Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, your government is adopting a proactive stance when it comes to relaunching rail freight. However, just a few months ago, you decided to shut down the early bird train, Perpignan-Rungis. Finally, what policy are you the minister?
Jean-Batiste Djebbari I wouldn’t want to start with a controversy, but on the subject of Perpignan-Rungis, we had built a temporary offer, supposed to start in December. It was unsuccessful for reasons you can understand. However, yes, rail freight has declined over the past twenty or twenty-five years. First, because we have experienced an internationalization of trade and the road has imposed itself thanks to fiscal policies which have raised the cost of rail. Today, for a loader, the cost of the train is 30% higher. Clearly, if we do not subsidize rail more, this differential will become an obstacle to the regeneration and development of rail freight. Then our country deindustrialised. However, a lot of heavy materials were transported by train. This partly explains the erosion of rail freight transport. Finally, the liberalization of the sector between 2004 and 2006 resulted in a drop in the market share of freight, and of Fret SNCF in particular. Add to that the dilapidated state of the network, and you explain the long decline in activity. It must be stopped. And, to do this, I will use two immediate levers: lower tolls for all freight operators and a massive investment in three rail motorways – each equivalent to 20,000 fewer trucks on the roads – including the Perpignan-Rungis that we are going to extend to the south, towards Barcelona, and to the north, towards the ports of Antwerp and Dunkirk. At the same time, we have chosen to strengthen the subsidy for combined transport and single wagons. We are carrying out these actions in France, but also across Europe, which has defined rail freight as one of its four main priorities.
Fret SNCF, once the only rail freight operator, has been operating in a competitive environment since 2006. What is the state of freight activity today, within SNCF?
Transporting goods by train is one of SNCF’s fundamental missions. We are not a company like the others and we must fight to participate in the ecological transition effort. Let’s not be afraid of words, we can make freight a profitable activity, it is the only way to make it sustainable. The economic data is clear: the group is now a public limited company and Fret SNCF, a legally independent entity. In other words, the state can no longer recapitalize it. But, we have strengths. This is the case with the single wagon, which we are the only ones to do. And there, public aid is essential, because the structural disadvantage with the road is too great. It is possible, Austria has done it. If we let the law of the market rule, it is the disappearance of the isolated wagon. On the other hand, supporting its development makes it possible to regain market share. This is important because the single wagon is aimed at SMEs. This recovery plan is therefore also a safeguard plan. And, I am convinced, European cooperation on rail transport will have a fundamental role in the future.
Pierre Garzon, what are the visible consequences of the decline in rail freight for the elected official that you are?
Pierre Garzon In Val-de-Marne, year after year, thousands of heavy goods vehicles pass through a saturated network, worsening the ecological and health situation. However, this department has historic rail, road and river infrastructure. But history is not the past and we must revitalize these tools. I am one of those who found the stopping of Perpignan-Rungis incomprehensible. We fought, but it is clear that full powers are in the hands of the market. The state claims to be powerless. However, everyone knows that the price of road transport does not take into account its negative externalities, such as the cost of illnesses linked to air pollution. Intentions, we’ve heard, but this train is still not rolling. Coming out of the diagnosis, which I share with Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, the rules must be redefined and the need for regulation is a fundamental given.
We need to perpetuate this aid, to protect it from changes in the political majority. “
Jean-Baptiste Djebbari The ability to regulate is indeed at the heart of the matter.
The government releases 4.7 billion euros for rail. Is this plan the right one?
Laurent Brun Liberalization and deregulation in transport have not only shattered rail freight. The French road pavilion suffered the same fate, dropping from 50% of flows in 1993 to 15% today. We have seen dozens of stimulus plans in the rail industry, each time driven by the same logic: cost reduction, destruction of industrial facilities, station and line closures, and job cuts. We are still being told that 150 driving agent positions at Fret SNCF have been cut. We have experienced the spraying of industrial tools. All liberal solutions have been tried: recapitalization, assistance with tolls, construction of rail motorways… They allow, of course, to stabilize traffic, but not to regain it. Today, 93% of the market is held by 4 operators – of which 3 are loss-making – and 60% of Fret SNCF’s turnover is concentrated on 20 shippers. The market has become concentrated and the companies’ rail service tool only benefits a handful of them. There can be no real recovery unless investments are made in rolling stock. Perpignan-Rungis is a good example. We need a break-up plan. Subsidizing existing traffic does not allow recovery. You have to ask the right questions, and they concern the public industrial tool.
