The French government, as part of its drive to shrink the public sector, is consulting with the national rail operator, SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer), and rail unions on the reforms suggested in a report produced by Jean-Cyril Spinetta, the former boss of Air France–KLM. These include ending the privileged status of railway workers, reorganizing SNCF’s debt and making it a PLC (public limited company), increasing the spending on infrastructure, and closing underused lines.
The Spinetta Report asserts that minor railway lines have become too expensive to run. On the one I use most regularly, between Nancy and Saint-Dié-des-Vosges (one of the two sub-prefectures of the Vosges department), every effort has been made to cut costs. True, the rusty old graffiti-covered trains we were stuck with for years have been replaced with carriages made by Bombardier, which still feel new even if they look a bit cheap, with their plastic parts that rattle and armrests shared by two seats. Nevertheless, many off-peak rail services have been replaced by buses that cover the same distance in twice the time; also, ticket collectors have been removed from most trains, so if there’s a problem (which is often), you get no help. No information, no explanation—you get there when you get there. And the delays can be long. In the past, repair crews used to start work immediately; now you have to wait patiently on the train while the decision is referred to SNCF management and the regional government footing the bill.
SNCF no longer bothers to coordinate branch-line services with its high-speed TGV network, so if your train is late and you miss your connection, then it’s your hard luck. In this age of connectivity, the railways have forgotten the meaning of connections. Perhaps that’s why the ads on trains are at pains to remind us that we’re not users of a nationwide service but customers of different brands. The ultra-modern TGV brand is in a different world from the dilapidated Intercités (the non-high-speed regional services), with emergency track repairs constantly forcing the Intercités trains to run slow, and engine breakdowns making departures uncertain. Even so, the old Corail express trains now used by Intercités are valiantly holding on despite their pitiful state, making us long for a not-so-distant past when the trains were roomier and a fast, convenient, comfortable way to travel, even in standard class.
Some Intercités lines, especially the less profitable cross-country routes, are now threatened, a surprising development in an age of decentralization. To travel from Lyon to Bordeaux, you’ll soon have to pass through Paris. But the reforms are especially aimed at the Regional Express Train (TER) brand offering low-cost local transport, which SNCF thinks is a burden and would like to drop (a none-too-surprising development given that service reductions have led many users to switch to road transport). The Spinetta Report declares that even the reduced services on minor lines cost too much, and so sacrifices will have to be made.