France is bracing itself for a turbulent Christmas as the national railway network's annual pay negotiations get underway, with a first wave of industrial action by train conducters getting underway this weekend, forcing the SNCF to cancel 60 percent of its TGV and Intercity services.
Train services on all the high-speed TGV lines have been drastically reduced, with some regions more seriously affected than others.
The SNCF, however, expects normal traffic on Eurostar and Thalys services to the UK and Netherlands, respectively.
However, TGVs to Switzerland and Italy will be cut by two-thirds, trains to Germany cut by half, while all trains to Spain have been cancelled.
A "gradual resumption" to normal service is expected by Monday, with 3 out of 4 trains on all TGV routes likely to run on schedule.
Unions demand recognition for conductors
The weekend strike was called by the SUD-Rail, Unsa and CFDT unions as train controllers begin negotiations over wage demands, career development and better recognition of the specific nature of their job by SNCF's management.
Almost 10,000 SNCF conductors – of whom almost 3,000 work on TGV and Intercités trains – have a crucial function when it comes to the flow of rail traffic, passenger safety and trains cannot pull out of stations without them.
According to one union representative with SUD-Rail "the conductor is the only railway worker [a passenger] meets and we find ourselves at the end of the funnel of all the problems."
"The conductors are the ones left out of the equation, even though they are the SNCF's showcase job!" said Rénald Szpitalnik, an elected delegate and conductor on the Paris-Milan TGV route.
🚨Grève massive chez les ASCT du 2 au 5 décembre !💥💥 #SudRail SUD-Rail appelle les ASCT qui ne ce sont pas encore déclarés grévistes à rejoindre leurs collègues !! Le mouvement est massif sur l’ensemble du territoire…allons gagner sur les revendications !!!! #SudRail ✊✊✊ pic.twitter.com/Tml3Bdg64z— SUD-Rail Fédération (@Fede_SUD_Rail) November 30, 2022
Christmas and New Year in jeopardy
The conductors have already given notice of industrial action over the Christmas and New Year weekends that has been described as "a sword of Damocles" over the heads of SNCF's management.
According to Thomas Cavel, general secretary of the CFDT Cheminots rail workers union, "The ball is in the management's court."
Strikers are "waiting for SNCF to recognise the specific role of the conductors" whose working conditions have allegedly been deteriorating for some time.
In a press release, SNCF Voyageurs' management said it regretted the strike had been upheld "even though concrete and important measures have been proposed to trade unions following several weeks of negotiations."
The strike comes ahead of compulsory annual salary negotiations, due to begin on Wednesday 7 December at SNCF.
The CGT, SUD-Rail and CFDT have called for a united strike that day.
Meanwhile, for passengers due to travel this weekend, SNCF will inform customers by email or SMS whether or not their train is running.
The company recommends that customers check timetables before going to stations and, where possible, postpone their journeys.