Are the Trains Running?

photo: gare st lazare, empty

Empty rails at Gare Saint-Lazare.

Do Strikes Puzzle You?

Paris:- Monday, 9. April 2001:- 'Without turning into a nightmare,' Le Parisien began in its Saturday editions, referring to Friday's rail strikes - but this is not how life 'on the rails' in France on Thursday and Friday were presented by TV-news.

Last Thursday was again 'black' with all of Paris' RER lines being affected, plus most TGV and regional expresses throughout the country. Even the prestige Eurostar had to reduce service.

Friday was also the official beginning of the Easter holidays. Even though there was an announced 'return to normal,' it was closer to a catastrophe and hundred of thousands of travellers were left without trains to carry them to their holidays.

Now that many - whole families - have spent their weekends waiting around train stations staring at naked rails, today's new 'return to normal' is less than complete in the Paris region. Most long-distance trains are running, almost on schedule, but some RER lines are still operating sporadically.

Louis Gallois, the SNCF's boss, was shown on TV-news in train stations over the weekend, talking to angry passengers. This was a rare indication of the SNCF's determinationphoto: prochain train, next for roissy to 'beat' the strikes, without backing down. His appearances also indicated that he has full government support to reform the SNCF.

From here, you can ride straight to the airport - if the RER is running.

While this battle of wills goes on between the SNCF and its unions, train users are hostages to the situation. The SNCF's 'user-friendly' posters in the stations are akin to 'black comedy,' a mockery of reality for hundreds of thousands.

Today, the strike is not over. It is not total today, this is not 'Black Monday.' It is just as possible that the train you intend to take will be on time and running, as not. For the next while, riding the trains in France will continue to be a matter of chance.

Wednesday, 4. April 2001:- There is one specific part of contemporary life in France that puzzles visitors to Paris. I make myself available in person to answer puzzling questions and the one about strikes comes up often.

Seen from a residents' point of view, strikes are like air or baguettes, wine or even garbage - they are simply a common part of life, part of its regular background scenery.

Since strikes - especially ones involving public transport - can be highly annoying to both visitors - 'What thephoto: rer, orlybus sign hell is going on here?' - and residents - 'Not again!' - and are frequent, this is an attempt to make an explanation of them.

Public transport strikes cause the most inconvenience to the most people. Strikes in other sectors, by angry nurses or raging farmers for example, may have local effects on ground transport, but never take on any global significance even if they are nationwide in scale.

With a choice between trains and buses, you can usually to or from the airports.

France is a pretty big country. Angry nurses or raging farmers on strike can affect cities all over, but there are always ways around them. Even if air transport people go out on strike, the effect is limited.

France's Achilles Heel is its rail network. Rails and trains were introduced to France in the late 1840's, mainly to run from Paris to Versailles, or from Paris out to the nearest seaside resorts in Normandy.

Don't ask me why trains to Versailles were important in 1850. And before there were trains, there were no seaside 'resorts' in Normandy - none at least for the popular - bourgeois! - masses. It took trains to make these happen. That this does not explain the train line to Versailles is of no consequence.

After a time of building train lines everywhere, all of their various and initial companies were rolled into one that is called the 'SNCF' today and it is owned by the French state.

At some point - no need to bore you here with historical details that are unknown to me - the state told the SNCF to design its rail network as if France was one big commuter-land. Whether the SNCF's train people wanted to do this or not, they went ahead and did it.

The key element that has brought this concept into the realm of reality has been the introduction of the high-speed TGV - 'very-fast trains' - over the past quarter-century.

As soon as the tracks, the rails, have been sufficiently upgraded, special TGV trains are added to a line. These trains race at cruising speeds of between 300 and 350 kph between city-center train stations all over France.

Think of it. No need to go to an airport - which arephoto: day before black thursday never located anywhere near a city-center - no need to get there 60 or 90 minutes before takeoff, no need to stand in the check-in line with over-weight hand luggage, no need for all of the other inconveniences of air travel - such as the sheer harassment of big airports.

Pre-'Black Thursday' RER train has lots of room at rush-hour.

No. In Paris you can go to Gare du Nord, Montparnasse or Gare de Lyon and buy a TGV ticket from a vending machine, get on a handy train, and whoosh across France, to arrive at a destination in some other city-centre of your choice without getting pressurized and de-pressurized - and having a great big window to see all the passing countryside as a bonus.

While this has been going on all around France, there has been a constant improvement of urban commuter train networks too. Especially in the Paris area, these lines link directly to train stations served by TGV trains - which means you can begin going from one end of France to another by starting at a local commuter train station, even a very tiny one.

