ANALYZE – Aging of the network, increase in the number of passengers, lack of staff… Many factors can explain this phenomenon. And the SNCF is not always in question.
Do you feel that your train is delayed more often than before? Unfortunately, this is not wishful thinking. Do the stations seem to be getting busier? Again, you were right. A study by the Authority for the Quality of Service in Transport (AQST) concluded that train punctuality in France had drastically deteriorated for all rail services since 1954, the year of the first available data.
Alexandre Barbusse, the author, explains that during this period, the number of users of the main line trains tripled while the French population grew by only 52%. But is this observation enough to explain why train delays have increased 10-fold on Île-de-France, 4-fold on main lines and 2-fold on regional trains? In truth, other factors contribute to these delays.
an aging network
First link in the chain of railway irregularity: the aging of the network due to lack of regular maintenance. How to explain? In reality, it is a political choice, the consequences of which we are paying today. If you want to remain mass transit, the train must remain cheap. However, in France, it is a unique case in Europe, the fee for the use of the runway corresponds to almost 40% of the price of each ticket, compared to 30% in Germany and 15% in Sweden. On a conventional track, which is not a high-speed line, a rail operator in France will pay €8.09 per kilometer per train, compared to €2.77 in Italy and €1.45 in Sweden. Why? Because unlike the national or departmental highways, the French State has transferred to the train traveler the load that other European States support.
You should know that without public intervention, the train is only profitable on some main lines, such as Paris-Lyon. Unfortunately, this transfer of costs cannot compensate all the investments destined to maintain the network. Its aging, therefore, has a great impact on train delays because incidents are increasing: catenaries are pulled out, the dilapidated state of the track forces trains to slow down in certain sections… Likewise, in many stations, junctions and railway points have not adapted to the increase in the number of trains in circulation. Finally, the average age of railway lines in France has gone from ten years in 1954 to more than 35 today. “Today we pay for the years of disinvestment”, esteem with railway lifeAlain Sauvan, director of the AQST.
More and more trains…
Second very important factor: this network is three times more in demand than in 1954. However, for safety reasons, the interval between trains remains the same and is important. It is that the characteristic of a train is to brake slowly. If at 130 km/h a car takes 170 meters to stop, a train in emergency braking takes 5 times as long: at 140 km/h it takes almost a kilometer to stop completely. Nowadays, some points of the network are experiencing real traffic jams, especially in certain railway junctions such as Lyon, Lille, Le Mans, Tours, Avignon or Bordeaux. Finally, the tripling of the number of trains, even since 1954, has led to “a significant impact on the punctuality of trains in France”, as the author of this report points out. In fact, a small incident on a train is enough for the entire line to suffer delays that are impossible to compensate for.
… and travelers!
Traffic jams on the tracks but also traffic jams at the stations! At certain times and on certain days of large departures, the number of passengers multiplies. However, most French stations have remained the same as they were in the middle of the last century. It would take colossal work to adapt them, as was the case at Montpellier Saint-Roch or, today, at Lyon Part-Dieu. We have gone from an average of 200 passengers per mainline train in 1954 to 450 today. There were 28 billion passenger/km in 1954; they are 90 billion today, that is to say three times more. TGV and Intercités passenger traffic has multiplied by 3.2, and in Ile-de-France it has increased from 2 billion to 14 billion, that is, a multiplication by 7. “As the number of train passengers increases, more traveler-related delays threaten to affect punctuality.” The study specifies: inconvenience, doors blocked by the influx of travellers, lengthy download and upload times, forgotten luggage…
Locomotive and old cars
Regarding train delays, the aging of rolling stock must also be taken into account. Locomotives, like automobiles, are designed to run for decades. But the aging of the entire fleet shows that little is renewed, despite the notorious efforts of the regions in the 90s by the TERs and Transiliens after the law transferring transport powers to the regions. And as Mr. de La Palice would have done, the AQST report stresses that “Older rolling stock is more likely to break down during the journey.” Note that it makes perfect sense when we know that the average age of electric locomotives, for example, has gone from 8 to 30 years between 1954 and today. And that the average age of a TGV train is currently 20 years.
To run trains, you need people. Lots of staff. And what’s more, competent staff. Contrary to popular belief, it is more complicated to run a train than it is to fly an airplane. The railway production chain, from the maintenance of the tracks to the arrivals at the stations, is a machine that uses dozens of skills. For this reason -and this is little known- even if it means making environmentalists shout, that the production cost of a trip beyond 700 km is cheaper by plane than by train. To compensate for the spectacular increase, desired by the State, in the tariffs for the circulation of its trains, the SNCF has drastically reduced its staff. Railroad workers numbered 400,000 in 1954; they are less than 150,000 today. The abysmal queues at the ticket counters, if they show it, are just the tip of the iceberg. Because forced digitization, and at all levels of the company, does not solve everything.
In short, transporting more and more passengers passing more trains through an increasingly degraded network, and this with fewer and fewer staff, can hardly improve punctuality. Except to ask the SNCF to do such impossible feats.
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