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French and Spanish railways “war” is blocking night trains

Originally published by Oui au train de nuit

Simultaneous demonstrations for night trains took place on July 2nd, 2022 in Lisbon, Madrid and on several Pyrenees’ border stations. The demonstrators are celebrating the return of the Paris-Hendaye night train after a five-year absence. This event is an opportunity to put forward proposals to improve cross-border connections that are currently impaired by the conflict between railways and some EU rules.

Night trains for the Iberian Peninsula 2009
Night trains for the Iberian Peninsula 2022

Of the 100 million passengers travelling between France and Spain every year, less than 2% arrive by train. Indeed, between the border stations of Hendaye (France) and Irun (Spain), only 2 km apart, no passenger trains have been running for months. High Speed (HS) Trains are hardly attractive, with journeys to Europe often taking more than 6 hours. The long distances between Spain and Europe might favour night trains, but Spain dismantled all of them by removing the last ones in 2020. To denounce the lack of rail coherence, demonstrators coordinated between the three countries of South-West Europe for a marathon of mobilisations on July 2nd, 2022.

09h17: A new Cerbère-Portbou donkey service to extend the night train to Portbou

Since 1st of July of 2022, the Paris-Portbou night train can no longer enter the latter station of Portbou (Spain), and ends its route in the previous station of Cerbère (France), with no possiblity to cross the border. Mobilised on July 2nd, the Perpignan-Portbou Train Users’ Association (UTPP) valiantly proposed a new inter-border donkey service to carry passengers’ luggage across the mountain to Portbou station, which is barely 1km away as the crow flies [photo]. 

Beyond this action day, the Catalan associations are asking for a cross-border train that serves the stations of the coast, with a real timetable coordination between RENFE and SNCF’s regional trains.

Faced with the administrative blockade preventing the night train from entering Portbou, users organise themselves to carry luggage across the mountain

100 years after the creation of border stations: now Spain and France require drivers to be bilingual

The night train can no longer enter Portbou, because since July 1st 2022 the Spanish rail network requires a “B1” language certificate for SNCF drivers. Régional trains are also threatened.

A train driver explains: “For decades, a High-Speed Train (HST) driver could travel from Paris to Stuttgart without speaking German. Of course, she/he was trained for the German signalisation system. Now, a new European regulation imposes a B1 level in the event of a signalling failure: a form is then given to the driver to be able to cross the faulty signals. Yet, the national agencies should have made an exception for border stations.”

A railway worker complained: “The railways have been pioneers in harmonising Europe since 1922 with the International Union of Railways – UIC – which guaranteed access to border stations. 100 years of experience confirmed that the most efficient way is that border station staff speak both languages, but not the drivers. Unfortunately since 2007 the UE has undermine some of the UIC rules.” (see legislation and debate on twitter).

France was the first to impose the strict regulation to border stations, as a freight driver from Portbou testifies on twitter. And in Irun, “a translator now accompanies all Spanish freight trains travelling to Hendaye.

When questioned, the Occitania Region’s Vice-President for Transportation underlined : “We did not accept this unilateral decision of the railway safety authorities of the two countries … Thanks to the spanish training of controllers, Regional trens remain cross-border“. From Montpellier, the CGT union gave its analysis: “This is above all an economic war between SNCF and RENFE linked to the opening up to competition.

For a railway worker in Irun “the required language level, B1, is not so hard to obtain. With a 2 or 3 month anticipation, we can train the drivers or controllers.” As Occitania Region, RENFE has trained its controllers to maintain regional trains. ADIF has also given a derogation for French trains until October 1st of 2022… but only for freight.

Once again being the last to be considered, the night train is the only train removed. The SNCF operator sent a bus to complete the last kilometre. Unfortunately the narrowness of the streets of the border village of Cerbère hardly allows the bus to reach the station. The train will always be more suitable… and it was finally a RENFE train that took the passengers to Spain.

Spanish railway workers march to Hendaye to celebrate the arrival of the night train

09:30 AM – March from Irun to Hendaye to denounce the homologation “war”

The second march of the day was undertaken by the Spanish Coordination for the Public, Social and Sustainable Train and the Spanish railway union CCOO. They walked the 2 km between Irun and Hendaye stations to denounce the lack of connections:

