Mr. Jean Bernadi, speaking on his "Thirty Year UK Campaign for French Railways".
© John G. Fender 2011
Jean Bernadi outlined his early career with SNCF, the French National Railway operator, in the Bordeaux region and recalled freight trains loaded with apples, peaches and wine. One of his anecdotes related to the transportation of wine to Paris. It was the practice for the vineyards to deliver the wine to the local railway station and provide a few bottles for the staff.
The stationmaster he worked for had been seconded to the Algerian Railways and had acquired "colonial" habits during his time overseas as the station he had been posted to was by the seaside, so lunch was often a barbecue on the beach. On returning to France the stationmaster was keen to continue the tradition so he organized "working lunches" with barbecued food, washed down with wine.
Wine traffic was a major part of the freight transported and it was common for staff to make sure there was no excess wine in the tank wagons, which would have to be poured away. The same process was undertaken when the trains got to the Bercy terminal in Paris. This meant that there was no "wastage".
In 1971 Mr. Bernadi was appointed to the post of Sales Manager in London, before spending two years in Stockholm representing SNCF. In 1979 he was appointed as joint Sales Manager for Eurostar and then Marketing and Sales Director of the UK Business office. He spent 10 years at the Piccadilly Office and increased the annual turnover from £1.4 million to £18 million. One of the services offered to UK customers was the Motorail service and this carried some 40,000 cars in 1989.
However, the success of the services was not to everyone's liking in SNCF and he pointed out that some deviousness was required in order to get headquarters in Paris to agree to providing additional services. A good example was that of the "ski train" service, taking tourists direct to ski resorts. The first train was such a success that in the next season a second train was needed. However, the directors at headquarters were not keen on the idea, stating that if a second train was provided, he would be wanting a third the next year. This meeting went on with no resolution and eventually everyone was keen to go home as it was now very late in the afternoon. At this point Mr. Bernadi simply told the directors that he knew that there were not enough paths available, or rolling stock so a third train would not be possible and as they were keen to get way for the evening, the directors agreed to the second train.
In the early 1980's there were regular meetings between the SNCF staff and the British Railways Board and Mr. Bernadi compared the two railways. In France SNCF was run by engineers and the company had invested heavily in electrification of the railways, for example the Paris - Bordeaux line had been electrified in 1938 whereas British Rail was still ordering steam locomotives as late as 1954. In the early 1960's Dr. Beeching was cutting British Railways to a core network whilst in France investment was being made in the railways with the introduction of the first tilting trains. In the 1960's Euston station was rebuilt, being hailed as a "blueprint for the future" whilst the French were introducing trains powered by gas turbines. In 1981 the first TGV was introduced.
In 1982 SNCF became an "Etablissement Public Industriel et commercial" (EPIC) and as a publicly owned company cannot be made bankrupt, although it is at the mercy of the politicians. An example is the TGV line from Paris to Strasbourg. Commercially, this was considered to be commercially uneconomic, but the politicians wanted the line and today it is being built. Work is also underway on the Lyon - Turin line and this involves building a 34 mile long tunnel through the Alps, longer than the Channel Tunnel, in partnership with the Italian Railways.
In 1997, Réseau Ferré de France in 1997 was created and this means that two independent EPICs now exist, SNCF being the train operator paying charges to RFF to run its trains and RFF is responsible for ensuring the finance, development and maintenance of the rail network. Much of the work is contracted out, although strictly controlled to ensure quality standards are met. SNCF is now facing competition from other train operators, for example EWS has now obtained a safety certificate and can now operate trains in France and other operators will no doubt follow.
SNCF has been for years very bureaucratic and some of the bureaucracy has had an effect on the finances of the organization. For example, in 1975 SNCF had about 1,200 senior managers and directors, 10,000 executives out of a total workforce of around 245,000. In 1995 there were approximately 1,800 senior managers and directors, and 20,000 executives out of a total staff level of 195,000. With a deficit in 2003, major cost savings could have been achieved by reducing the number of executives, but this goes against French thinking, resulting in staff levels above what is actually needed in some areas.
Concluding his presentation with a brief comparison of the French and UK's rail systems, Mr. Bernadi pointed out that depending on which figures were used, both countries carried most freight! He also looked at the current levels of investment and suggested that a network of EU motor rail services should be established to take cars off the road instead of lorries, as it is the car that is causing the problem, not lorries. A lively debate ensued on many points during the question and answer session and the evening concluded with a vote of thanks from the Chairman.
The Scottish Region would like to thank Edinburgh City Council for hosting the event in the City Chambers.
Report by John Fender.
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