Trains halt as France takes axe to branch lines

French rail strike: Eurostar in the sidings as unions reject plan for Beeching-style reduction of the network

MARY DEJEVSKY

Paris

French railwaymen, who have been on strike since last Thursday evening, hardened their action yesterday, halting all mainline and suburban services across the country and halving the number of Eurostar trains between London and Paris and Brussels. Their leaders had parted angrily with management representatives late the night before, after a fourth meeting to discuss a restructuring plan had failed to produce any agreement.

Where previous days had seen between one in four and one in six inter- city trains running, yesterday the lines were deserted. Even the high- speed trains, whose sleek lines, fabulous speeds and punctuality have combined to become a symbol of French success, remained in their sidings.

The railwaymen began their strike as part of last Friday's national day of protest against the government's plans to reform the social security system. The railwaymen had an additional grievance, which encouraged them to prolong last week's strike "indefinitely". This was the government's five-year "development project" for the railways, called the "1996-2000 plan", which could do to French railways something akin to what Richard Beeching did to Britain's railways 32 years ago.

France still operates 20,000 miles of railway lines, a network little reduced since the 1960s. Any Beeching-style reform has been prevented by the political importance of the countryside, the regional fiefdoms of politicians, a reluctance to take on the unions and the decision of successive governments to keep local services, in part to offset the unpopularity of the new high-speed train lines in the rural areas they scarred.

Now, though, the government and SNCF management, headed by Jean Bergougnoux, have decided to call time. SNCF has been described by the Transport Minister, Bernard Pons, as "the most indebted, most subsidised company in France", with an accumulated debt of 175bn francs (pounds 21bn) and an annual government subsidy running at Fr50bn. Despite a 40 per cent (70,000) reduction in staff over the past 10 years, total staff costs have risen, with the elite high-speed train drivers earning 30,000 francs a month for a 35-hour week, and all drivers entitled to retire at 50.

The most hotly contested of the restructuring plan's elements do not concern working conditions but the regionalisation of many lines. Thousands of miles would be lopped off the national network and transferred to the regions, initially with an accompanying subsidy.

Railwaymen believe manylines would be closed, causing the eventual loss of thousands of jobs; townspeople and villagers see the end of their most visible link with the world. The south-west of France and the Massif Central would be worst affected, with even large towns possibly losing their lines.

The least commercial branch line is a 30-mile stretch from Auxerre to Etang in north-central France, which loses Fr45m a year and carries an average 8 passengers a train. The second worst is a 50-mile branch line from Marvejols in the southern Auvergne which makes a loss of Fr22m a year. Its infrequent trains carry an average of only 14 passengers.

Other measures include a standardisation of management structures across the regions - entailing more job losses - and the separation, to comply with European Union regulations, of operating and infrastructure costs. SNCF will also be expected to market itself more energetically to reverse a decline in traffic in recent years.

To anyone in Britain, the arguments on both sides will have a familiar ring. The rail campaigners cite the social value of the railways in country areas, the need to improve services if people are to use them, and the environmental friendliness of rail transport.

Government officials argue that annual receipts are hardly more than the government subsidy and that there are many areas where coaches, so far a comparatively underdeveloped sector in France, would be cheaper. They say that fewer debts would mean more investment in services.

Ministers stress that there are no plans to privatise the railways, as in Britain or Germany. SNCF, they say, will remain a single, nationalised company. The regionalisation of branch lines, however, could amount to the same thing, except that local authorities rather than central government will have to take the political flak for privatisation or closure.

On Tuesday, the government offered two olive branches to the unions in the form of an assurance that the "special nature" of railwaymen's pension rights would be preserved and an offer to take over Fr37bn of SNCF's total debt, with more in return for productivity improvements in 1996. Railwaymen's representatives rejected the proposals, insisting they wanted the preservation of their current pension rights intact, and that Fr37bn would hardly dent the Fr175bn debt.

Railwaymen at Strasbourg yesterday said they would return to work, as increasing exasperation among commuters suggested the strike could soon be very unpopular. Mostly, however, the strike remained solid, with government, management and unions waiting to see who would blink first. ( Graphic Omitted )

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