Infotech “SNCF is not in a healthy situation”

“SNCF is not in a healthy situation”

On the eve of the end of year holidays, a bout of social fever shakes the SNCF. A TGV Sud-Est in two will run this Friday, December 17, the start of the departures for the Christmas holidays, after calls for a strike by unions, finally lifted, but too late to hope to regain normal traffic.

After Unsa, the CGT and SUD-Rail decided on Thursday to lift their notice, following new negotiations with management. Throughout the week, strike calls had multiplied – TGV Nord, Normandie, Nouvelle-Aquitaine, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, Occitanie, Pays de la Loire, and in Ile-de-France on the RER B, C, D and E. The demands were mainly of a salary nature: the railway workers demand financial recognition for the work done, especially during the peaks of the Covid-19 pandemic. And they denounce reorganizations which not only complicate their work, but also, through a game of disappearing bonuses, lower their salaries.

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SNCF facing competition: the new rail battle has begun

Everything comes as the SNCF opens up to competition, with the arrival of TGVs from the Italian operator Trenitalia from this Saturday, December 18 on the Paris-Lyon line. And faced with a new explosion of debt, inflated to 38 billion euros, despite savings plans, compensation related to the health crisis (4.7 billion) and a new debt recovery of 10 billion euros This year. Hence this vast question: should we fear for the future of SNCF? “The Obs” questioned economist Yves Crozet, professor emeritus at Sciences Po Lyon and researcher in the “transport economy planning” laboratory attached to the CNRS.

Are the threats of a strike at the end of the year a danger for the SNCF?

Frankly, strikes at the SNCF, there is nothing more commonplace, even more during the holidays. It should be understood that among the trade unionists of the SNCF, there is a kind of competition between the organizations with a certain form of outbidding. And this is combined with a climate of “Fort Alamo”, that is to say the impression that all decisions are taken against the railway workers. There is the idea that their business will never go bankrupt, that the state will always compensate for losses. Hence a structural logic of strike. This is a figure that we do not know enough about, but it speaks volumes: the [150 774] SNCF employees represent 0.5% of [29,8 millions d’]French assets; and yet they represent just under 30% of strike days each year.

We must not deny the staff reductions (nearly 2,000 jobs lost last year) and the number of trains, but we must also note that the SNCF is not in a healthy situation. Its turnover fell by 14% in 2020 [à 30 milliards d’euros, NDLR] and, with the Covid-19, the profit that was expected turned into 3 billion losses. Result: the debt exceeds 38 billion euros! It is maddening, when we are faced with a company boasting state aid for a long time. The State has already taken over 25 billion euros of debt, and must do the same with 10 billion this year. And, with the recovery plan, he paid 4.7 billion euros to offset the impact of the pandemic.

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The railway unions demanded wage increases after eleven years of freezing the index point, which is used to calculate the wages of civil servants. “More than 50,000 railway workers have a basic salary lower than the minimum wage […]. They need bonuses, night hours and weekend hours to be able to switch above the minimum income, ”argued the federal secretary of SUD-Rail on Franceinfo.

This is simply not true. At the SNCF, there is always the “GVT”, the technicality old age slip, which ensures that civil servants regularly, with seniority, change grade and increase their salary. Yes, the index point is frozen, but their salary continues to increase. This is why the wage charge at the SNCF does not decrease despite the workforce reductions. This is a big difference with Italy, for example, which abolished the GVT, and where wages are stagnant.

Should we limit free tickets for railway workers?

Afterwards, the railway workers are right to try. We saw the government pull out the checkbook during the presidential campaign: there was the Ségur for health, the Beauvau for security, the upgrading of teachers… Why not try to have a bonus for railway workers? Especially since the Covid context is accompanied by high inflation which justifies this request for revaluation. Especially since, once again, if the SNCF goes into debt, the state will pay. So it’s risk free.

Does Emmanuel Macron’s desire to abolish special diets herald a new strike by railway workers in the event of re-election?

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For sure. The head of state wants to pay a good strike when he will make his pension reform. But again, nothing new. On the other hand, what he dares not say is that there will still be station and line closures. For twenty years, 2,000 kilometers of lines have been closed, mainly on small lines – which only represent 2% of traffic.

Doesn’t this weight of debt on SNCF’s accounts risk tainting the “redevelopment of the train” wanted by Emmanuel Macron, in particular on freight, night trains and small lines?

We have heard a lot about the “Revenge of the rail”. It’s a great ambition. But, the reality is that, with the Covid-19, the railroad was stopped, and it still has not returned to its pre-crisis level. This is true in France, but also in Germany, Italy and Spain. For example, in October, the Paris-Bordeaux line still shows -18% compared to 2019.

This moment when, far from her, I praised and regretted the SNCF

There is a downturn, a drop in demand for public transport… People prefer the car. And, if the trains are full, it is simply because there are fewer trains. I fear the 2020s will be a lost decade for rail. It will take time for the traffic to come back. However, it is not the death of the train. It is rather a fluctuation, also linked to a transformation of the economic model.

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That is to say ?

The train is more and more a non-market activity, in the sense that it relies, and will rely even more, on subsidies. This was already the case for TER and Transilien, which are heavily subsidized, and it will be increasingly so on the TGV. It is already very visible on the infrastructures: on the Tours-Bordeaux or the Bordeaux-Toulouse, the infrastructures have been overwhelmingly subsidized. To decarbonize transport, there is no choice, we have to use rail. Also, to maintain the SNCF, everything will go through subsidies.

Will opening up to competition not shake things up?

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No. If we say things frankly, it’s still too weak to change anything. If we take the Paris-Lyon – the cash cow of the lines -, Trenitalia will only offer two round trips per day: it’s nothing at all! And, unless they have a huge load, they will not be able to keep their current prices. Trenitalia does not seem to have yet taken into account the toll systems, which will be the same as the SNCF, of the order of 20 euros to 30 euros per train per kilometer. While in Italy, the construction of new lines is paid by the State and the tolls are partly paid by the communities (it is more of the order of 8 euros per train per kilometer). Trenitalia will not be able to maintain its prices on Paris-Lyon.

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SNCF loses its monopoly: 7 questions on opening up regional trains to competition

Beyond that, the competition will not hurt SNCF, it will rather serve as a spur to review the offer. For example, in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, two lots have been opened to competition: the Marseille-Nice [remporté par Transdev, qui effectuera la liaison à partir de juillet 2025] and the Etoile Ferroviaire de Nice (Les Arcs / Draguignan – Vintimille, Cannes – Grasse and Nice – Tende). The latter was won by SNCF with an offer offering twice as many trains as before for the same amount. Opening up to competition allows [Jean-Pierre] Farandou [le PDG de la SNCF] to justify reductions in staffing.

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