OFFICIAL confirmation of the disarray threatening the smooth operation of the French national railway came on July 8 with the publication of Train de Réformes, a highly critical parliamentary report drawn up for the Commission des Finances.
SNCF is not having a good summer. Recent weeks have seen computer malfunctions cripple the ticketing and reservations system; power cuts have halted Paris suburban services as unions protest about plans to privatise electricity supplier EDF; SNCF’s own staff are up in arms over pay and perceived threats to their special status; the freight business is failing to recover from a disastrous loss of traffic and revenue, not least because of industrial action; a row over access charges with infrastructure owner RFF is being aired in public; and regional authorities are raging over proposals to axe loss-making cross-country Corail services.
Taken together, these are symptomatic of many of the problems addressed in Train de Réformes, which sets out to ’clarify the financial relationships between the railway and its state partners’. Issues tackled by Rapporteur Hervé Mariton include precisely what the railway costs the taxpayer, who is in charge of it and what its objectives are. Of greatest concern is ’the grave financial situation’ that includes ’a colossal debt’ of more than €41bn in 2003, split three ways between SNCF (k7·1bn), RFF (k25·4bn) and a body called SAAD (k8·8bn), set up in 1991 to ease SNCF’s financial burden. The report refers to ’incredibly complex, obscure and uncertain’ financial transactions, and laments the lack of a ’coherent economic model, adding that the ’financial abyss of freight’ and the difficulties of funding regional and inter-regional trains cannot be ignored.
The report puts forward 36 recommendations, the first of which is to put the financial relationships between the state and the SNCF on to a contractual footing requiring the railway to make commitments from which it cannot escape by pleading problems with industrial conflict or the state of the economy. Other proposals include a ban on public confrontation between SNCF and RFF, as the rivalry between the two organisations is ’unacceptable and absurd’. Recommendations include debt management measures, the use of international norms for accounting and the application of proper analytical accounting to the freight business, higher fares to reflect the cost of new investment, a single organisation to run stations, and experiments to open up regional passenger services to competition.
Much of this is anathema to the political interests that for too long have held sway over the management of the national railway. The government is now surely obliged to face up to the serious problems outlined in Train de Réformes. A pointer to its intentions came with the publication on July 21 of a report by a group of experts, headed by Dieudonné Mandelkern, about proposals to guarantee minimum levels of service during industrial disputes. Predictably, the CGT trade union branded it as ’a restriction on the right to strike’.