A BOOK entitled La Machine Infernale published by Le Cherche Midi has ruffled the feathers of everyone involved in railways in France. Written by Nicolas Beau, a journalist with the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchainé, Marc Fressoz of La Vie du Rail and Laurence Dequay, a writer for the magazine Marianne, the book contains a trainload of criticism of French National Railways. No-one comes out of it well, not even the authors, whose text is marred by several factual errors.
The book attacks everyone who has a role in SNCF policy and practice, from transport ministers to ticket collectors. More than anything, the book is an indictment of successive French governments who allowed a situation to develop at SNCF where management is effectively unable to manage.
Perhaps most surprising is the book's disparagement of the TGV concept and the TGV network. While there is no doubt that political considerations influenced the routes and SNCF engineers did campaign to implement their technology, the authors have nothing to say about the spin-off benefits of high speed rail in France and elsewhere. They are right to attack SNCF's questionable siting of intermediate TGV stations such as Haute Picardie and to highlight alleged corruption in the awarding of civil engineering contracts, but disparagement of the technology allowing trains to run at 300 km/h is uncalled for.
The authors have plenty to say about the militant trade unions and their stranglehold on policy since the government caved in to their demands after a month-long strike in December 1995. They also savage successive SNCF bosses and have no kind words for the current President Louis Gallois. Swayed by governments of different political persuasions and struggling to implement change with a softly, softly approach to the unions, Gallois faces an impossible task.
Drawing heavily on a report from the Cour des Comptes, a government body in charge of checking how state funds are spent, the authors lambast SNCF's financial performance. They draw attention to the disastrously-weak freight business, which the Gallois team is desperately trying to resurrect. What they utterly fail to do is to offer any constructive suggestions or a feasible way forward.