French train order debacle angers anti-liberalisation unions

PARIS Wed May 21, 2014 9:56am EDT

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PARIS May 21 (Reuters) - France's biggest railworker union on Wednesday denounced a mistaken order of hundreds of trains too wide to enter stations as proof of the dangers of deregulation, seizing on the costly error on the eve of an anti-liberalisation protest in Paris.

The CGT, the largest of three unions behind the Thursday protest, said the order would never have happened if the state railway company had not been split in two in a preliminary step towards privatisation.

"This saga would be just a vaudeville farce if it were not for the fact that it results from the split," the union said in a statement, referring to a decision back in 1997 to break the railways into two entities - the SNCF train service operator and the RFF, which is in charge of rail infrastructure.

News of the mistake emerged on Tuesday when the RFF admitted a mix-up in which it gave the SNCF platform measurements that worked only for train stations built less than 30 years ago.

Most of France's 1,200 stations are closer to 50 years old and repair work on platforms to accommodate the new trains is expected to cost tens of millions of euros.

With budget cuts raising tension between central government and local authorities, the mess-up was denounced by Environment Minister Segolene Royal as a "stupid" error that should not be billed to the regional authorities concerned about the repair work that would now be required.

The CGT, the largest union at SNCF, is organising a street rally in Paris on Thursday with two other unions to protest at government reform plans they fear will lead to accelerated liberalisation of the rail sector.

Since 1997, the RFF has been able to rent out its rails to private operators in the first step towards privatisation of the French railway network, with the SNCF among the RFF's clients, although most train service remains public today.

The European Union has called for deregulation of rail services across the 28-nation bloc by 2019.

(Reporting by Gerard Bon and Brian Love, editing by Mark Heinrich)

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