French deputies adopt outline of railway reform bill, strike wanes

PARIS, June 19 Thu Jun 19, 2014 4:54am EDT

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PARIS, June 19 (Reuters) - French parliamentarians voted to approve the broad outline of a railway reform after adding amendments that preserve the special status of workers in a nod to unions, one of whom acknowledged on Thursday a "turning point" in the nine-day railway strike.

Deputies in the National Assembly approved late on Wednesday the new structure of France's ageing railway system, which will bring state-owned railways company SNCF and track owner RFF into the same holding company while maintaining separate operations.

The reform, designed to prepare the system ahead of European Union moves to liberalise Europe's transport routes, has worried unions for railway workers who fear their generous benefits will be eroded as more competition comes to the sector.

To allay those concerns, deputies voted for amendments that maintain the "inseparable and integral character" of the new entities, and the establishment of a works council.

"Without a doubt we're at a turning point," Thierry Lepaon, head of the CGT union, told RTL radio. He would not, however, declare the strike over, saying that was for the workers themselves to decide in votes that could be held later Thursday.

A final parliamentary vote on the reform is due on June 24.

Participation in the costly strike, one of the longest that France has seen in years, has been waning since it began on June 10. On Wednesday, the number of railworkers on strike declined to 11.8 percent, far below the 28 percent when it began.

On Thursday, seven out of ten trains were expected to run, in what SNCF called "ongoing improvement" of service.

"It's time to get back to work," the head of SNCF, Guillaume Pepy, told Le Parisien daily. "We've lost 153 million euros ... a third of our last year's results. That's huge."

The Socialist government of President Francois Hollande has said the reform - which has been in the works since 2011 - is necessary and overdue.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls, under pressure to stand firm, has insisted the government will not back down on the reform, and while he has said he will not force unions to stop the strike, he has called for it to end.

Valls called on Wednesday for a parliamentary report to study solutions to the 44 billion euros ($60 billion) in debt carred by SNCF, which unions want the government to absorb. ($1 = 0.7368 Euros) (Reporting By Alexandria Sage; editing by Mark John)

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