’MAKING OUR customers smile’ was one objective in the package of short-term measures launched last autumn to try and halt the rot that is sapping the life out of SNCF’s freight business. Olivier Marembaud, appointed Deputy Director-General, Freight, in December, told the SNCF board on March 28 that ’significant results’ were already evident.Given the torrid performance of Fret SNCF in recent years, no customer is likely to be whooping with joy. But they can perhaps take some satisfaction from the knowledge that Marembaud has promised to tackle the fundamental issues avoided by his predecessor Marc V?ron.Marembaud must be well aware that his latest action plan has to succeed if SNCF is to remain in the rail freight business. In 2006 Fret losses amounted to around k260m, and this year’s budget sees the figure worsening to k349m. Of this, no less than k95m has been identified as directly attributable to the special employment and retirement conditions which apply to railway staff.So just what is in this latest action plan? First, on April 2, came the appointment of five regional freight directors reporting directly to Marembaud, their brief being to speed up decision-making and attune the business to customers’ needs. Second is the creation of Transport & Logistique Partenaires to group all SNCF’s different freight subsidiaries under one roof. TLP will be wholly owned by the holding company SNCF-Participations, and its objective will be to exploit the synergies that exist between the different companies.Third, and most significant, is a commitment to begin negotiations with the trade unions later this year on the sensitive topic of conditions of employment and related matters. Marembaud confirmed to Les Echos on March 30 that a 20% to 30% improvement in productivity is needed, warning that jobs would be lost, although without compulsory redundancies. The once-taboo subjects of job specifications and local pay negotiations will be among the topics up for discussion.There is much more besides, including plans to restore reliability to the wagonload business and cut costs. Marembaud has announced a commitment to work with customers to develop ’innovative solutions’ that match their needs. Partnerships with other operators are also envisaged to win traffic in international markets where SNCF’s new open-access competitors are already active.n