The government has resisted advice to close some of the country's less used and unprofitable regional train lines, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced on Monday.
The closure of many of France's uncrowded regional lines which is notorious for its delays and high levels of debt was recently recommended by the Spinetta report, which was assessed the future of the French rail sector in the context of SNCF’s ongoing indebtedness.
“This is not a reform of the small lines. I will not follow the Spinetta report on this point. We have not decided to close 9,000 km of train line from Paris due to administrative and accounting criteria,” he announced.
“In many territories, railway is at the heart of the regions' strategy for developing mobility,” he added.
But despite this reprieve for the lines, his description of the SNCF painted a sorry picture of France's national rail company.
“The situation is alarming, not to say untenable,” he said. “The French, whether they take the train or not, pay more and more for a public service that works less and less well.”
State rail operator SNCF is struggling under debts of 46.6 billion euros ($57.5 billion), not least due to a huge pension burden from drivers who can retire in their early 50s.
So what did the prime minister reveal about the government's plans for reforming its national rail company?
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe (L) and French Minister of Transport Elisabeth Borne during Monday's press conference. Photo: AFP
No more special status for railway workers
The special status of railway workers, which has existed since 1920, offers a number of benefits to employees, including lifetime employment, generous pensions including the right to retire at 52 and seven hour days.
But this is all set to change under the reforms.
While current SNCF employees will retain this status, newly recruited staff will no longer benefit in the same way. Instead, they will be hired on a “classic” work contract.
“To new generations, to apprentices, to all those who want to join the SNCF, we say that they will benefit from the working conditions of all French people, those of the Labor Code.”
So far it has not been decided when this change will be implemented and it is something that will no doubt prove to be a bone of contention for the unions.
State support for debt
In his speech, the prime minister addressed the issue of SNCF's crippling debt which stands at €50 billion, saying that the state will “take its share of responsibility” in paying it off before the end of President Emmanuel Macron's first term.
At the same time he attempted to quell fears that this marked the start of a privatisation effort on the part of the government.
“This reform is not about preparing the privatization of the SNCF: the SNCF is a public group that provides a public service,” said the prime minister. “It is a legacy that belongs to the French and it will stay that way.”
The return of Macron's decrees
In order to push these changes through, French President Emmanuel Macron's government will once again use “decrees” or “ordonnances” in French, Philippe revealed.
Used during the reform of the Labor Code, the decrees are preceded by a consultation phase which will start in March and end in May.
That means the bill should be passed by early July.
Strikes are planned
Unions have already called a strike for March 22 after a government-commissioned report recommended the changes.
Successive governments have failed to reform the heavily unionised rail sector.
In 1995, the national train network ground to a virtual halt for weeks over then prime minister Alain Juppe's attempts to reform the rail workers' benefits.
France's train network is considered among the best in Europe, ranked seventh in the 2017 European Railway Performance Index by consultants BCG.
But commuters in the provinces complain of patchy service and frequent cancellations, and Philippe claimed that running a French train is 30 percent more expensive than elsewhere in Europe.