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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Nouveaux horaires : un big bazar organisé

by Fanny Doumayrou

New Railway Timetables: Organizing a Big Bazaar

Translated Sunday 18 December 2011, by Henry Crapo

The SNCF, the RFF, and the government present the "big bang" in timetables as a necessary evil.
Avoiding responsibility for decades of under-investment in the non-TGV sector of the rail network, and
masking what is preparation for the opening of private competition.

"It’s a technical matter, really not so serious, and, in any case, necessary." That’s the way the SNCF, the RFF [1] and the government wish to sum up this thorny affair of the new train timetables that went into effect on Sunday 11 December. Everyone knows that at this time of the year the timetables change, usually on the fringes, and by 15%, but this year it’s a huge mix-up, affecting 85% of the schedule, and with severe modifications. Stops and trains eliminated, times no longer adapted to users’ needs, waiting times when changing trains, as well as duration of trips, lengthened, all these have provoked the anger of users in many areas, users who have then joined existing or formed new collectives, launching petitions, distributing tracts, staging collective refusals to present tickets to controllers, and even, in Blois last week, descending onto the rails.

On the other side, three authorities try to save face. The president of the RFF, Hubert du Mesnil, on Friday, announced that he felt "very satisfied" with the work accomplished. Starting well before the fateful day of 11 December, 11 million euros were spent on a publicity/information campaign aimed at defusing what promised to be a bomb of discontent.
The arguments begin by reducing the situation to its technical dimension: the timetables are changing because of renovations of the tracks, the extension of cadencing [2] from 8% to 16% of its rail lines, and the opening of the high speed Rhine-Rhone line, which lead to changes in cascade. On the other hand, the discourse minimizes the negative impact on the lives of users. As illustration consider the SNCF advertisement hammering home the idea that "Mary’s train" is now shifted by ... five minutes. Finally, a last resort, moral argument requires resignation, according to the adage "it’s a blessing in disguise," which verges on blackmail. "Troubles today for a better tomorrow. With no trouble now, no network tomorrow, " recites the director of a depot in the Centre region, in the newspaper Le Monde.

Little time remains before the opening of competition by private rail companies

The technical arguments are incontrovertible, yet "It is a very politicized presentation of the situation that is given by management", Alain Prouvenq, federal secretary of the railway division of the CGT union. "As for the track maintenance, it is true that it is indispensable, since the rail network is in lamentable condition. With 3000 out of 29000 kilometers on which it is necessary to slow the trains, in the interests of safety, we are getting to the point where we have to either do that work, or close the lines. But it is the government that is responsible, because, during the years 1970-1980 they made the choice, with the SNCF, to devote all their financing to the construction of high-speed lines, at the expense of the rest of the network, which, without repairs, aged very quickly. Since that period, the CGT has always maintained that there was work that had to be done."

As for "cadencing", it means real progress for the user, but the manner in which it is being introduced is subject to criticism. "The Swiss first renovated their system, before turning to cadencing," explains Alain Prouvenq. "To launch the cadencing simultaneously with the major works program is to create conditions to go straight into the wall. But there is a very strong political motivation involved, the preparation for the opening of the rail system to competition with private companies, under pressure from the European Commission. One renovates and simplifies the system in order to facilitate the entry of private operators." Time is pressing because the Center for Strategic Analysis, in its October report, recommends, beginning in 2014, a ’progressive opening’ of the national public transport system to competition by private operators [3] on "an experimental basis on regional and inter-regional lines. In the Association of railway users (Avuc), oriented toward the protection of the public rail service, Willy Collin adds "We are in agreement with the rail line maintenance and with cadencing, but we are not duped as to the the ultimate aims toward which this "big bang" is directed. It is designed to prepare for opening up to competition, as has already taken place on the route Paris-Venice. This 11 December marks a turning point in the public service for users, who now have to worry about the station in their small town. The private companies are only interested in the attractive stops."

Freight traffic is heavily affected

Freight traffic had already dropped by 56 billion tons in the year 2000, and by 25 billion in 2011, according to CGT-rail-workers, which fears for 2012 a drop to 15 billion tons per kilometer. Just so many more tons that end up on the autoroutes, in contradiction to the objectives announced by the Grenelle de l’environnement [4].

[1Réseau Ferré de France, since the break-up of the SNCF in 1997, a separate company in charge of maintenance of the French rail system, now concentrating on the sale of "furrows" (time intervals on specified tracks) to private French and foreign operators.

[2See the accompanying article

[3The transport of international passengers is open to competition since 2009, freight, since 2006.

[4A consultation organized in 2007 between government and environmental groups, to sketch and debate new policies, which promised (see link)"a veritable autoroute on the rails", "massive aid to combined (container) transport", and many measures involving private operators.

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