The train has never been so trendy.
A response to the ecological imperative, it is gradually regaining the hearts of the French.
But the same can't always be said of the company that runs them.
Strikes, canceled trains, high prices of the TGV... Plagues among many others which tarnish the image of the SNCF.
In the latest Posternak / Ifop barometer which tracks the reputation of large French companies, it is in 30th and last place.
In 2019, the 60 Million Consumers Association awarded it the Cactus d'Or, its prize "rewarding" the company "
having the most ruined the lives of the French
Outside our borders, however, the group enjoys an excellent reputation, particularly in terms of engineering.
Present in 120 countries, the SNCF can pride itself on being the second largest transport company in the world in terms of turnover.
Through its subsidiaries, it operates numerous public transport networks, such as the suburban trains in Boston and the metro in Doha, Qatar.
But why does it cause so much frustration on its own land?
How to explain that it remains irretrievably the "
unloved society of the French
already titled it in 2011?
Read alsoParis-Alès with the SNCF: journey into absurdity
Public service or commercial enterprise?
We could sum up this relationship with an adage: "Who loves well, punishes well".
The train is part of everyone.
It is a component of our economic and historical heritage.
There is therefore an expectation, a requirement even, which is completely legitimate
, suggests Philippe Peray, trainer at the SNCF and creator of the railway extension chain Clé 2 Berne.
The demonstrations that are currently taking place in Greece
after the train accident
are a perfect illustration of this: the train has something sacred, on which we cannot compromise
This expectation is all the stronger as the SNCF is still perceived, wrongly, as a public service which all citizens should be able to benefit from.
It is rather a public company providing a public service mission but which operates like a private company.
Therein lies all the subtlety
,” explains Luc Béal, teacher-researcher at Excelia Tourism School, in La Rochelle.
Read alsoTGV / TER connections: why it's hell
A “user” who has become a “customer”
The transformation of the SNCF into a public establishment of an industrial and commercial nature (Epic), in 1983, introduced a market logic.
The idea of a public service accessible to all in an equitable way disappears in favor of a search for profitability.
The implementation of yield management
[literally “yield management”, Editor’s note]
in the 1990s marked a turning point.
From now on, the train must bring in money and no longer just provide a service.
This has the consequence of excluding some of the travellers, who are no longer called users but customers
,” emphasizes Luc Béal.
A logic which partly explains the high prices of the train, made necessary to finance the investment in the network.
While the railway offer may seem monolithic, it is actually more varied than you might think.
The TERs are subsidized by the regions and the Intercités by the State, sometimes up to 50
of the ticket price, which makes them real public service offers
”, defends itself to
High-speed trains (TGV inOui, Ouigo, Eurostar, etc.), are financed by the receipts of its customers, without any public aid.
Read alsoThe toll, this tax which explodes the price of the train in France
5 million daily travelers, and as many judges
More than 200,000 travelers were deprived of trains during the 2022 Christmas holidays due to a strike.
Here grandparents waiting for their grandchildren at Brest station, December 23, 2022. FRED TANNEAU / AFP
Fiasco of the launch of SNCF Connect, headache of correspondence between TGV and TER, crowded or canceled trains, line closures, removal of services... The grievances expressed by passengers and user associations deserve a whole register.
Inevitable criticism for a company which, every day, transports 5 million passengers on board 15,000 trains, from TER to TGV via Transiliens.
These are all judges able to evaluate the service.
Daily travelers are legitimately the most critical than those who take the train occasionally, for holidays for example
,” comments Luc Béal.
The fed up is also maintained by a sometimes failing quality of service.
Travellers do not always feel like they are paying the right price for the service
," says Thibault Constant, a fine connoisseur of rail networks, which he sifts through on his YouTube channel Simply Railway.
The strikes absolutely do not serve the cause of the train and give the image of an unreliable means of transport, on which one cannot always count.
We touch on the freedom to come and go.
In other countries, everything is done to simplify travel: the timing of passages, suitable connections, high frequencies...
The SNCF refuses any idea of generalized "
", preferring to evoke "
temporary dissatisfaction punctuated by current events
Aware of being "
very scrutinized and commented on
", it relies on information for travelers, particularly on social networks, to respond to what it calls "
", these elements likely to spoil the customer experience.
For example, “
when traffic is interrupted, it is a question of explaining why this interruption is made necessary by security imperatives, the first of our priorities
”, specifies the SNCF.
- Angry passengers due to a stoppage of suburban trains in Madrid (February 8, 2023)
Read alsoTrain, plane: but why is everything so complicated in France?
The train, an “easy target”
Is this phenomenon of
Yes, says Thibault Constant: “
, which in my opinion have the best rail networks in the world, there is always an opportunity to tap into your rail company.
The train is an easy target, even for those who never take it.
Would opening up rail to competition change things?
All companies are subject to the same problems, there is no miracle to be expected.
In the regions which will choose another operator
[like the PACA which awarded its contract to Transdev from 2025, editor's note]
, this will not change anything: the TER trains will be the same, they will run with the same staff on the same paths
", insists Philippe Peray.
And to cite the example of the United Kingdom: “
the railway offer is strongly criticized when there is no national company, but a multitude of private operators.
And if, in the end, the disenchantment with the SNCF was exaggerated?
Overall, travelers have nothing to complain about, and that's good.
The dissatisfied probably represent a small minority, but they are the ones we hear the most
,” observes Thibault Constant.
Their misadventures, from the cat crushed by a TGV to a station paralyzed for several hours, find a sounding board in the media and on social networks.
After all, it is well known: journalists are only interested in trains that arrive late.