French commuters face travel chaos brought on by train strike, taxi protest

A commuter looks at an information board at the Lille-Flandres station, northern France, June 10, 2014, before the start of a strike by French SNCF railway workers. French commuters faced travel chaos on Wednesday with a major train strike again
A commuter looks at an information board at the Lille-Flandres station, northern France, June 10, 2014, before the start of a strike by French SNCF railway workers. French commuters faced travel chaos on Wednesday with a major train strike against proposed reforms to contain the rail sector's soaring debt and a protest by Parisian taxi drivers over rival car services. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS (AFP) - French commuters faced travel chaos on Wednesday with a major train strike against proposed reforms to contain the rail sector's soaring debt and a protest by Parisian taxi drivers over rival car services.

The 24-hour rail strike began on Tuesday evening, but its main impact was felt on Wednesday with train links to other countries also hit.

The state rail operator SNCF said only one high-speed TGV train out of two or three was running and regional trains were also affected.

In the busy Paris region, services were down to a third on average. The affected trains included one running from the suburbs through Paris to the city's Charles de Gaulle airport.

Eurostar trains to and from London were scheduled to run normally, while three out of four Brussels- and Amsterdam-bound Thalys trains will be operational.

Trains to Germany were unaffected, but only one of two trains to Spain were due to run.

"The number of strikers will be high, notably among ticket collectors and drivers," more than half of whom have said they are prepared to observe the strike, said SNCF human resources director Francois Nogue.

The company advised passengers to put off their travel if possible, and for those travelling in by road to consider car-pooling.

An SNCF official in Paris's Austerlitz station said only 10 trains featured on the arrivals and departures list at 9am against around 45 on normal days.

The action takes place just one week before France's lower house of parliament examines proposed reforms aiming to tackle the rail sector's soaring debt.

Transport Minister Frederic Cuvillier said on Tuesday the sector's debt stood at more than 40 billion euros (S$67.7 billion), and would likely soar to 80 billion euros by 2025 if nothing was done to stem it.

The unions that called the strike, however, feel that the measures included in the reform will not help rein in the debt.

The problems for commuters were exacerbated by a protest by taxi drivers in several European capitals, including Paris, against what they see as unfair and illegal competition from app-using car services such as Uber, which have shaken up the taxi industry.

Hundreds of taxis blocked the entrances and the exits of two main Paris airports - Charles de Gaulle and Orly - before snaking their way towards the city, blocking arterial highways and causing traffic jams.

California-based chauffeur car company Uber is the main target of the drivers' ire, but it is only one of many new smartphone-dependent car services seen as bypassing strict regulations faced by licensed drivers.

In France, there are now an estimated 10,000 vehicles and motorcycle taxis run by such non-traditional companies.

Drivers are only allowed to pick up passengers through prior reservation, not by hailing them in the street. Most notably, these operators do not have to shell out some 240,000 euros for a licence required by official taxi owners.