Even from where I live in Paris - for example - I am an eight-minute walk from direct connections to both Paris airports, and with no more than one métro line change, to all of Paris' major train stations. This means I can walk out of a train station in London or Berlin, after only a short walk. Getting to Madrid requires one métro change.

But enough of this dreaming. As much as the French also love their tiny little cars, their pragmatic side chooses to take the train for commuting and for going long distances.

Okay, this isn't exactly one hundred percent true. Several hundred thousand lunatics in the Paris region insist on driving their little cars to the city - and even some people in the city drive their lousy cars to work in other parts of the city. There is no free parking in Paris or anywhere in its urban area, so this is lunacy pure and simple.

Lunatics aside, and some dare-devil bicyclists, everybody else takes the trains.

So it shouldn't take a lot of imagination to figure out what happens when the train workers go on strike.

There are several varieties of strikes. But first, I should point out that train workers belong to several different union organizations, plus some don't belong to any.

If, for example, some bored kids scare a suburban train driver - it is quite likely that all of the rolling train workers on that particular line will stage an immediate sympathy strikephoto: clock, gare denfert without any warning. Needless to say, the management is usually caught be surprise, as are the users.

Railroad time - is on whose side?

In another common case, one union may decide the management is not paying attention to its grievances, and it may issue a 'strike warning' and shut down a line by - for example - withdrawing the ticket controllers.

In this case, it is not the train driver who is 'on strike,' but the railroad agents you occasionally see who make sure passengers have valid tickets. Trains cannot operate without ticket controllers, not even the ones with no ticket controllers.

Usually this type of strike involves the elimination of 'one-train-out-of-three.' When the regular schedule calls for four trains per hour, this is not easy to figure out.

If two or more unions, sometimes with different beefs, call a strike, the result may be exactly the same. In normal times, the worst is usually 'two-trains-out-of-three' eliminated. Passengers look at their watches, fume, phone work or home, and jam into the remaining 'one-train-out-of-three' to get where they're going, usually late.

The uncommon case is when most of the unions and most of the train workers all have a common axe to grind. At the moment, the issues involve the difficult introduction of the 35-hour work week, pay levels, the age of retirement, working conditions in general - plus the fear that the SNCF's management may be thinking of selling parts of itself to private enterprise. These are serious issues - so it is the train drivers who are leading the current strikes.

Last Thursday - the first 'Black Thursday' - the result was a country-wide disaster for train users in France. The knockout included rare targets like the seldom-hit international lines and the Eurostar trains that run through the tunnel under the Channel.

Paris' own railroad, the métro, was not part of this strike because it doesn't belong to the SNCF. It's continued operation was part of the reason visitors ask questions about strikes in France.

While hundreds of thousands of commuters and long-distance train passengers all around France had a bad-train day last Thursday, Parisians blithely went about their business as if nothing was going on.

Well, there was more traffic in Paris and the traffic-jams were bigger than usual, but this was no real inconvenience to users of the mostly underground métro.

However, last Thursday was not a 'one-off' either, and train strikes have continued around France - just enough to keep passengers totally confused.

Since the SNCF's management does not seem to have impressed the government of France - the ultimate management - of the inconvenience caused to passengers, and to the SNCF's considerable number of freight customers - last week's 'Black Thursday' will replay in France tomorrow, Thursday.

And the ante gets upped a bit. Most of Paris' regional express network - or RER for short - is operated by the SNCF. But the two initial lines opened, the RER's 'A' an 'B' lines, are run by the city's transport authority, the RATP.

Tomorrow, these will be hit too. With all RER lines affected, Paris will no longer be connected by trains to the airports at Roissy and Orly, and Disneyland Paris will be out of luck too. The airport buses will continue their operations, but these may be too few.

In any case, tomorrow's traffic jams in Paris could reach historic levels, making it nearly impossible for any airport buses, shuttle buses, taxis and what-have-you to move.

'Historic levels' of traffic jams in Paris go back to the near total SNCF and RATP strikes thatphoto: arrival, rer train, denfert paralyzed France for weeks in late 1995. At that time it was possible to get from the airports to the city, but once in Paris the footwork started.

An 'on-time' RER train - which is most of the time.

Luckily for me, the new 'Black Thursday' has chosen to be Thursday, which is the same day as the Café Metropole Club meets. If any prospective club members are arriving at the airports, I do not really expect them to turn up at the club.

I am counting on this, so I won't have to explain strikes in France. Since they puzzle everybody who lives in France - except possibly, the government - I don't see why they shouldn't continue to puzzle everybody else too, myself included.

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