WITH the European Commission watching closely following its approval of the French government’s €1·5bn aid package (RG 4.05 p181), SNCF Freight Director Marc Véron is anxious to make progress in turning round his business. Also looking over his shoulder is hopeful operator CFTA Cargo and other private-sector companies waiting for their chance to run their own services on the French network.

The omens for a successful turnround are not good. In the first quarter of the year SNCF’s freight tonne-km are reported to have been around 10% lower than forecast and 15% down against the same period in 2004, not least because there were strikes in 10 out of the first 13 weeks of the year, inevitably leading to some customers deserting rail. Explaining to Le Figaro last month that it took eight to 10 days to return to normal after a dispute, Véron acknowledged that once customers switch to road haulage, ’they do not come back’.

Véron affirmed that his immediate task was to reorganise the business in an attempt to raise productivity by 20% this year. ’A locomotive’, he said, is used for just 41/2 h a day’ - truly a lamentable figure. He said that staff will have to be more flexible, a prospect that no doubt has already generated protests from trade union members who have yet to see the writing on the wall.

When SNCF reorganised its freight business in late 2003, intermodal was missing from the action plan. Last year SNCF and its subsidiaries CNC and Novatrans lost a total of €115m on intermodal traffic, and on March 29 the transport ministry revealed details of proposals designed to allow break-even of intermodal services in 2007.

The main proposal is to concentrate flows on fewer routes, and from June 15 terminals at Clermont-Ferrand, Tours, Grenoble, Hendaye and Toulouse will cease to be served by CNC and Novatrans. Transport Secretary Francois Goulard told Les Echos that six terminals at Le Havre, Dijon, Strasbourg, Vesoul, Sète and Rennes would remain in use, although RFF has been instructed to call tenders for new terminal operators. SNCF is under an instruction to improve the performance of its intermodal services so that 95% arrive at their destination within 30min of their schedule, while it must also open up the share capital of CNC and Novatrans to permit other companies to enter the business - this process must be complete by the end of the year. n