There can be no real recovery unless investments are made in rolling stock. “
Is the government plan a revival or a break?
Jean-Baptiste Djebbari We are between rupture and continuity. The liberal logic of organized competition has resulted in the weakening of rail freight operators. Should we then, in the market, isolate the freight activity because it is essential to the nation? We will have this debate. Laurent Brun said it very well, there is a very strong concentration of the profitable core of the activity and we could therefore have chosen to refocus Fret SNCF on this profitable core. We did not do it. However, the freight activity can only respond to a market that exists, and this implies rethinking industrial policy and relocation. Public intervention is essential and I welcome the creation of a high commission for planning, capable of restoring the capacity to reflect on twenty-thirty years. I do not believe that we are in a liberal moment, let alone neoliberal. Liberalism is letting market forces work. We have done it too much. Today, the state is extraordinarily back. He nationalized 12 million salaries! It’s a breakup and we need it. On that, I agree.
The 11 billion euros we are spending on transport will create 80,000 direct and indirect jobs. “Jean Baptiste Djebbari
How does the SNCF give itself the industrial capacity to respond to political ambitions?
Jean-Pierre Farandou I am a business owner, confronted with a double phenomenon: the consequences of decisions that were taken twenty years ago and the need to define a trajectory for the next twenty years. We show a 15% drop in traffic compared to last year. It is therefore not abnormal to adapt ourselves – I am talking about freight forwarders. But, we are fortunate to be a unified company, and these drivers are geared towards the passenger business. We are in a logic of competitiveness, the adjustment of costs, in the double competition of rail and road, must be taken into account. As for the break, we have it with the single wagon policy, which has real growth potential. A train pollutes 20 times less than trucks and consumes 6 times less energy. Public policies must promote these advantages. The impetus must be European to give substance to this formidable ambition of doubling the market share of rail freight.
Pierre Garzon State support cannot be reduced to the socialization of losses. We have a railway history, the network exists and we can reconnect with a fine service of the territories. Society, and especially young people, is very concerned about environmental imperatives. This fact forces us to rethink our model of production, consumption and transport. It is therefore necessary to regulate, and certain sectors must escape the logic of the market. This is the case for rail freight. In rail, we build over a century, we have to accept it. We need to perpetuate this public aid, to protect it from changes in the political majority. Isolate funding to relate it to the goal, not the fleeting calculation of an annual budget.
Laurent Brun We certainly do not spit on public aid, but we will not say that the government saves freight after putting its head on the chopping block. In its alternative proposals, at the time of the 2018 reform, the CGT set the objective of 25% modal share for rail by 2050. Concretely, there are 1,000 Perpignan-Rungis to run in addition to here there! The question of work on the network is therefore fundamental. And if the heavy work at night is a problem, we must review this logic, go back to work that does not interrupt traffic, that is not concentrated only in the Paris region … Of course, it is more expensive. But our public tool must no longer comply with market rules. Running the equivalent of 1,000 Perpignan-Rungis will not result in productivity gains. We will have to hire, driving, maintenance, maneuver, on the network… We will believe in the rupture when we see job creation.
Jean-Baptiste Djebbari The 11 billion euros we are spending on transport will create 80,000 direct and indirect jobs.
What is the future of public freight in the coming years?
Jean-Pierre Farandou In ten or fifteen years, SNCF will have more freight activity than today. We must hold on to this objective and we can achieve it with this recovery plan. We will also have to continue to look at the long term and the regions will probably have an important role to play.
European cooperation on rail transport will have a fundamental role in the future. “
Jean-Baptiste Djebbari Yes, we must achieve socially regulated competition. I am neither a supporter of market forces which act as they please, nor a supporter of authoritarian planning. Fair regulation is the key word of the coming decade, and I am convinced that we are on the way there.
Pierre Garzon So that it is not authoritarian, let’s say it has to be popular. The objectives must be democratic, considered with citizens and local elected officials.
Laurent Brun Authoritarianism, we have known it from 2003 with the suppression of activities and the abandonment of wood stations. If, tomorrow, you tell us the reopening of these stations, then, indeed, we can agree that an original policy is being put in place and opens up prospects.