FRENCH National Railways announced on April 28 that the plan to rescue its rail freight business is showing early results.

Deputy Managing Director, Freight, Marc Véron said the objective was to achieve 3% annual growth from 2007 onwards. Since the start of implementation at the end of last year, the main elements of the plan had been put in place. These included the establishment of five main corridors where traffic can be concentrated, the launch of 12 out of 24 ’conveyor belts’ for specific flows, and the setting up of 11 out of 12 zones at the operational level to allow a closer relationship with customers. Furthermore, 400 diesel locos had been ordered at a cost of €850m, 160 freight depots were covered by a new information system, and the test phase for a customer service centre had been completed.

Revenue and tonne-km to the end of March were holding at similar levels to last year, and the number of trains departing late had been halved. Wagon turnrounds for scrap metal traffic have been reduced by 48% to 15·9 days, and one category of steel wagon was achieving a similar reduction to 12·3 days. Train load factors had increased by 4·8%, and rolling stock productivity was up by 10% for the same level of traffic.

SNCF President Louis Gallois felt these results were ’encouraging’, a view endorsed on May 14 by Transport Secretary François Goulard who said that the plan is ’in line with forecasts’. To criticisms about price rises, Goulard responded that ’true pricing needed to be imposed’, suggesting that many prices had been too low in the past. Following a protest strike on May 13, seven unions wrote to Gallois demanding the start of ’real negotiations’ on restructuring the freight business. Truly, this will be a long haul.