Strike wanes as France pushes on with railway reform

PARIS Thu Jun 19, 2014 9:16am EDT

A French SNCF railway worker demonstrates against a planned reform of the sector in Paris, June 19, 2014.  REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

A French SNCF railway worker demonstrates against a planned reform of the sector in Paris, June 19, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Philippe Wojazer

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PARIS (Reuters) - Growing numbers of French railway employees returned to work on Thursday after lawmakers voted to approve the broad outline of a railway reform that has triggered a nine-day 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 liberalize 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.

Support for the strike among rail workers waned on Thursday with SNCF reporting that only 10.5 percent of its 150,000 workers were participating.

A small core of workers voted to pursue a strike which has forced hundreds of cancellations and huge delays across France.

"The strike is extended because there are still rail workers protesting today," said Gilbert Garrel, an official at the CGT union's branch for rail workers.

Earlier the CGT's head, Thierry Lepaon, acknowledged the strike had reached a "turning point" after the vote in parliament, although he refused to declare it completely over.

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

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 carried by SNCF, which unions want the government to absorb.

($1 = 0.7368 Euros)

(Reporting By Alexandria Sage and Leigh Thomas; editing by Mark John)

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