Photographer: Christophe Morin/Bloomberg

France Takes Aim at SNCF After Nightmare Weekend for Travelers

  • Transport minister criticizes rail operator in parliament
  • Government is shifting focus away from high-speed trains

French Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne had harsh words for the way national railway operator SNCF handled a signaling failure that caused massive train delays and created havoc for travelers during one of the busiest holiday weekends of the year.

“The identification of the failure, its treatment, the information of travelers weren’t satisfying,” Borne told parliament Wednesday. ”Every day many passengers face difficulties and this is why maintenance and modernization of existing networks was made a priority.”

In addition to criticism from the government, state-owned SNCF is facing a consumer backlash after a defective cable led to three days of delays and cancellations starting last Sunday that affected 55,000 passengers traveling through the Paris Montparnasse station. Blaming works on a westbound high-speed link, the railway may have to pay out millions of euros in compensation to travelers, many of whom were stranded as they tried to reach summer vacation destinations and were misinformed about the disruptions.

The SNCF’s handling of the incident was “unacceptable,” said Benjamin Griveaux, junior economy minister, while Borne ordered a report on the breakdown.

A spokeswoman for SNCF said the report would be given to the government on Wednesday. She declined further comment.

Apology

SNCF Chairman Guillaume Pepy apologized on Tuesday in an interview published by regional newspaper Ouest France, saying passengers weren’t sufficiently informed. On RTL Radio Wednesday, he said he wouldn’t resign and that it was too early to evaluate the costs.

Pepy has regularly faced controversy since taking the helm in 2008. Most recently, he was forced to defend the widely-derided renaming of the high-speed trains known as TGV, or “Train a Grande Vitesse,” to “InOUI,” which translates to “unbelievable.”

In 2013, the derailment of an intercity train in Bretigny-sur-Orge near Paris killed seven people and served to highlight a shortfall in investment in network maintenance and safety.

French President Emmanuel Macron has shifted focus away from developing new infrastructure to the modernization of existing installations. Improving daily commuting should be a priority over high-speed connections between large cities, he said last month when inaugurating the high-speed link between Paris and Rennes, at the heart of last weekend’s mess.

The government will organize a public consultation to determine which projects to focus on in September, Borne said.

Building and operating France’s dense network of local trains has helped push SNCF’s debt to record levels, prompting the government to study the possibility of taking over the debt in exchange for reforms.

SNCF Reseau, which manages the network, had 45 billion euros ($53.4 billion) in net debt at the end of 2016, while train operator SNCF Mobilites had 8 billion euros. Two out of three French high-speed TGV trains are operating at a loss, according to SNCF data.

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