INTRO: Track renewals would be cheaper and more efficient on the French national network if private sector contractors were allowed a larger share of the work

MANY FRENCH people remember December 1995. In that month a long-running industrial dispute at French National Railways erupted into a full-blown strike. Paris was all but paralysed. Faced with relentless pressure from French railwaymen demanding that they retain their special status, the government of the day caved in. The strikers were rewarded by their conditions of employment remaining unchanged. For example, drivers with 15 years on the footplate and 25 years employment at SNCF kept their entitlement to retire at 50 and draw a full pension.

In the wake of the strike, the government came up with an ingenious restructuring of SNCF, killing three birds with one stone. First, it allowed the government to demonstrate that it was doing something about the industrial relations problem.

At the same time the considerable debt SNCF had incurred building high speed lines was transferred to a newly-established infrastructure company with a lower media profile, Réseau Ferré de France. According to Jean Lux, Deputy Director and Head of Service Operations & Maintenance at RFF, the company’s debt at the end of 1999 was Fr180bn, and he hoped to see this reduced to Fr153m by the end of 2001.

Third, the reshuffle ensured at least nominal compliance with European Directive 91/440 requiring the separation of accounts for infrastructure and operations.

Maintenance and renewals

RFF contracts back to SNCF the maintenance of the 29012 km network under a lump-sum contract that is renegotiated every year. Apart from maintenance, the contract covers monitoring of the maintenance work, traffic management and the drawing up of timetables.

RFF also has an agreement with SNCF covering investment and renewal work. According to Lux, renewals spending in 2000 was Fr4·3bn, of which Fr3·2bn was renewal of track, Fr600m covered work on viaducts and other civil engineering structures, and Fr250m was spent on signalling and a further Fr250m on power supplies.

Lux points to a study recently completed for RFF that sought to determine the most cost-effective balance between renewals and maintenance. Based on a 100-year life for the track and a 15000 route-km network - equivalent to those SNCF routes used by more than 10 trains a day - the study calculated a ’life cost’ for the track and concluded that ’we should renew a little more and maintain a little less’. Lux feels that the network is ’in rather good condition’, but that the cost of keeping it so is too high: ’we are always asked to spend less’, he says.

Most of the maintenance is carried out directly by SNCF, with only 10% subcontracted to private sector companies. Major track renewals, on the other hand, are let out to two contractor groups, Européenne de Travaux, formed of Cogifer (50%) and Spie Batignolles (50%), and Desquenne et Giral.

Whereas SNCF had in the past encouraged private contractors to train staff in preparation for more work, the volume of work available for the private sector has been cut. Of 174000 staff at SNCF, around 36000 are employed on maintenance tasks. Cogifer TFChairman Henri Dehé says that private contractors employ just 3600 staff for maintenance and renewal work, and this includes work on private sidings, metro and tram networks - less than two-thirds of them are employed on contracts for SNCF.

Dehé says that SNCF has in recent years acquired 50 tampers, and complains that ’it is very grave for us to see SNCF buying new machines in the last 10 years while our own machines are not well used’. He also complains that labour is paid at the rate of Fr100 to Fr120/hour, although SNCF bills its contractors at Fr270/hour.

In the past, private contractors maintained about 700 track-km a year, but now only handle 350 track-km, with SNCF doing the rest ’at about four to five times the cost of private contractors’. Not only that, but many of the jobs given by SNCF to the contractors are small, and in many cases all that is required is to supply labour. ’We are not given the design and conception of the work’, laments Dehé.

Worse, the price of track maintenance machinery is higher than it need be as ’you can’t order a tamper in Germany and use it in France because the SNCF specification does not allow it. This hinders competition and keeps prices up for spurious safety reasons’, he says, pointing out that there are no more accidents in France than in Germany, Italy or Great Britain.

More efficient renewals needed

Renewal contracts are let on the basis that SNCF supplies the machinery and materials, and arranges possessions that are nominally 8h. In practice, says Dehé, at best 6h of work is possible, with 4h being common. This is partly because access to worksites is more difficult following closure or lifting of loops and sidings at intermediate stations, meaning that much time is wasted travelling to and from the worksites.

There are typically 200 to 250 staff on a renewals site, and machines required include one ballast cleaner, a sleeper changing unit, up to five tampers, one dynamic stabiliser, two ballast ploughs, and up to 20 locomotives for hauling materials and ballast trains. All this represents an investment cost of around Fr350m.

The high-output machinery machinery is designed to achieve work rates of up to 1600m/shift, but typical output is 1000m/shift. In some cases, for example on complex sites in the Paris suburbs, only 400m a shift is achieved. Dehé considers it ’a waste of money to use big machines that cannot operate to their full potential - it would be better to use less sophisticated machines.’

Around 400 track-km are renewed every year, but with sites spread all over France the contractors find it hard to manage their machines efficiently. ’We have to move around a lot’, remarks Dehé. One of the problems is that machines are moved between worksites by SNCF at no charge to the contractor. ’This gives quite a false impression, as by not taking money for the job, they do not feel responsible, so you find that a machine being taken from Lille to Lyon is found in Bordeaux - this happens quite a lot.’

Dehé says that pilotmen are used to move the machines around but it is far from unknown for a pilotman to finish his hours of duty and leave the machine stranded. He suggests this is symptomatic of the need to ’put the SNCF house in order’, but he is concerned that there is no will to do so. He recognises that SNCF has many ’very competent people’, but ’those responsible are not in command’ because the railway is still suffering from the consequences of the 1995 disruption. ’Gallois’ mission is to avoid a strike.’

Dehé notes that in Germany several contractors work on the same renewal site, each undertaking a different task. In France, one contractor group handles the whole renewal process, and Dehé says that this means ’very interesting prices for SNCF’.

Dehé bemoans the fact that the contractors are not responsible for supplying materials to site. ’We would advance quicker if we could provide and order the materials’. SNCF delivers the materials to a station near the worksite, and the contractors collect it from there, a process which Dehé considers inefficient. He also says ’it is a pity we do not negotiate possession times and conditions, as if we could do this we could reduce the price’.

TGV Méditerranée

As an example of the problems his contractors face, Dehé cites the just-completed TGV Méditerranée construction programme. Tracklaying was subcontracted to private companies, but SNCF was responsible for the logistics, including supply of ballast and materials and provision of around 20 locomotives.

The target was to lay around 1400m of track a day. This requires efficient organisation of logistics to ensure that ballast, sleepers and rail are delivered to site at the correct times. Dehé reports that SNCF ’was quite incapable of meeting the requirement - for the first time SNCF was not up to the job, and it was an ongoing disaster’. Specifically, ’we needed six trains a day of ballast, but we were only getting 31/2, and we never caught up. We had to work twice as fast as required, and it was the same for the catenary erection companies.’ The problem was that there were insufficient sidings for the ballast trains, and while ’we were able to put this right’, it led to ’a bad atmosphere’. This, he says, ’was a new experience for us that illustrates that things are not improving’.

Dehé hopes that the situation will get better with construction of TGV-Est, on which civil engineering work starts this year. He hopes that RFF will let the tracklaying contracts directly, with work starting in 2004 to allow opening in 2006.

CAPTION: Private contractors were responsible for laying the trackwork on TGV Méditerranée, as seen here in the new station serving Aix-en-Provence, but they experienced problems with SNCF in charge of supply logistics