When building borders aims at increasing the efficiency of railways: the creation of the French track owner (mid-1990s – mid-2000s)

Abstract : As a member of the European Union, France has been constrained to deeply reform its railway system, after the adoption of the famous directive 91/440, in 1991. This text imposed to build an accounting border between the activity of transport and the management of the infrastructure and opened the way to various national solutions adopted by the members. The French reform was decided in 1997, after 2 years of social and political tensions. The historical national operator, the SNCF lost its monopoly in the field of railways with the creation of RFF, a public authority which became the owner of the rail track and was also given the colossal rail debt of about €2012 26 billions. By the way, France decided to go further than the requirement of the EU directive and adopted an odd structure for the sector of railways. However, despite the creation of a new agency, RFF, the border with the historical operator is not so tight. The main factor of porosity is inscribed in the law itself: the SNCF has been given a monopoly on the maintenance of the existing network, under the responsibility of RFF. This paper proposes to discuss the nature of the border that has been then implemented between SNCF and RFF and to understand the reasons behind the choices that were made in a very specific socio-political context. If on the European level, the long-term aim was to enable an open access to new railway operators in order to reduce costs and prices, this idea was not so clear in the national context, where the problem of the debt was much more important and the right-wing government did not want to get involved in a new strike after a very long conflict in December 1995. The border reflects these various factors. It is first a financial separation, between both structures but also between the world of railways and the budget of the French State, constrained, at that time, to rigorous criterion imposed by the Maastricht treaty. Of course it is also a physical border mainly between the infrastructure and the stations which have been kept by the SNCF. These physical aspects of the new border were not the easiest to define and were only solved about 10 years after the reform. The slowness of the process produced a new kind of no-man’s lands, a typical figure of border problems: unused rail lands had to wait for a clarification before they could be reused for other urban purposes. The border is also a cultural one. Since the reform, the SNCF has been engaged into a movement of deep change. The former values of technical leadership and public utility have been progressively combined with new values, such as commercial attitude and on-line modernity. For its part, RFF has tried to build a new culture besides the old culture of railway workers, based on the diversity of its increasing staff composed of civil servants, railway workers and private sector employees. Finally, this border has also a temporal dimension. One of the main points was to change lots of practices in the world of railway, particularly on the profitability of investments and the national management of local transport services. This paper is based on oral archives already collected and new investigations on the specific problem of the rail lands sharing between SNCF and RFF.
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Contributor : Arnaud Passalacqua <>
Submitted on : Thursday, November 13, 2014 - 7:56:17 PM
Last modification on : Friday, January 4, 2019 - 5:33:34 PM
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Arnaud Passalacqua. When building borders aims at increasing the efficiency of railways: the creation of the French track owner (mid-1990s – mid-2000s). Transport and borders, Traffic, Transport and Mobility (T2M), 2013, Kouvola, Finland. ⟨hal-01082610⟩

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