Monday, 4 April 2016

Privatise the railways? Nationalise the railways? Non, merci.

The most convenient airport for our recent holiday in France was Geneva. Which, it probably hasn’t escaped your notice, is actually in Switzerland.

However, the Swiss and French have come to an excellent arrangement, by which a part of the station in Geneva is made available to the French railways (the SNCF). So we bought our tickets on-line in England, and travelled out bearing the SNCF’s e-mail instructions about printing out our tickets at the machine in the station.

Only to discover that the station boasted no such machine.

“But it says here…,” we protested.

“Ah, yes,” we were told by a Swiss railway official, “but this is Switzerland. The SNCF doesn’t have one of those machines on Swiss territory.”

“So – what do we do?”

“You could go to the SNCF ticket office around the corner.”

“But it’s Saturday. That office isn’t open on a Saturday.”

“Ah,” said the lady, trying to look helpful. And then shook her head. “I shouldn’t like to be in your position,” she commiserated. Which, when it comes to helpfulness, fell rather short of the mark.

So we decided to get on the train anyway. I’ve had experience dealing with French ticket collectors in the past, and it’s always proved a great deal more satisfactory than dealing with machines. And, indeed, we saw two collectors on the platform, even before the train had left the station.

“No problem,” they told us, “get on the train and we’ll come and see you once we’re on our way.”

And one of them did. In fact, he sorted out our tickets in about two minutes, and then sat down to chat with us for a further twenty or so.

He had plenty to chat about.

“It was such a pleasure,” I told him, “to find a human being to sort out the problem with our tickets.”

“Well, yes. Enjoy it while you can. It’s not going to last.”

It seems that SNCF staff numbers have been falling for years. In 2003, there were 178,260 employees; by last year numbers were down to 149,500. The French newspaper Le Figaro claims another 1400 jobs are due to go this year.

The worst of it is that salary costs haven’t even fallen. Apparently, they went up by 1.289 billion euros between 2003 and 2013. Wage increases have contributed to the rise, but the other factor has been the decision to increase the proportion of managers – where there were 6.8 employees per manager in 2003, ten years on there were only 4.2.

“Too many managers,” our ticket collector complained, “we’re the most managed industry in France. And all they demand of us is – profits. Forget the service.”

He was pretty bitter. And I have to say, I was a little annoyed with managers who couldn’t manage to provide a ticket machine at Geneva, even though their own instructions told us to use one.

The message, as we sat on our slightly threadbare seats, or used the less than appealing toilets (still providing a hole onto the track…) seemed clear. Even the SNCF, the much-vaunted, nationalised French railway service, has fallen on hard times. Its service to passengers is declining and, more spectacularly still, it’s failing its staff. While it’s as obsessed with generating a profit as any private organisation might be.

Ticket Collector on a French regional train
Not quite the same service as the TGV. And the staff are under threat
Now I’m back in Britain, with our privatised services. So privatised that even after two companies failed on the East Coast service, and a nationalised organisation succeeded spectacularly, the government re-privatised the lines. It seems ideology demands private ownership, for Tories, just as it demands nationalisation for certain areas of the left.

Whereas to me, looking at what’s happening in France, I’d have to say it’s the great non-issue.

What matters is how you treat your customers. How you treat your staff. How you invest for the future. Whether it’s a privatised service or a public one is insignificant in comparison. Treat people decently and provide a good service and the rest doesn’t matter. Britain and France demonstrate that you can do just as badly on those truly important issues, whether you have a private or nationalised system.

Still, all that being said, the SNCF has the edge on the railways in Britain in one crucial area. I told our friendly ticket collector how much I pay for my season ticket into London. He whistled.

“That’s four times as much, per kilometre, as it would cost over here,” he told me, astonished.

Ah, yes. Now that is an area where Britain could try to compete a little more seriously with France. Fares closer to the French level? Why, yes please. That would do very nicely, thanks. In a privatised or nationalised service.

1 comment:

evangilmer said...

You might take into account the much higher subsidies on the French network..