  • The new French duplex HSTs are not approved to enter Irun, officially due to a gauge problem. For the Spanish railway workers « It’s an excuse. There is no tunnel nor obstacle. It’s rather an administrative blockage. » For the French railway workers the SNCF is also not interested in sending its HSTs far beyond Bordeaux for few passengers and prefers to shorten the ends of the lines.
  • Concerning the new regional trains, Irun railway workers comment that “all the homologation stages have been completed. It was at the very last moment that there was a political blockage so that the homologation was not signed“. Today, as a consequence, no passenger trains – neither RENFE nor SNCF – can run between the two stations.
  • The night train does not arrive in Irun either. A Spanish railwaywoman argued that “the night is the only one homologated to cross the border. It has been running for 40 years !“. When questioned, the French Ministry of Transport (DGITM) and SNCF unfortunately denied this analysis: the homologation has been withdrawn because the night train was not running to Irun for 5 years. The homologation remains valid only for Portbou, as long as the train continues to run there… And beware, the Spanish Railway Safety Agency (AESF) already threatened since several month to withdraw the homologation for the night train to Portbou.
  • On the other side, the french railway institutions are also blocking Renfe trains. The spanish HST are not homologated for the northern half of France: they cannot therefore enter Paris, Brussels and other European cities, although there is of course a demand from Europeans to reach Spain by train… 
  • It is still possible to travel by foot as the Hendaye – Irun stations are only 2 km apart. However, the French police have barricaded the pedestrian bridge that would make this crossing more direct and pleasant…
  • Another possibility is to take the small metre-gauge « Euskotren », which is a real success with half-hourly timetables from 5.30 a.m. to 10.30 p.m., and even all night at weekends, which is what every user dreams of in France, and which is only seen abroad… Unfortunately, the Euskotren only covers 500m of French territory, which is of course insufficient to offer a real cross-border alternative to the private car. Note that the president of the Basque Country wants to invest in railto reduce car congestion : 45,000 vehicles cross the border every day, more than 85% of cross-border journeys are made by car…

The EU may solve the problem quickly and for the whole continent, as one freight railway worker reminds us: « 

In the 20th century the UIC stipulated that trains homologated in one country could run to the border station of the neighbouring country. Unfortunately, the EU has undermined this agreement by creating national railway safety authorities that impose their decisions within the strict borders of the country. This is a no sense for cross-border railways, which are thus subject to double regulation. It adds layers of extra costs and that is what is killing the railways. Fortunately, this 2007 European regulation is currently being renegotiated. It is essential to ensure that it nows complies with UIC agreements. Under pressure from the German operator DB, the problem has already been solved positively for the Saarbrücken-Forbach border stations »… where it was often necessary to change locomotives twice for 6 km tracks.

Furthermore, European legislation already proposes an exemption for “networks separated from the rest of the railway system“. Yet the Spanish tracks in France (at Cerbère and Hendaye) are separate networks. They cannot be used by French trains because they are at Iberian gauge. The same separation occurs on the tracks used by French trains in Spain at Portbou and Irun. The choice not to apply the exception is therefore all the more absurd. It is apparently only motivated by the railway dispute between the public railway companies of both countries. However, this is a good opportunity to improve EU regulations, which have been seeking for years to bridge the gaps at the borders: in order for trains to be able to move more easily across the EU, the exception should not be left to the random arbitration of each Member State’s safety agencies. The European Rail Agency – ERA could generalise it to all EU border stations, in accordance with the UIC agreements.

Meanwhile, the deterioration is rapid: towards Italy, the border station of Ventimiglia no longer supplies power to the catenaries so that the Paris-Nice night train can access it. In Portugal, railway workers are also worried : Another cancer spreading in Europe. It always worked well and safely, now we have this madness. The same thing is expected between Portugal and Spain.” 

10 AM – Demonstration in Hendaye, is competition both the source of blockage and the solution to everything ?

The trains are blocked. For a rail worker, the competition generates the blockage: “There was a non-aggression pact between SNCF and RENFE, which SNCF betrayed by launching the low-cost HST Ouigo in Spain. [600 million euros of French public funding is funding low fares and a level of service that Ouigo does not offer in France]. Their Elipsos cooperation has been shattered.” Now Spanish operators are eyeing the French market. RENFE or Euskotren would like to operate regional trains in New Aquitaine (Hendaye Region). In the meantime, they show no interest in unblocking traffic.

However, another strategy is possible: back in 2017, the CEO of SNCF confirmed the advantages of cooperation over competition: “between Germany and France we did not choose competition but cooperation. […] If we were in competition, that would mean that if you bought a ticket for a TGV, you could not get on an ICE, it is not exchangeable, and vice versa. We thus chose a model of cooperation and we are happy because with our German colleagues it has strengthened the links between the two companies.

Cooperation was a widespread behaviour among the railways in the 20th century. The decline in cooperation dates back to the European regulations 3rd and 4th railway packages (2007 and 2016) – which put railways in competition. The hostility began in 2011, when the public companies SNCF and Trenitalia stopped their cooperation Artesia.

Already In 2016, Oui au train de nuit called on this subject on the European Commission – DG Move, which replied that the new regulatory tools would solve all the problems. Six years later, one question remains: how much longer will it take to finally be able to travel those 2 km by train, where the tracks and trains are already in place and only a signature is missing ?

