INTRO: French Transport Minister Dominique Perben has authorised higher government spending on track renewals, and is putting in place a performance contract with RFF to ensure the money is spent effectively. Murray Hughes reports from Orléans

HISTORY was made in 1967 on the Les Aubrais - Vierzon section of the Paris - Toulouse main line. SNCF had chosen this to be the first part of the French network to carry trains at 200 km/h in regular service, and on May 28 that year Le Capitole was launched amid great fanfare, cutting 40min off the Paris - Toulouse timings.

History was made again in the same place on May 22 2006, when French Transport Minister Dominique Perben inspected a track renewals worksite at Saint-Jean-le-Blanc, just south of Orléans, choosing the occasion to announce what he called ’a turning point in the railway policy we have followed for the last 20 years’.

He was responding to proposals submitted by RFF and SNCF on March 29 calling for higher spending on renewals to allow a reduction in maintenance costs over the long term.

This had been triggered by an audit on the condition of the 29500 route-km network commissioned in September 2004 from a group of independent experts led by Professor Robert Rivier of the école Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.

Rivier had concluded that urgent measures were needed to halt deterioration of the network, putting forward three scenarios ranging from ’no change’, leading to possible closure of 60% of the network, to an optimistic annual renewals spend of over €3bn (RG 11.05 p663). RFF’s and SNCF’s response, at the ministry’s direction, was based on the third scenario.

Further warnings of the gravity of the situation came on October 14 last year and February 25 this year when two locomotive-hauled passenger trains derailed on secondary lines, the cause being attributed in both cases to the poor condition of the track.

Putting right past neglect

The problem stems from cutbacks in renewals over the last 25 years. Whereas more than 1000 km of track were renewed annually during the 1970s, the total fell to less than 500 km a year in the 1980s (Fig 1), and just 420 km were renewed in 2005. The audit noted that the TGV network and most main lines were kept in good condition, but that many secondary routes had been badly neglected with no renewals carried out for many years.

As RFF President Michel Boyon said in his welcome speech on May 22, ’like everything else, railways grow old. We have to remedy the effects of ageing and not only that, we have to prevent them.’

Perben responded by announcing a package of measures that will see renewals progressively stepped up, ’reflecting an ambition to progress and a faith in the future of our rail network’. The programme starts with the release this year of an additional €70m of government funding which will be augmented by a further €40m from RFF and SNCF. The total of €110m will be used to remove or prevent the imposition of temporary speed restrictions on the busier parts of RFF’s secondary network. Documents made available on May 22 reveal that €40m will be spent on eliminating 55 TSRs totalling 684 km in 2006-07.

In 2007 additional funds for renewals will rise to €260m, increasing to €600m in 2010 (Table I); nearly half will be funded directly by the government. The €260m in 2007 will be funded by a grant of €92m, plus €46m from the Transport Infrastructure Finance Agency (Afitf) which will take over some investment projects previously handled by RFF such as the installation of GSM-R; RFF will contribute €90m from the sale or transfer of assets, with €12m raised through savings on tracks not used for commercial services, together with €20m from SNCF.

In following years there will be further grants and more funds made available through Afitf, but RFF will also contribute from track access charges, the calculation of which is likely to be revised to a more sophisticated formula following completion of a study starting in June by the Inspection Générale des Finances and the Conseil Générale des Ponts et Chaussées. Further sales of assets no longer required will provide additional funds, while savings through productivity gains and the elimination of unused trackage are expected to produce the remainder.

Perben said that the renewals programme should be managed ’within the framework of a multi-year contract between the state and RFF for 2007-10. This will clarify the commitments made by each party.’ It will also allow a close watch to be kept on RFF’s performance and its progress in raising productivity of staff and assets, tasks which Boyon promised would be given all of RFF’s attention. Perben expects the contract to be signed ’early in 2007’.

The contract will put maintenance and renewals policy on a fresh footing with controls built in to measure improvements made to the network. A ’reference condition’ will be established by RFF and SNCF with objectives defined for service levels by type of route (Table II). It is intended to oblige RFF to modernise working methods and to manage its costs more effectively, while existing agreements between RFF and SNCF covering maintenance and operations will be revised to take account of the new priorities. Economic and financial controls will be made stronger with the aim of improving the return from each euro that is spent.

Five key tasks

In return for its generosity, the government is stipulating that specific action is taken to reduce costs. Perben said that there would be five key tasks to be undertaken as a priority: