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French rail unions vow all out war against government over reforms

French rail unions say they are ready to lead a month-long strike in protest against plans by the French government to reform the country's ageing and indebted rail system.

French rail unions vow all out war against government over reforms
AFP

Rail passengers in France hold your breath, there may be trouble ahead.

Furious rail unions in France are planning all out war against the government's plans to modernise the country's creaking and heavily indebted rail system.

After Prime Minister Edouard Phillippe announced plans on Monday, including an end to the special rail worker's status that includes a job for life, seven-hour days and generous pensions, unions fired a warning shot to the government.

Unions have already called a strike for March 22 after a government-commissioned report recommended the changes.

And further industrial action could be on the horizon after Philippe said the reforms would be controversially pushed through by decree, which would allow the government to bypass parliament.

On Monday, Laurent Brun, head of the CGT Cheminots union, the largest among rail workers, warned he was ready to lead “a month of strikes” in order to force the government to back down.

“We are surely on our way to one of the biggest union actions in the SNCF's history,” he told Le Parisien newspaper.

Union officials are to meet Tuesday to discuss their response to the government's plans, with the CFDT urging an indefinite strike starting March 1.

But it already appears unions are united in the eagerness to take on the government.

Laurent Berger, the head of the more moderate CFDT union said: “I won't let anyone spit in the face of rail workers.”

The CGT union promised to “bring the government to its knees” while Sud Rail, another hardline union promised a “hard movement”.

For is part the government was at pains to stress it was not trying to pick a fight.

The PM Philippe said that consultations would be carried out from next month before the reforms are pushed through mid-year.

“We want to move quickly without sidestepping consultations or parliamentary debate,” he said, adding that fears of closures on provincial lines were unfounded.

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.

“The situation is alarming,” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said.

“Whether or not they take the train, the French are paying more and more for a public service that works less and less well.”

New recruits will no longer benefit from a special rail worker's status that includes a job for life, seven-hour days and generous pensions.

And the government will consider turning the huge state operator into an autonomous company backed by public funds, though Philippe insisted it would never be privatised.

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.

The reforms follow a government-commissioned report by former Air France boss Jean-Cyril Spinetta which criticised the quality of service offered by
the SNCF.

Unions blasted the report — which also suggested voluntary redundancies — and lashed out in particular at proposals to cut back on benefits.

More than 90 percent of SNCF staff — some 140,000 people — enjoy the special rail worker status.

Train drivers can retire at 52, while other benefits include access to tens of thousands of homes, sometimes at reduced rent.

Rail workers will join civil servants striking on March 22 over redundancy proposals and higher use of short-term contracts as Macron seeks to slash
120,000 public-sector jobs over five years.

Unions have staged several major protests since the business-friendly centrist came to power in May, but Macron has so far avoided the mass strikes and demonstrations under his predecessor Francois Hollande.

For members

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How to find cheap train tickets in France

Travelling by train is one of the best ways to see France - even with a mandatory mask on. Here - from railcards to sales - is how you can make it even better by cutting the cost of your ticket.

A blue high-speed Ouigo low-cost TGV train arriving at  de l'Est railway station in Paris, with the the Sacre-Coeur Basilica in the background
From cheap services to railcards, here's how to save money on train travel. Photo: Joel Saget / AFP

Railcards are the most common way to cut the cost of a ticket. In some cases, the card can even pay for itself in one journey. France’s rail operator SNCF has a range of cards available for everyone from impoverished students to regular business travellers with an expenses account to burn.

But if you’re not a regular traveller there are also a range of offers plus cheaper services to opt for.

Let’s start with the railcards.

Liberté card

This one’s really for business travellers, who use the TGV or Ouigo and Intercite trains regularly. And it comes with a price to match – €399 for a year. This guarantees cardholders 60 percent off SNCF’s Business Première fares when travelling standard class, and  45 percent off Business Première fares when travelling 1st class. Plus, there’s between 25 percent and 50 percent off TER fares in certain regions, and it’s valid for use in other European countries.

Forfait pass

Effectively a season ticket, this one’s for commuters who regularly use TGV INOUI or Intercité services to get to work. Prices vary based on how much you travel, and you can get annual, monthly or weekly passes. Click here for a calculation of how much you will have to pay.

Avantage Senior 60+ card

SNCF relatively recently rebranded its railcards under the Avantage umbrella. If you’re aged 60 or over and travel occasionally with TGV Inoui, Intercités or TER in France, you will save 30 percent on first and standard class travel, for an annual fee of €49. And there’s 60 percent off ticket prices for up to three accompanying children aged between four and 11.

In fact, standard fares are capped for all destinations in France, no matter when you book. And that’s on top of a 30 percent guaranteed discount on 1st- and standard-class train tickets. 

You’re guaranteed affordable fares, even at the last minute. They’re currently capped as follows:

  • €39 or less for a short journey (under 90 minutes)
  • €59 or less for a medium-length journey (between 90 minutes and three hours)
  • €79 or less for the longest journey (over three hours)

Plus, there are savings on food and drink prices on the train – as well as other perks that are worth looking into.

Avantage Adulte Card

If you’re aged 27-59 and take TGV Inoui, Intercités or TER trains often, it’s worth looking into the Avantage Adulte card – which has replaced the Avantage Weekend and Avantage Famille cards – because you’ll save 30 percent on first and standard class tickets for the annual €49 fee.

Discounts extend to accompanying adults, and there’s 60 percent off ticket prices for up to three accompanying children aged between four and 11.

As with the Senior card, standard class fares are capped for all destinations in France. And you get the onboard perks too, including 15 percent off food and drink from the trolley.

Avantage Jeune Card

For anyone aged 12 to 27, the Avantage Jeune card will save you 30 percent on TGV Inoui and Intercité services that require booking for the annual €49 fee.

Standard class fares are capped for all destinations in France. And you get the onboard perks too, including 15 percent off food and drink from the trolley.

Other ways to save money

If you’re not a regular travellers and don’t want a railcard, there are other ways to save money when travelling.

Ouigo trains

SNCF’s low-cost TGV service offers high-speed cut-price travel in and out of Paris to 17 French destinations. There are drawbacks though, the trains have fewer on-board services and some of them only go to stations close to a city, rather than the city-centre station – so it’s worth checking when you book exactly where you will end up.

Children under 12 years of age can travel for €5 all year long, or €8 to or from a station in Paris.

Railcards are valid on Ouigo trains, cutting ticket prices further.

Happy Hour

Be aware of last-minute ‘Happy Hour’ deals on available on select days for selected Intercité trains to a selection of destinations around France. You could save up to 50 percent on ticket prices. And, yes, railcards are valid.

Ticket sales

Watch out, too, for announcements of when tickets are available for sale. From November 3rd, for example, rail tickets are available up to March 27, 2022 – and up to July 2, 2022, for Inoui tickets.

Early booking may get you a good deal, and SNCF offers regular deals particularly around peak travel times such as summer and Christmas. Downloading the SNCF app will get you advance notification of sales.

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