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SNCF strike chaos as commuters seek alternative routes

Hundreds of kilometres of traffic jams and huge crowds at train stations have built up today as SNCF goes on strike for the first time in its planned three-month stoppage.

Over 400 km of traffic jams were recorded before 8h00 across Île-de-France this morning, reported news source FranceInfo, as travellers tried to get around the train chaos. Authorities described the road conditions as “exceptional”, and SNCF management said roads were expected to be “very disrupted” throughout the day.

Train stations across the country were packed, as some commuters had not given up on trying to get one of the few trains still running.

Around 12% of TGV were scheduled to leave as usual, along with 13% of Intercités. One in five TER services will run, including 6% of trains and 24% of buses. Over 90% of international Thalys trains will run, as will 75% of Eurostar services.

In the Paris area, 50% of RER A trains will run, and there will be 14-30% of normal service on other lines.

The uncertainty led some commuters to end up in dangerous situations: photos have already shown people attempting to cross the tracks at stations and one woman even accidentally fell onto some tracks due to the crowds at the Gare de Lyon in Paris.

She was able to be rescued by other passengers.

Yet, many stations found themselves relatively empty, including Reims, Bordeaux and Nantes, with photos of timetable boards showing almost no trains to be running at all, especially between the hours of around 7h to 15h.

The strike is the first day of many planned in what SNCF has called the “two out of every five days” of stoppages, from today until at least June 28.

So far, it has scheduled strikes for:

  • April: 3, 4, 8, 9, 13, 14, 18, 19, 23, 24, 28 and 29
  • May: 3, 4, 8, 9, 13, 14, 18, 19, 23, 24, 28 and 29
  • June: 2, 3, 7, 8, 12, 13, 17, 18, 22, 23, 27 and 28

The disputes centre on the government’s proposed plans to the rail network, including plans to pay back its debt, and turn SNCF into a national public limited company.

The most controversial of the proposals focuses on changes to employment contracts, including the retiring of the “statut de cheminots” contract that currently exists, and which effectively protects employees’ civil servant status and prevents them from being fired.

Around 90% of SNCF staff are employed in this way, but Prime Minister Edouard Philippe wants to replace the arrangement for new recruits with standard “Code de Travail” contracts.

Unions called the proposed change “a declaration of war”.

Today, transport minister Elisabeth Borne has said that the government will “stand firm” in its consultation with the unions, and plans to meet them on Thursday.

But Bruno Gazeau, president of transport user association la Fédération Nationale des Associations d'Usagers des Transports (FNAUT), said: “We respect the strike, but we would like the ‘cheminots’ to have equal respect for the right of passengers to get around, especially for those who need to work.”

He added that “many people have no other choice” than to use the trains.

And yet, other means of transport do exist for those who can arrange them, and an expectation of repeated strikes means many are considering serious alternatives to their usual train journey.

Some alternatives to SNCF rail...

  • Carshares - several smartphone apps allow you to find a car to share across France, including Blablacar, Covoiturage-libre, Roulezmalin and Karos, as well as Clem’, Covoit’ici, Klaxit and Ouihop in Ile-de-France.

Blablacar is even offering passengers free travel from home to work on strike days, limited to two journeys per day, for the first 60,000 users. It is even offering to reimburse drivers for those journeys, for distances of 80km or less.

In Ile-de-France, use of these apps will be free, and drivers will be paid back at the rate of 10 centimes per kilometre.

SNCF is also offering carsharing as an option; until June 28, its iDVROOM service is reimbursing passengers for two journeys per day, up to 80km or less, when at least three people travel in the same car.

  • Buses - Isilines, Transdev, FlixBus and Ouibus are aiming to offer an increased service during the strike days.

Isilines - a subsidiary of Transdev - is providing up to three times as many buses for certain routes, including short hops and longer-distance journeys such as Paris-Marseille. FlixBus is adding 50 more buses to its usual fleet of 250, but has said it has received a spike in bookings across strike days, with prices forced up as a result.

Ouibus is working normally.

  • Autostops - The “citizen Autostop” initiative has been launched by SNCF in Paris and Ile-de-France, in partnership with driving smartphone app Waze and social network Facebook.

To use it, you must download an “Autostop” sticker from the website, stick it behind your windscreen in your car, and go to one of the many designated pick-up places indicated on the Waze app or Facebook page. Although currently only available in  Ile-de-France, there are reportedly plans to enlarge the operation area as the SNCF strikes continue.

  • Taxis and cab companies - this may be an option for those who can stretch to the extra cost.  But while taxis can be more expensive, their fees are usually fixed per distance travelled, while services such as Uber sees its prices rise with demand.

Another company, LeCab, operating in the Paris-Ile-de-France area, said on its Twitter account that it was offering all journeys within the region at a fixed price of €1.90, between the hours of 6am and midnight.

  • Push bikes - Always an option for those who feel comfortable riding on the roads. Even here, smartphone apps can help; ViaNavigo and Géovélo are among those allowing riders to choose safer or quicker bike routes throughout the city.

In towns where cycle hire schemes exist - such as Vélib - they are still operating as usual, but are likely to be even busier than usual as the strikes continue to hit.

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