French railways take new track

After months of hesitation, the French government has finally plucked up the courage to start overhauling the country's technically pioneering, but heavily loss-making, state railway company, SNCF. The project, however, is far less ambitious than was envisaged 18 months ago and leaves SNCF with its public status and monopoly unquestioned, at least for the time being.

Under a bill presented to parliament yesterday, the company is to be split into two: Reseau Ferre National (RFN), a state-owned version of the British Railtrack, will own and take responsibility for the track and infrastructure, and a revamped SNCF will be responsible for running and managing the trains.

RFN will take over the bulk of SNCF's debt to the tune of 134 billion francs, and receive a government subsidy of F8bn in the first year to offset interest payments. SNCF will have to pay RFN for the use of the track, while RFN will have to pay SNCF for managing it.

Six "volunteer" regions are to take over the running of local railway services on an experimental - and "fully reversible" basis.

The railways bill, in approximately its present form, was to have been presented in October, but was delayed without explanation amid reports that officials judged the industrial climate too volatile. In autumn 1995, train drivers brought the national rail network to a halt and spearheaded six weeks of public sector protest that immobilised the country and threatened to topple the government.

That the government has now presented the bill - albeit starting with the upper house (the Senate), which is a "safer" bet for its first reading than the National Assembly - is a sign of its confidence that the sting of trade union protest might now have been drawn.