French firm SNCF to use more natural glyphosate alternative

The train company - France’s biggest user of the herbicide - is to switch to another product that uses more natural materials for its vegetation maintenance

18 December 2020
Train tracks with trees next to them. French firm SNCF to use more natural glyphosate alternative SNCF maintains vegetation along its tracks and side of tracks as a matter of maintenance and safety
By Hannah Thompson

Train company SNCF, which is normally France’s largest user of the controversial herbicide glyphosate, has announced that it has found a more natural alternative to keep its tracks clear of weeds and vegetation.

SNCF typically uses between 35 to 38 tonnes of glyphosate per year along its 30,000 km of tracks, platforms, and land, making it France’s biggest user of the herbicide, at 0.4% of the total.

This is necessary, the company says, as vegetation can hold water, which can eventually deform the platforms and rails. Excess vegetation and grass can also obstruct the laser beams that check that the tracks are clear, and make safety checks by staff more difficult.

The land next to the tracks must also remain clear to allow staff to access the rails quickly if needed, and allow them to evacuate passengers if there is an emergency.

Usually, SNCF ensures this by sending “weed killer trains” along the tracks, which spray the area with a glyphosate-based herbicide.

The use of glyphosate is controversial, and has been linked to serious health conditions including cancer, and is set to be banned in coming years.

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Since 2016, SNCF has been researching viable and effective alternatives, in anticipation of a future ban on glyphosate, expected for the end of 2021.

It is now set to replace the herbicide with a new product, which is described as containing more than 95% pelargonic acid - a biocontrol product that uses natural materials - mixed with a synthetic molecule of the “sulphonylurea” family.

Vegetation manager at SNCF Réseau, Jean-Pierre Pujols, said: “We have found a solution. It is still a herbicide. We are going to start using this new mix next year, and roll it out in 2022.

“It is a mix that [offers a] similar [result] to glyphosate, without actually being [glyphosate].”

The plan is also to spray the mixture more precisely and carefully, and never within three metres of homes, to conform with the new “Egalim law”, which regulates the farming and food sector to make it more sustainable.

Extra costs

The new solution is more expensive than glyphosate, however, and is expected to cost SNCF €110million extra per year, bringing the total cost of vegetation management to around €260million per year.

But, Mr Pujols said: “This is much less than the €300million-€500million it could cost us if we had not found a solution.”

To help, the government’s “relaunch” plan in the wake of the coronavirus crisis has earmarked €1.5blillion to “secure the activities of SNCF and make them more sustainable”, including the replacement of the use of glyphosate and bridge maintenance.

Mr Pujols added: “In the longer term, we are trying to find solutions that will allow us to stop using any synthetic phytosanitary products.”

These solutions may include anything from using new products, electric pruning, water vapour, and even gardening robots.

SNCF is also considering a feasibility study on whether they could use methods such as electromagnetic waves, synthetic plant materials, or different kinds of seeding patterns to grow plants in a more controlled way.

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