IN A MESSAGE signed by President Louis Gallois to be published in French newspapers on December 18, French National Railways announced the sale of Fr20 day tickets for travel within specified regions over the Christmas period. It was a gesture of reconciliation to passengers who have had their patience severely tested in recent weeks as various factions of the SNCF workforce have withdrawn their labour in a series of long-running disputes.

While trouble has bubbled below the surface ever since the previous government’s disastrous climbdown when faced with railway workers marching through Paris in December 1995, serious trouble started on November 23 when strikes were staged by railway staff in Belgium, France, Greece, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain. They were protesting at the plans by European Transport Commissioner Neil Kinnock to open up to 25% of the rail freight market to competition in the next 10 years. While it is far from clear how this will be implemented, the concept has caused widespread concern among Europe’s rail managers. The French government too has made clear that it will fight the concept, putting SNCF management in a somewhat tricky position.

Apart from anything else, SNCF’s traffic and revenue figures forecast for 1998 (p47) took a hefty knock as management grappled with striking revenue protection staff, the government’s plans for a 35h week, and a debate triggered by President Chirac on minimum levels of public service and the right to strike. Gallois was staking his hopes on negotiations that got under way in mid-December in which he hoped to reach agreement on ’moderation of wages’, productivity issues and implementing the 35h week across the board. With the trades unions demanding the creation of additional posts, 1999 will be a tough year perhaps best judged by the result of a union-management summit scheduled for this month. The price to be paid for disruption is high, and SNCF may find that competition comes from an unexpected quarter. Intermodal operator CNC, which is 75% owned by SNCF, is considering becoming a licensed railway company so that it can run its own trains.