FREIGHT TRAFFIC on French National Railways has begun to grow again, with this year’s target of 53·8 billion tonne-km now looking attainable following 9% growth in the first half year compared with 1999. The positive trend continued through the summer, and Freight Director Francis Rol-Tanguy is particularly pleased that intermodal traffic has resumed its upward trend with an 11% improvement for the first half of the year. The next stage will be to build traffic to 60 billion tonne-km in 2002, a small step on the way to the government’s declared objective of rail carrying 100 billion tonne-km by 2010. Fret SNCF is considering an order for 124 diesel locos and wants delivery of its 120 dedicated electric units at the rate of five a month from 2002.

Last year SNCF carried 861·3 million passengers compared with 786·5 million in 1996. This trend is expected to continue, and an order signed on October 5 for 22 more double-deck TGVs (p695) confirmed SNCF’s willingness to continue investing in its high speed network as testing got under way on the first completed section of TGV Méditerranée south of Avignon. Last month should have seen the start of consultations and preliminary design for the 60 km TGV extension from Nîmes to Montpellier, while on October 16 the Champagne-Ardenne region voted to commit Fr276m towards the TGV Est project, taking that scheme another small step nearer construction.

After investing Fr5·1bn last year, SNCF expects this year’s total to reach Fr6·4 bn, and President Louis Gallois hopes to push up the spend to Fr9·5bn without increasing the company’s debts. Infrastructure company RFF and the government signed a contract with the Centre region on October 12 that envisages reactivation of the Chartres - Orléans line at a cost of Fr420m, and Fr370m has been earmarked for electrification at 25 kV 50Hz between Tours and Vierzon by 2004-05. This will help upgrade the Nantes - Lyon cross-country main line, and a further Fr300m may buy wires to fill another unelectrified gap from Bourges to Saincaize.

A programme of major works has been drawn up to improve inter-suburb rail services in greater Paris, with the government and the Ile-de-France region allocating Fr8·6bn for 2001-06. Plans include upgrading of the Sartrouville - Noisy-le-Sec freight route through the northern suburbs for passenger traffic, with four new stations. To the west, a long-planned project to develop the north-south line from Achères to St-Nom-la-Bretèche, Noisy-le-Roi and Versailles will be implemented, and a major inter-suburb route will be developed on a west to southeast axis between Versailles, Massy-Palaiseau, Evry and Melun. Around Fr1·6bn will be made available for new rolling stock.

Despite the encouraging rise in investment, France’s militant railway trade unions are not content. Staff are aware that the fortunes of their employer are improving as the economy grows, and a belief that they should share in the gain was one reason why over 80 % of drivers and on-board ticket inspectors took part in a one day strike on September 21. In fact, fewer working man-days are being lost because of industrial action: SNCF says the number of lost days has come down from over 1 million in 1995 to 180000 in 1998, 54000 in 1999 and ’only’ 27989 for the first six months of this year.

In the meantime, SNCF is taking on more staff. Largely to cope with the introduction of a 35h working week, around 25000 staff are being recruited between January 1999 and January 2002. By August this year the total had reached nearly 15000, many of them aged between 18 and 30 to support government policy on reducing unemployment. That may be all very well for Communist Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot, but it is quite wrong for the government to use the national railway as a political tool in this way. This is simply because the same government, or its successor, will suddenly find that it can no longer afford to provide lavish public funding for its expensive national railway.