Chaos on French rail as workers strike over security risks after train accident

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By Pauline Bock
Chaos on French rail as workers strike over security risks after train accident
Copyright  REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

The French rail network came close to a standstill on Friday and continued to be disrupted over the weekend in what the government described as a "surprise strike" to protest the rail service operating at times with just one conductor.

The movement was sparked after a local train travelling from Charleville-Mézières to Reims, in eastern France, on Wednesday (October 16), crashed at a railroad crossing, leaving the injured driver with no other choice but to secure the scene by himself and walk several miles to call for help for the 11 passengers who were injured in the accident.

He was the only agent of the French rail service, the SNCF, aboard the train during the incident.

Rail agents are using their "right to withdrawal" to protest a policy that allows trains to run with a single conductor.

Rail unions SUD-Rail, CGT-Cheminots, FO-Cheminots and Fgaac-CFDT are asking for this policy to change, citing security risks to passengers.

The French labour code guarantees workers the "right to withdrawal" if they believe that a situation at work presents a "serious and imminent danger" - collective or individual - to "life or health", as well as if the worker remarks a "fault in the protection system".

The French rail network has been heavily disrupted since Friday as a result.

French Prime minister Edouard Philippe said on Saturday that the social movement was a "diversion of the withdrawal right that has morphed into an uncivilised strike". He asked the SNCF to "examine all options to take this case forward, including judiciary options".

The French secretary of state for transport, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, added that the SNCF could take individual sanctions against the agents that have taken part in the strike.

The SNCF's CEO, Guillaume Pepy, has said the movement was a "surprise strike" and was "not acceptable".

Unions angrily replied that there is "anger about security" in the rail workers' ranks and that SNCF agents have been warning about the "lone driver" policy since it was introduced a decade ago.

"If you do away with security, you will find yourself with a generalised conflict", the CGT union said, accusing the prime minister of acting to "degrade the movement through provocations".

While some unions, like the CGT, are calling for SNCF workers to "heavily" take part in a planned December 5 strike against President Macron's reform of the pensions system, others have disagreed.

Unsa rail said: "This isn't about merging struggles, let's not mix everything up."

On Sunday, the French rail traffic remained disrupted on its third day but the SNCF noted a "progressive recovery", adding that the network should be running normally by the end of the day.