The long, empty platform of the TGV station in eastern France offers a vista of rapeseed fields stretching out as far as the eye can see.

Not a sound troubles the pastoral scene on a cold, grey February morning. Then a train from Paris pulls in with a whoosh. About 30 people disembark and head to the parking lot. In five minutes, the platform is empty again.

This happens 13 times a day at most, meaning that this stop in the Meuse region is used barely 90 minutes a day. Most passengers take the high-speed trains on to Strasbourg in Alsace, and beyond. Fewer passengers get on and off at these platforms each year than the Paris Metro carries in an hour.

Underused stations on expensive tracks are one of the many reasons France's vaunted rail system is insolvent, subsisting on life support from the state.

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Rail operator SNCF runs an annual deficit of €3 billion despite receiving €14b of public subsidies annually-just under half the defence budget. Its debt, at €45b, equals the national debt of New Zealand.

Today, a major French railway strike brought thehigh-speed trains to a halt, leaving passengers stranded or scrambling for other options

SNCF said only about 12 per cent of trains were running during the first of a series of weekly two-day strikes that labour unions have called for the next three months.

Long-term traffic numbers suggest that trains are losing market share to airlines and buses, while major rail-service disruptions are riling passengers with increasing frequency.

"For 30 years we have shied away from making the necessary transformation of SNCF and for 30 years we've seen the service deteriorate," Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said last month. "We can't go on like this. We're going into the wall."

Fixing SNCF, created in 1938 and called by the French initials for national rail company, has bedeviled France's leaders for decades.

President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to succeed where others have failed. Since taking office 10 months ago, he's pushed through a landmark labour reform, slashed taxes on business and investment and initiated overhauls of policies in areas ranging from education to immigration.

With the rail system, the 40-year-old President may face his biggest challenge yet-one that will set the tone for whether he can accomplish the rest of his agenda as well.

The Lille Flandres station, northern France, is pictured during the national strike. Photo / AP
The Lille Flandres station, northern France, is pictured during the national strike. Photo / AP

SNCF's problems span people, places and politics. Its strike-prone workers have a special status, including being able to retire at as young as 52, and they have jobs for life barring gross misconduct. For decades, politicians have shied away from taking privileges away from those public-sector employees, represented by unions that forced much of France to grind to a halt for three weeks in November 1995.

Unions are trying to present a similar show of force this time as trains and planes were cancelled across France to protest against Macron's plans to overhaul the status of rail workers and open the sector to competition.

The protest turned into a catch-all demonstration against the President's reforms when staff from national carrier Air France, employees of the energy sector, rubbish collection companies, as well as students at state-backed universities voiced their wide-ranging grievances on the same day.

Opposition lawmakers and local officials, who say they won't stand for line or station closings, are weighing in.

Politicians have been hesitant to tackle a point of national pride. When then-President Jacques Chirac inaugurated the TGV line connecting Paris and Mediterranean cities in 2001, he put it this way: "For all the French people, and for rail workers, it's a matter of pride and an instrument for our national cohesion."

"The TGV is a beautiful symbol," said Francois Ecalle, head of the Fipeco public finances institute. "It's shop-window politics and every mayor wants his own high-speed train stop. But these trains are not made to stop every 30km. That actually defeats the purpose."

A student calls for his fellow students to join him in a protest outside Tobliac university, in Paris, France. Photo / AP
A student calls for his fellow students to join him in a protest outside Tobliac university, in Paris, France. Photo / AP

Following the publication of a sweeping report that he commissioned, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said that he intends to scrap the special status for all rail workers hired from now on, though SNCF's existing employees wouldn't be stripped of those rights. That and other proposed reforms were presented to the Cabinet last month.

The changes, which won't guarantee future hires job security, early retirement and special pensions, triggered the ire of unions that plan 36 days of strikes over the months of April, May and June. The Government aims to ask for parliamentary approval to make the changes by executive order by midyear, after talks with unions and passenger groups.

Finance Minister Le Maire previously said that if losses are eliminated and performance restored, the state would be ready to assume part of SNCF's debt some time before the next election in 2022. Taking on all SNCF borrowings would lift French government debt to almost 100 per cent of economic output, from about 97 per cent currently.


Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT union, vows to defend the special privileges for rail workers and denounced the government's "campaign of lies." Thousands demonstrated in the streets of Paris at the end of March.

"Rail workers are badly paid," Martinez said last month. "I challenge anyone to say that the problems of SNCF-trains that are late, or cancelled, lines that are badly maintained-are the result of the status of the rail workers."

Still, with low-cost airlines and buses offering fresh alternatives, the number of passenger miles travelled on France's long-distance trains fell 3.8 per cent between 2008 and 2016. The equivalent measure for buses rose 31 per cent and the number of airline passengers rose 19 per cent, according to Yves Crozet, a professor at the University of Lyon who studies transportation.

Traffic rebounded slightly in 2017, helped by the opening of four new high-speed lines that added 700km of fast track.

- Bloomberg, additional reporting AP