.

For those who knock British Railways, it is, according to a survey carried out by Lausanne University, the reverse of SNCF. Train passenger numbers experiencing a big increase and overcrowding becoming the norm, and even some of the Beeching Cuts are being reinstated. Network Rail has launched its five year plan announcing some £47bn of investment in Great Britain’s Rail system to bring it well and truly into the 21st century with the abolition of traditional signalling system, conversion to modern digital train control, new trains, increasing capacity and reducing delays.

* * *
Chris Elliott author of ‘The Lost Railway Lines of l’Hérault’ ‘Medloc Show me the way to go home 1945 -1955’ and joint author of ‘Night Ferry 1936 – 1980’
Chris can be contacted at christopher.elliott@club-internet.fr

Photo one – A 1980s built TER en-route to Béziers approaching Magalas

Photo two – The latest commuter Stadler built diesel train on test at Balaguer Station