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French rail crash made in Brussels

Brian Denny explains how EU rail directives are putting a whole continent at risk

The platform clock at Bretigny-sur-Orge station to the south of Paris remains frozen at 17.10, the moment that an intercity train derailed at 85mph on July 13, killing six and injuring over 100 others in the worse rail disaster for 25 years in France.

France is still in shock at what has become known as the "catastrophe," particularly as it was caused by a faulty connecting bar - the cause of the 2002 rail disaster in Britain at Potters Bar which killed seven and injured 70.

But the response of state railway SNCF to the French disaster was significantly different to Jarvis, the subcontractor in Britain that caused the Potters Bar crash.

If Potters Bar was marked by a nine-year struggle for truth and justice, the SNCF immediately announced that it considered itself "responsible" for the Bretigny disaster.

In contrast following Potters Bar Jarvis chairman Steven Norris shamelessly went onto BBC television to claim that there was "compelling evidence" that sabotage was "a very distinct possibility," a claim that was later described as "preposterous" at the ensuing inquest.

The police also raided the houses of RMT member Alan Fenton and other track workers without a shred of evidence in search of scapegoats.

But there is one similarity - the French nation is now united in grief and outrage, demanding to know the truth.

French rail union CGT has made it clear that the Bretigny disaster was just the latest incident caused by the "rampant liberalisation of the French railway" and the race towards sub-contracting and cost-cutting which "has had real consequences on the level of safety of railway installations."

The union revealed that last February a private contractor on a work site in Portes-les-Valence without authorisation installed a safety perch over the catenary (overhead line) which was carried off by a train.

In June a train derailed south of Lyon-Part-Dieu after an axle broke and in July in Givors a freight train entered a section of line occupied by an on-track machine belonging to a private contractor left without permission.

The SUD rail union also complains that "for years we've been calling attention to the fact that maintenance cannot be subject to the laws of the market."

The single biggest force promoting a policy of rail "liberalisation," fragmentation and privatisation has been EU directives.

The EU mania for deregulation and removing state control of rail networks is enshrined in four rail "liberalisation" packages and an array of EU rail directives beginning with EU directive 91/440, introduced on July 29 1991.

This demanded that railways must be split between infrastructure undertakings (Railtrack and Network Rail in Britain and RFF in France) and train operating companies.

Directive 91/440 was the template for John Major's Tory government in 1994 to create the basket case that is Britain's privatised railways today, with the most expensive rail fares in the world.

France took a different route, exploiting the opportunities created by EU rail "liberalisation" by snapping up rail franchises abroad through SNCF subsidiaries like Keolis without fully privatising its own railways.

French government rail policy was driven by the overarching need to compete with its German rival Deutsche Bahn to dominate European rail.

However the European Commission attacked France's high level of rail investment following the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which limited state debt and public borrowing.

As a result moves to sell off parts of SNCF followed in 1997 along with implementation of EU rail directive 91/440 to set up a French Network Rail, RFF.

French Communist Party transport spokesman Jean-Claude Gayssot warned at the time that "RFF won't solve any of SNCF's problems - including debt - but it's dangerous because it opens up the prospect of the dismantling, fragmentation and privatisation of parts of SNCF."

But a few months later Gayssot became transport minister in a Socialist-led government which continued to follow EU directives by privatising parts of SNCF and opening others to competition.

In February 1998 SNCF began creating commercial subsidiaries and several "European economic interest groupings" to take part in foreign privatisation ventures.

In February 2000 SNCF sold 60 per cent of its parcel service Sernam to private road freight company Geodis with a dowry of £150 million.

Geodis immediately sacked nearly half the 5,200-strong workforce.

When the French National Assembly transferred SNCF's historic debt to RFF in 1997 it totalled £16 billion, climbing to £26bn by 2001.

RFF serviced this debt by pushing up track access charges, cutting back track maintenance and embarking on a programme of privatisation.

Track access charges increased from €900m (£760m) in 1997 to €2bn (£1.7bn) in 2002 and €3.2bn (£2.7bn) in 2010. They are projected to increase by 150 per cent by 2015.

Moreover while the French state has poured investment into high-speed TGV routes it has been starving overcrowded local lines of funds.

But high-speed trains serve less than 20 per cent of travellers and only 1,180 miles of a total of around 18,600 miles of track and the majority of passengers still have to use regular lines.

These commuter routes include the Paris-Orleans-Limoges-Toulouse line on which Bretigny, the site of the catastrophe, is situated, serving over five million people and nearly a quarter of the French regions.

Anger at France's two-tier railway system is mounting.

For years a series of reports have warned about the chronic underinvestment in France's regular rail lines, described as the poor cousin of the high-speed links.

In 2005 a Swiss report by the Ecole Polytechnique de Lausanne warned that France's non-high-speed train lines were so degraded that 60 per cent of them would be unusable in 2025.

And in 2010 the state auditor warned that 20 years of underinvestment in the local train lines of the wider Paris region was "above all" because the state had been prioritising high-speed trains.

One railway passenger association denounced local lines for their "rust-bucket trains."

In short SNCF's new market-driven environment stems from EU competition directives imposed quietly by successive governments to fragment operations and repeatedly attack rail workers' conditions while private firms cherry-pick profitable parts of the network.

And the Bretigny disaster has once more revealed the dangers of this corporate EU business model for rail which is based on greed and profit rather than serving the whole nation and the travelling public.

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