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Retired rail worker in France not feeling privileged

Much has been made of cheminots’ privileges as the government targets railworkers and their pensions in reforms to transform the SNCF; but, as unions reply with strikes running throughout June, reader Gilles Carré a retired ticket inspector, says the reality is not so simple

Most cheminots are far from privileged, says retired ticket inspector Gilles Carré from Limoux, Occitanie.

President Macron wants to match future SNCF employees’ conditions to the private sector as he dislikes ‘special regimes’ ... but any advantages compensate for a difficult lifestyle says Mr Carré, who ended his career training other inspectors.

Mr Carré lived in Normandy then but worked on TGVs from Paris Montpar­nasse to destinations such as Toulouse, Brest or Nantes. He typically went to work in Paris every other day, regularly overnighting away from home in hotels or special hostels for cheminots.

“I worked shifts, which could start at any time of the day, it could just as easily be 5.30 or 22.00, a day train or night. As I was at the end of my career I worked almost exclusively on TGVs; otherwise, a conductor works on all kinds of train.

“Sometimes I would do one return trip, or one-and-a-half, adding up to a day of seven-and-a-half or eight hours, and when you added in time to get to the train and to welcome passengers it could be 11 hours, with a break in the middle away from home.”

The working week ranged from three to six days with two variable days of rest, including no more than 14 Sundays a year. “Every day the hours were different, I could never join clubs or do a team sport.

“Meals were often a sandwich in the train when you got the chance and family life was difficult. And for a salary which was not extravagant.”

He worked 32-36 hours/week, with public holidays and 28 days of paid holiday. His pay was €2,600 net a month (plus a one-off annual sum of around €1,560). His pension is €1,500.

He said a friend who is a retired British policeman told him British public sector pensions were better. “Out of my salary a quarter was variable elements, like bonuses and compensation for night or Sunday working, which did not count towards my pension.

“A private sector worker ends up with a pension of about 80% of his salary, but for us it was only around 60%.”

Many cheminots take other jobs after retirement to compensate. When he retired in late 2007 drivers were retiring at 50 and the other workers at 55; since then it has risen to ages 52-3 and 57-8 (although senior management often work much longer). “I had colleagues who wanted to work longer, but couldn’t as management wanted to replace them with a young person on half the pay; apart from jobs needing experience, where they wanted to hold on to them.

“Right-wing media only cite the example of drivers, but it’s not honest. They had up to 30% more salary and left earlier [a TGV driver at the end of their career earns €3,500-4,000 net/month with bonuses].”

This was originally due to the hardship of the driver’s job in the days of steam. “My father-in-law did it, in the cold, in the wind and smoke… it was very difficult. He came home black from the smoke.”

People join SNCF as it is stable, safe from lay-offs with early retirement and a ‘life that’s a little bit different’ – so they are fighting to keep the benefits for future workers. They strike because “you never obtain good results by negotiation alone: you have to fight.

“Unions want these jobs to maintain specific characteristics which go together with specific conditions of work. They’re half-right. If you have hard work conditions it’s normal to keep certain advantages.

“For example, I worked standing up in wobbly trains, and now have a slipped disc, and for much less pay than drivers who are in sitting in comfortable, air-conditioned cabins. If there are privileged people, it would be them.

“In their defence, they have enormous responsibility. A TGV can hold more than 800 people and they are responsible for their safety in a train going 350kph. It justifies a good salary, but not early retirement.

“As a ticket inspector I had to deal with accidents, assaults, attempted murders, baby deliveries, fights, drunk people…

“It was dangerous. One time a man got out a big .357 Magnum revolver... So we had a difficult job, but without the same advantages.”

One perk is a special medical regime, including paid-for doctors’ appointments (only while in work) and a one-off €1,000 for hearing aids. Unlike private sector workers, there is no subsidised top-up health policy.

Subsidised (not free) housing exists but he never had it. A cheminot also has free travel for life; but second class, apart from management. Spouses get 16 free trips a year.

“But 90% of cheminots never take the train! When they’re on holiday they’re sick of seeing trains. Plus on top of that there are strikes and people don’t necessarily live near a station.

“I’d give my free travel back like a shot for a better pension.”

For the future, Mr Carré said salaries and retirement ages should be reviewed to be fairer between cheminots. SNCF also has far too many cadres (managers) at 60% of staff.

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