SNCF Fret train service in France. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

‘Strikes in France can easily have similar effect as Rastatt disaster’

The SNCF strike in France hits the European rail freight industry hard, and as a result, seriously affects the European market, industry leaders have said. “International rail transport towards Switzerland, Italy and Spain is almost impossible and no extra network capacity is available in France during the days when there is no strike. Rail operators suffer important financial losses, but moreover industrial customers face difficulties in provisioning and/or keeping up stocks”, Lineas stated on social media.

Three months of rail strikes by union organisations of French rail operator SNCF started last week. Until the end of June, strikes will be held every two out of five days. Industry leaders have called the anticipated damage to the industry the next disaster of Rastatt proportions for the rail freight industry.

France may not be as much a railway country as Germany, and domestic freight is by far as significant as passenger traffic. However, France is an important transit country on the North Sea Mediterranian Corridor, and for traffic flows to and from Germany, Switzerland and Italy. Railway operators from the wider European network access the French railway on a daily basis.

Network not managed

This is exactly where the industry is hit. “We have the means and the people to transport our customers’ goods, but trains cannot be operated as the network is not managed during the strike”, explained Lineas.

International trains that transit France along the North-South axis – on the Western side of the river Rhine – may have bypass alternatives, however connections to the United Kingdom and to Spain do not. Domestic trains and those international services that connect to points in France suffer the most significantly, also undermining traffic volumes at French transhipment terminals”, wrote the International Union for Road-Rail Combined Transport.(UIRR).

Long-term damage

UIRR, representing companies as Ambrogio Transporti, Combiberia, LINEAS, Naviland Cargo, Novatrans, T3M and Delta 3 fears that a prolonged series of extensive strikes at SNCF will result in long-term damage to road and rail transport along the North Sea- Mediterranean and the Atlantic rail freight corridors, and specifically to combined transport rail services to and from France, the United Kingdom and Spain.

“Strikes are bad news for any user of railway transport, passenger or freight, nevertheless history has shown that while passenger services recover the pre-strike traffic levels relatively rapidly, the damage caused to rail freight-based transport-chains is more permanent.”

Low market share

According to the lobby organisation, it is due to frequent strikes in France that the country shows a relatively small rail freight market share. “In 2003 the market share of railways was still 18 per cent, whereas by 2016 it dropped to below 10 per cent. The correlation between prolonged strikes and the contraction of rail freight’s market share is undesirably strong.

“Prolonged railway strikes in France can easily have similar effects on the trust of market players as the Rastatt-disaster had in Germany last year, when train traffic along the Rhine Valley railway was halted for seven weeks”, UIRR urged. “But the economy cannot stop. Shippers can and will find alternatives to keep the cargo moving, however these alternatives will often be less efficient and more polluting, while adding to the congestion on motorways.”

SNCF strikes

The rail strikes are a response to Macron’s sweeping plans to shake up France and make it more competitive. Among other steps, he has announced plans to draw up a new social contract with the railway staff members, who must benefit from the same working conditions as all the French.

Average gross pay of rail freight subsidiary Fret SNCF staff increased by 2.8 per cent annually between 2008 and 2014, compared with an average increase of 1.6 per cent across the broader transport sector. Rail workers enjoy jobs for life and early retirement, a special status Macron has suggested to remove. The cost and working conditions of SNCF staff continues to weigh on its profitability, the Court of Auditors had earlier stated.

Author: Majorie van Leijen

Majorie van Leijen is editor of RailFreight.com, online magazine for rail freight professionals.

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