For the past year, a thrill in favor of freight has been felt. Three indications attest to this: the multimodal terminal of the port of Le Havre has been reorganized; a new multimodal terminal has been built in Calais; finally, the Serqueux-Gisors line, which leaves from the north of Le Havre and arrives in Île-de-France via Pontoise, has benefited from investments to open a freight train path, from November. The planets are aligned, with European funding at the rendezvous and an increased environmental awareness among shippers (Editor’s note: freight client companies).

→ THE FACTS. Rail freight: Jean Castex’s recovery plan

These good signals should not make us forget France’s stalling from other European countries. For example, 90% of goods leaving the port of Le Havre do so by road. In Rotterdam, the share of rail is almost 50%. Most of the major European ports make more room for rail than the French ports, notably that of Gdansk, in Poland.

Lyon’s rail traffic jam blocks flows to Spain and Italy

One of the freight problems stems from the fact that SNCF has not made it a central element of its strategy. It did not favor railway sidings, linking warehouses to lines, thinking that its competitors would benefit, the freight market having been liberalized in 2006.

Not giving priority to freight is also true in the paths, given first to passenger trains. A freight train travels at an average speed of 30 km / h. This heightens the fear of shippers, who do not know when their goods will arrive at their destination, not to mention strikes. As a result of these, SNCF’s freight activity revenues fell by more than 10% between 2017 and 2018. A recurring freight difficulty is illustrated by the Lyon rail hub. The priority given to passenger trains, in stations in the center of the metropolis, means that freight trains are relegated at night, during maintenance operations, which increases their slowness. The Lyon rail traffic jam blocks flows to Spain and Italy.

A big delay in infrastructures and their automation

I also think that the SNCF should only do rail, and therefore separate from Geodis, its road transport subsidiary, which is working well. This would create a shock for public opinion and professionals. It would take a cultural revolution.

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The millions earmarked by the government to improve the quality of the network are going in the right direction. We are seeing a big delay in infrastructures and their automation. At a time when we are talking about an “autonomous car”, French railways are far behind compared to that of the Germans, Austrians, Italians … I think that rail freight has a future, especially thanks to combined transport: container is loaded directly from the port onto the train. This would make it possible to cope with road transport, which defends its know-how and its ability to deliver goods to remote areas, without breaking the load.

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