A double decker TGV

As most of you know, the French love to go on strike. Especially the public sector, with the lead generally being held by train workers. Yesterday, the SNCF (French national train company) were on strike, causing packed trains and leaving many people stranded waiting for a train to get home. Even with only 30% (highest estimate) of employees actually on strike, services were reduced to about one third of normal levels. The strike has just been ended with an offer of a 120€ bonus and a pay rise of 0.3% from January, and this before pay negotiations for 2006 have even officially started. Pay wasn’t the main reason given for the strike in the first place: the train unions fear privatisation of the SNCF, something which the government vehemently denies. As I understand it they were therefore on strike because of the fear of privatisation, although no project exists officially in government.

Using public transport in France on a daily basis is a risky business. You will be subject to crowded trains at the best of times, but during strikes your journey to work can be a living hell. During the summer heatwave of 2003, commuters had the double stress of a train strike and hot weather. Packed trains with temperatures at 40°C is something I’ll never forget. The only mitigating factor is that the state subsidises train travel: a monthly Paris métro pass will cost about £35 (51.50€) whereas the London tube equivalent costs £82.20 (120€). Strikes in London are far harder to bear when your travel costs are more than double, thankfully they don’t happen as often.

Train employees have a job for life and a number of advantages like subsidised summer holiday retreats and free train travel for their families. However they are rarely happy with their pay conditions and the travel unions are quick to call for industrial action. If you’re living in France, just be happy that you’re paying less for your tickets and generally have a better quality of service (especially the excellent TGV service) for the moment. For all the arguments about privatisation, look at your monthly ticket costs and perhaps you can console yourself while getting shoved around in a crowded train on your way home.

Image credit: Gerald Brimacombe.