Railways' operating functions and network responsibilities to be split

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A new company, Réseau Ferré de France, has taken over the ownership and running of France's railways.

On 6 February 1997, Parliament brought in a radical reform of the railways, splitting off operating activities from network development and maintenance. The SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français), a nationalised company which used to carry out all these functions, will "focus on its core activity as a transport provider". The new legislation creates another state company, the RFF (Réseau Ferré de France), which has owned and managed the railways since 1 January 1997. It has 200 staff and a board comprised of six government representatives, four leading figures in the rail transport field, and five elected employee representatives.

The RFF, as owner, will contract the maintenance and servicing of the network out to the SNCF, which will be compensated for the work performed by its staff. In turn, the SNCF will pay the RFF fees amounting to FRF 6 billion in 1997/8, for the use of its trains on the network.

With this reform, the Government hopes to clarify the relationship between the Government and the SNCF, whose indebtedness (almost FRF 200 billion) stems principally from infrastructural development determined by the authorities. From the outset, the RFF will assume responsibility for FRF 134.2 billion of this debt.

The SNCF's objective will be to break even by 1999, bearing in mind that it still has liabilities of more than FRF 70 billion. Stations, goods warehouses, workshops, equipment, and administrative and recreational premises will remain in its ownership, as will all its subsidiaries. The SNCF will also be able to withdraw from activities not directly linked to railways, such as hotels, and to dispose of its shares in companies such as Air France Europe. Finally, the Government is committed to maintaining the 180,000 railway workers' special pension scheme, which was at the centre of a long strike in November-December 1995, as well as maintaining their employment status and ensuring the SNCF's cohesion as a single entity.

This reform was worked out in consultation with the unions. While some approved the project, the CFDT (Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail), SUD (Solidaires, Unitaires et Démocratiques) - a splinter group from the CFDT, which broke away after the December 1995 strike, and received 4% of the votes at the last union elections - and the CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail), which received 47% of the votes, all called for a one-day strike (which did not cause much disruption) at the time the law was being passed. These organisations fear the introduction of competitive practices into the French railway system. Bernard Thibault, general secretary of the CGT's railway workers' section, considers that "simply splitting up for accounting purposes would have been quite adequate".

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