And above all, isn’t it time to introduce a miminum of mandatory cooperation ? It would be useful to:

  • Create continuity between operators (rail benefit to operate as a network).
  • Relaunch night trains, which are fragile, cross several countries and need this cooperation.
  • Offer through tickets mixing night trains + day trains of all companies. This will allow in the future to travel 2000km and cross Europe.
The first Paris-Hendaye night train has entered the station after a 5-year absence

Night trains return to South West Europe

The Iberian Peninsula benefited from some twenty night trains in 2009, running on both national and international connections. The operator RENFE has definitively dismantled all the night trains, on the occasion of the Covid crisis, despite Portugal’s opposition, which is seeking to revive the offer. 

The night trains Lusitânia (Lisbon – Madrid), Sud Express (Lisbon – Hendaye) and Barcelona-Galicia have thus been dismantled, despite high occupancy rates. Portugal is isolated from the larger European rail network. Such a situation has not happened since the two World Wars.

In such desperate situations, Oui au train de nuit has already had the opportunity to sing it’s only goodbye. In fact, already, the night trains are coming back!

11 AM – the first night train arrives in Hendaye!

The new Paris-Hendaye night train approaches 500 m from the border, after 5 years of absence. This is a victory, but there is still a lot to be done.

First handicap: this night train to Hendaye only runs in the summer (like the night train Paris-Portbou which only runs on weekends and holidays). The demonstrators are asking for these 2 trains to be daily. Moreover, the time of arrival is very late (10.40am). In addition, numerous HSR works are likely to prevent traffic for the next 10 years. See the press release.

5 PM – debate in Bayonne between users, elected representatives, NGOs and railway workers

In the Basque Country, train is the subject of debate: the french Basque Country has voted against the High Speed Line project to reach the border. The EU is also reluctant to pay. Brussels seems to favour the modernisation of existing lines that are more useful for daily mobility.

This was the occasion for a debate which showed the importance of providing more funding for the conventional railroad network. This network is under-used by far: local trains could be operated at half-hourly intervals, with a wider range of hours. And to double the freight, the « rail freight highways », such as Cherbourg-Bayonne, are expensive and unsuitable. By only linking one unique depature with one destination, they abandon the territories located in between.

6 PM – Lisbon dances for the night train as an alternative to aviation

In Lisbon the Aterra collective is mobilising for alternatives to air travel [press release]. It has called for a demonstration with choreography in front of the historic Santa Apolonia station. Anne denounces Portugal’s railway isolation: “Lisbon is one of only two European capitals without any international rail links. We are completely dependent on aviation, which is the worst choice for the climate. The situation is dramatic. We want night trains to Europe and also national night trains to connect the North and South of Portugal“. [see video]

Aterra also calls for fair taxation between air and rail. It claims that a train journey should cost, at most, half the equivalent journey by plane.

Aterra alerts on the rail isolation of Portugal and the need for alternatives to aviation

7 PM – Madrid for the revival of night trains and the conventional rail network

In Madrid, the NGO Ecologistas en Acción denounces the imbalance of funding in favour of High Speed Rail, as well as the abandonment of the conventional railway network. The latter provides more social benefits with local trains, suburban trains in the regions, freight, and night and day long distance trains. 

Beyond the demonstration, a joint declaration by 14 social, trade union and environmental organisations, was also proposed on July 4th, accompanied by a dossier of proposals. The action was particularly noticeable in medium-sized cities served by the night train, such as Salamanca, [press release] and Granada.

The left-wing coalition in the Spanish government has promised the return of night trains… by 2050. In 2022 it is carrying out a study (with no news about it) and at the same time authorising RENFE to cease operations and send some of its most modern night trains… to Turkey. As a reminder, Western Europe is experiencing a shortage of this type of equipment, and several operators are also looking to rent it.

Demonstration at Madrid-Atocha station for night trains and the conventional rail network

8 PM – the first night train returns to Paris with a batch of demands

This long day of mobilisation ends with the night train sending a message back to Paris (and Brussels). Could such accumulations of dysfunctions take place in Paris regional trains? Or it is just an effect of over-centralism on the forgotten edges of France? 

Oui au train de nuit had already occasions to denounce that the railway geography seen from Paris is overly simplified. So its proposals include night trains on a diversity of cross-country routes between regions (while actual night trains are strictly limited to connexions to Paris). Similarly Portugal’s government also denounce the excessive railway centralism in Madrid’s strategy and is calling for an real Iberian rail network, which would to be not limited to tracks to Madrid.

At present, french government is concentrating new tax revenues for infrastructure projects for Paris and the metropolises: the « Grand Paris Express » is typical of this trend – this new infrastructure plans a tax to collect at least €35bn. The South-West HSR project want to raise €14bn. Yet, these projects forget about the conventional railways for medium-sized towns and give rise to a feeling of abandonment and injustice.

In many rural areas, the Yellow Vest mouvement and then the rising scores of the Extrem Right parties have largely sounded the alarm: it is time to fix territorial divisions by funding the conventional railway at least at the same level as the big projects for the metropolises. This is especially relevant as there is a backlog of investment to be made up and more than 60% of the french population lives outside the metropolises. Spain also wants to balance those investments, but fails to achieve it.

The first night train leaves with a message to Paris

Oui au train de nuit therefore demands :