France’s cash-strapped national rail operator SNCF spends €220 million (£188m) per year on free or cut-price tickets for staff and their extended families, according to the country’s state auditor.
In a scathing critique, the Cour des Comptes said the costly perk, which extends beyond workers to parents and grandparents, placed an unacceptable burden on the company and taxpayers and was depriving fare-paying passengers seats on full trains.
Current and retired French rail workers are entitled to a so-called “ease of movement” advantage, meaning they and their partners and children have access to free or 90 per cent-reduced train tickets.
The parents and grandparents of rail workers and their partners also have a limited number of free or reduced seats.
Despite regular calls for the advantage to be scaled back, its cost had risen by 20 per cent since 2011, found the auditor. Current SNCF employees only accounted for 35 per cent of the total cost, it said.
The number of passengers “evicted” due to lack of seats was costing the company €30 million a year, it added. One hundred SNCF employees are dedicated to dealing with distributing the free seats.
The criticism is likely to further infuriate unions just two weeks before they stage a nationwide, rolling strike on December 5 against President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed overhaul of the country’s retirement system.
The state auditor, which is advisory, also called for an end to automatic pay rises and bonuses for staff regardless of performance, and said workers must work longer hours and be more polyvalent as the rail sector opens up to foreign competition under EU rules.
It comes a year after Mr Macron’s ruling party enacted the deepest reform of the 150,000-strong SNCF since rail nationalisation in the 1930s.
The new law turned the SNCF into a joint-stock company, giving its management greater corporate responsibility, and paved the way to phase out its domestic passenger monopoly from 2020 and put an end to generous benefits and pensions for future employees.
The Macron government also pledged to write off €35 billion of the SNCF’s €47 billion of debt.
The Cour des Comptes said that SNCF must continue efforts to downsize its workforce by 2,000 employees per year and overhaul its organisation which is currently “very favourable to staff but not very favourable to productivity”.
Train drivers who in theory should work almost eight hours per shift in reality work for just six hours and forty minutes, it said, adding that there was a problem of “under employment of certain staff members”.
The company must do more to stamp out “a high absenteeism rate in certain areas and a rising number of unavailable staff,” it said.
Unions slammed the overview, with CGT-Cheminots calling it “a digest of shortcuts and nonsense”.
UNSA said: “Once again, (the Cour) is fuelling a highly angst-ridden social climate and the stigmatisation of workers”.