France seeks to streamline railways

Nov. 2, 2012 at 6:30 AM
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PARIS, Nov. 2 (UPI) -- France's debt-laden and inefficient railway system would be in for a major structural overhaul under proposals released by the Ministry of Transport this week.

The plan, unveiled Tuesday in Paris by French Transportation Minister Frederic Cuvillier, aims to reorganize the railway system under a new "unified infrastructure manager" that will cover the country's publicly owned SNCF railway and the now-separate rail-owning authority RFF.

Also to be included under the new umbrella is the Department of Railway Circulation, which is responsible for train traffic and circulation management under RFF.

Cuvillier said reforms are needed to help overcome the rail system's "repeated and endemic dysfunction" as well as to help stabilize the expanding debt loads of SNCF and RFF -- estimated at $40 billion and on a pace to reach $71 billion by 2022.

Cuvillier revealed the outlines of the transport ministry's reform efforts at a celebration of SNCF's 75th anniversary, saying they will focus on four areas: improving service, finding long-term "economic balance," preparing for EU-mandated competition and negotiating a labor agreement to include workers in the benefits.

Negotiations on reforms are ongoing but should be presented as a bill to the French Parliament at the end of the first half of 2013, he said.

The unification of SNCF and RFF under a single public entity will likely require setting aside long-standing differences between "train" people and "rail" people.

The reforms, Cuvillier told the French daily Le Monde, would create "a family gathering of railroads under one roof in order to end the past rivalries," noting that together the companies' sometimes-overlapping infrastructure maintenance operations employ 50,000 people.

"Everyone will win" in the merger while the resulting efficiencies will help free funds for much-needed infrastructure and service upgrades, the minister said.

"We decided to save a rail system that faces an extremely deteriorated condition," Cuvillier said. "We have to build, with industry players, the emergence of an integrated public railway business."

That will also be necessary to meet requirements of the European Union's Fourth Railway Package, which focuses on deepening the interoperability of national systems and opening government-owned rails to competition in 2019.

"What users want is a system that works and does not have this Kafkaesque and grotesque character with a separate infrastructure side managed by the operator, in which there is a lack of clarity and uncoordinated duplication," he said.

Such a unified structure would ensure the future of public service railways while improvement projects will be prioritized "based on their usefulness to the community," the government plan says.

While praising SNCF for a high level of excellence with its high-speed TGV long-distance trains, the transport ministry cited a pressing need to upgrade the experience of daily commuters, especially in Ile-de-France in central Paris, the trade journal Railway Gazette International reported.

The government also indicated it had accepted the findings of the Swiss technology institute Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, which last month took a critical look at RFF's severe maintenance backlog on France's conventional rail network.

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