TWO WEEKS of industrial action by drivers at French National Railways appeared to be drawing to a close on April 12 as officials at the FGAAC and SUD-Rail unions advised their members to return to work. After making major concessions on April 5 which had satisfied the larger unions such as CGT, management was standing firm against the demands of the smaller unions. These included an 8% pay rise, and SNCF President Louis Gallois reminded the remaining strikers that they would not be paid for staying at home. Local issues remained unresolved at Amiens, and at Marseille where union sources claimed that 20 extra drivers are needed for the opening of TGV Méditerranée, despite recent concessions.

Although Gallois appears to have survived his worst crisis since taking charge of SNCF in July 1996, the impact of the strike is likely to be considerable. On April 5 he agreed to a package of salary and recruitment measures expected to cost over Fr800m, including a 1·2% rise this year and an acceleration of the programme to recruit an additional 25000 staff over three years in conjunction with the introduction of a 35h working week. Of the 17000 staff due to be recruited next year, 1000 will be brought forward into the first half of the year and 1000 additional posts are to be created in 2002.

But in a more significant move, Gallois also agreed to postpone further restructuring of SNCF along commercial lines. Aiming to bring the railway closer to its customers by introducing dedicated local management and resources for the existing passenger, freight and infrastructure businesses, the ’Cap Clients’ programme was due to have been presented to the central SNCF works council in June and rolled out from spring 2002.

Now it will be opened up for debate, which one union described as ’a major climb-down’. Gallois has recognised that Cap Clients is perceived by some as the first step towards the break-up and privatisation of SNCF, although he continues to stress that he is by no means in favour of a move to the private sector.

Owing to the strike, SNCF is now expected to make a loss of Fr1·5bn in 2001 rather than the deficit of Fr208m forecast in January. On top of lost business and the Fr800m that the pay settlement will add to the SNCF bottom line, freight customers have been offered a 10% rebate on their bills for April, worth some Fr80m according to SNCF Deputy Director General, Freight, Francis Rol-Tanguy. Compensation to be negotiated under the terms of individual freight contracts is likely to add a further Fr200m. At the height of the disruption, customers ranging from mineral water bottlers to steel mills were cutting back production as finished goods could not be moved out and supplies of raw materials were interrupted.

Although his members had been ’pleasantly surprised’ by the rebate, Georges di Lallo, head of the railway commission within the freight transport users’ association AUTF, said that the sum was ’totally inadequate’. He also warned that the strike had blown away ’all the fine speeches’ made over the last three years as the government has repeated its intention to double rail freight market share by 2010. n