Strike disrupts rail traffic across France for a second day

Commuters wait for a train during a nationwide strike by French SNCF railway workers at Marseille train station, June 12, 2014. Half of scheduled train journeys across France were cancelled on Thursday in the second day of a strike against a pla
Commuters wait for a train during a nationwide strike by French SNCF railway workers at Marseille train station, June 12, 2014. Half of scheduled train journeys across France were cancelled on Thursday in the second day of a strike against a planned rail reform, bringing some of the worst disruption to the country's rail network in years. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS (Reuters) - Half of scheduled train journeys across France were cancelled on Thursday in the second day of a strike against a planned rail reform, bringing some of the worst disruption to the country's rail network in years.

The strike action risked being extended for a third day after trade unions said an emergency meeting with representatives of President Francois Hollande's government had ended in a stalemate.

Unions want the government to abandon a planned reform that would pull the service operator SNCF and the rail network RFF into a single holding structure but nonetheless preserve them as separate entities.

They instead want the two to be fully merged into a single operation, as was the case until 1997, and for the government to take on some 40 billion euros (S$67.7 billion) of debt owed by the companies. "We are very angry with the contempt shown by the government," SUD-Rail unionist Nathalie Bonnet told BFM TV after leaving talks with junior Transport Minister Frederic Cuvillier. "We have made no progress," she said.

SNCF workers fear their working conditions will be hit and argue that neglect of the tracks was a factor in a 2013 accident in which seven people were killed in a derailment attributed to a fault on a stretch of track just south of Paris.

They further argue that merging the two companies would avoid problems such as when SNCF acknowledged last month it had ordered 2,000 trains for an expanded regional network that were too wide for many station platforms.

The mix-up arose when the RFF transmitted faulty dimensions for its train platforms to the SNCF, which was in charge of ordering trains, local media reported.

The Ile-de-France region around Paris was hit harder than average by Thursday's strike with only one in three train journeys set to be maintained, SNCF said in a statement.

The rail reform is due to be debated in parliament next week. The unions were set to decide later in the day on whether to prolong the strike.