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French Rail Sabotage

DW staff (als)November 21, 2007

France's state-owned rail operator, SNCF, said sabotage had occurred on the nation's high-speed rail lines as negotiations were about to continue on Wednesday, Nov. 21, aimed at ending an eight-day transport strike.

Person trying to catch a train in Paris
Arson on rail lines had delayed the trains still operating, SNCF claimedImage: AP

SNCF said there had been a "concerted campaign of sabotage" on rail lines of the high-speed TGV network. SNCF charged that the sabotage was aimed at stopping services from resuming as the eighth day of rail strikes began.

SNCF management in a statement said there had been "several acts" occurring "at the same time on the network," as quoted by AFP news agency.

The company said sabotage consisted of several fires, including a "very large" blaze on the Atlantic branch that damaged 30 kilometers (18 miles) of the signal network and which had forced TGV trains to use normal tracks.

Rail strikers on the streets of Marseille
Railway workers blocked a road in central Marseille on Monday in protestImage: AP

Along the TGV's northern and south-eastern lines, SNCF said that "the deliberate shutting of signal switches is creating signal problems, and other arson attacks on cables have been reported," as cited by AFP.

An arson attack on other cable arteries has also stopped normal train traffic since early Wednesday morning.

Possible hour-long delays

SNCF said it expected the attacks to prompt hour-long delays along the TGV network that carries the majority of traffic between major French cities.

Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau said the attacks were "grave and reprehensible acts of violence. ... What is totally unacceptable is their apparent coordinated nature."

Union leaders also condemned the incidents, with the head of the railway branch of the General Labor Confederation (CGT), Didier Le Reste, saying: "These acts of violence could have serious effects on rail safety. They are unspeakable acts carried out by cowards."

The alleged sabotage came as talks were to take place between unions, management and government representatives to put an end to a nationwide rail strike over pension reforms.

On Tuesday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy promised to stand by his economic reforms and urged strikers to return to work.

Policemen dressed up as jailbirds while participating in Tuesday's protests
Policemen also participated in protests on TuesdayImage: AP

"We will not yield and we will not retreat," the president said.

French ministers have said they will not back off from the pension reform, which increases contribution periods for the half million beneficiaries of "special" pensions systems so they are in line with the rest of the population. Currently, they retire two and a half years earlier than most.

Also on Tuesday, the rail workers were accompanied by hundreds of thousands of striking teachers, nurses, tax officials and other state employees demanding pay raises and an end to job cuts.

Mass rallies against the government were held in cities around the country, with some 30,000 people marching with banners through Paris.

Many back to work

Travelers waiting for trains in station
As travelers wait, the strike is costing up to 400 million euros ($590 million) a dayImage: AP

SNCF predicted that service would improve on Wednesday, with an estimated 400 out of 700 TGV trains running. Paris metro operator RATP said it expected about one train in four to be operating.

Fewer and fewer rail workers have been participating in the strikes since the dispute over pension reform began. On Tuesday, the numbers stood at 27 percent of workers at SNCF, and 18 percent at RATP. Those hard-core strikers have demanded the complete withdrawal of the center-right government's pension reform.

On Wednesday, teachers, postal workers and civil servants had returned to work after their Tuesday protests over the government's economic reforms, Reuters reported.

Accident on Corsica

Separately, on the French island of Corsica, two trains collided on Wednesday, injuring 24 people. The trains rammed into each other on a stretch of single track that connects the island's two main towns -- Ajaccio and Bastia. An official said that some passengers had suffered cuts and broken bones, but none of the injuries were life-threatening.

Railway operator SNCF said there was no indication of any criminal damage to the rail network on Corsica.

Initial reports suggested that an engineer had made a mistake which caused the collision. The Ecology Ministry, which also addresses transportation issues, has called for an investigation into an exact cause of the accident.