UNDER AN agreement reached with the European Commission in March 2005, the French government formally deregulated the domestic rail freight market on March 31. Largely symbolic at this stage, the move has considerable significance for the future of rail freight in Europe.

For SNCF, deregulation means that the final tranche of a €1·5bn state aid package for its freight business can be released. It also means the arrival, sooner or later, of serious competition. There are now six other operators in possession of safety certificates to run freight trains in France: Veolia Cargo, Europorte 2, rail4chem, B-Cargo, EWS International and CFL. Certificates will in future be issued by the Etablissement Public de Sécurité Ferroviaire (RG 2.06 p58).

Citing the need to limit the growth of road traffic, Transport Minister Dominique Perben flagged up rail freight deregulation and the launch of EPSF on March 29. As well as deregulation, he said the government was taking positive steps to encourage a transfer of freight traffic to rail.

Apart from the planned rolling motorway service between Perpignan and Luxembourg due to start in March 2007, the ministry is supporting plans to establish a rail freight centre serving Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle Airport. The government has asked RFF and SNCF to develop plans for the site to be served by TGV Cargo trains from 2010-11.

The idea is not new, but this time it has attracted interest from Air France, Aéroports de Paris, FedEx and the French post office. Stricter aircraft noise regulations and environmental pressures have led the postal service to investigate increased use of rail.

Meanwhile, the fall in rail freight has reduced the track access fees that SNCF pays to RFF, which is anxious to sign a new agreement covering future payments and arrangements for infrastructure maintenance. Announcing RFF’s financial results for 2005 on April 11, President Michel Boyon confirmed that RFF and SNCF had jointly submitted to the government their proposals to restore the French network to good order (RG 11.05 p663). n