Dealing with the French Railway Strikes

For some months now we have been aware of the possibility of widespread strikes in France this year, as a protest about Macron’s attempts to implement union reforms. While strikes in France are not unusual, these promise to be even more widespread, affecting transport and many forms of government service. This may result in a major change to the frantic pace at which French workers work tirelessly during the day. From our perspective, the major sources of disruption will be the train system run by SNCF which we rely on for longer trips and the canal locks controlled by the VNF. Time will tell!

UPDATE#1: 10 Jan 2018

Well, so far, all we (think we) know is that SNCF trains will be on strike for 2 days out of 5 each week in the lead-up to summer. But the price of plane tickets will be rising in the next couple of weeks, so I took the plunge today and booked tickets on Singapore Air to Paris on 11 June, returning on 20 November after our long trip up the Rhone. I figure I’ve got a 60% chance of the trains not being on strike when I get to Paris and need to get across to Bern to meet up with Rita, where we will do some steelpan practice with Swiss-Americans Joe and Karen from Zurich who will be joining us for the Fêtes des Plaisanciers concerts around Moissac in August. Here’s hoping!

UPDATE #2: 14 May 2018

Well, obviously I didn’t hope strong enough! With just a month to go before I leave, I thought I’d make some train bookings for the trip from Paris to Bern. The two main options seem to be via Basel or Geneva (although I’m sure there’s another via Frasne and Neuchatel, but I could find no trace of it). I decided on the Geneva option because, although it is longer in travel time and a bit more expensive, it leaves CDG Airport a bit later, giving me a greater margin of error between plane arrival and train departure (about 2.5 hours). I was going well online until I got to the screen about ticket delivery, and saw that (because it crosses a border) they don’t have the option of eTickets that you can print at home. They must be delivered in the snail mail. After I saw that they would apparently arrive in Taggerty in time, I decided to try another train booking site to see if they had eTickets, so I tried the site. By chance I stumbled across a FAQ page on that site that had details of the SNCF strike days. And wouldn’t you know it, the trains are on strike on the day I get to Paris (12 June) and the day after!!!

So my mind started racing about how I could get from Paris to Bern on the 12th. Could Rita drive across and pick me up, could I rent a car, could I stay in Paris for 2 days, could I change my flights? After some emails to Rita, who was already in Bern, we ruled out her driving across to Paris because my plane arrives at 7.35am and asking her to get up in the middle of the night to start the drive and then battle through peak hour Paris traffic to get to CDG would just be too much, especially after she told me that congestion around Paris on the strike days extended out for 150km, as Parisian workers still tried to get to work without the trains (since they couldn’t afford to take 2 days off work every 5 days for the three months of the strikes). This congestion also ruled out the idea of me hiring a car. Staying in Paris for two days would not be cheap, so I reluctantly decided to enquire about changing my flights.

When I phoned Customer Service at Singapore Air, and explained the situation, they said that they were receiving quite a few similar calls. I asked if I could get a flight out on June 12 which would get me to Paris on a non-strike day, but they said there were NO seats of any type available on that flight. I then asked about flights on the next two days (which would still get me to Paris on non-strike days) and they said there were no seats available in the same class as my original ticket. I was now starting to get a bit worried. So I hesitantly asked what the cost would be of moving to the next available class of ticket, and they said $420 plus the change fee of $71 (nearly $500). My mind was racing, but what could I do? If I declined this opportunity, those tickets might also disappear as others tried to change their flight arrivals to non-strike days. So, I gulped a bit, and accepted the increased cost for a new ticket for a 14 June departure from Melbourne, arriving in Paris on the 15th in the middle of a 3-day non-strike period (which I gather is the most reliable at the moment). At least the Kris Frequent Flyer points that I had used to bring down the original price of the plane ticket now meant that I was paying what I should have in the first place (any rationalisation was welcome at this time!)

So I now got back onto the SNCF site and booked the Paris-Bern train trip on the 15th before they also disappeared. Then I sat back and had a scotch & dry to sooth my weary mind.

Naturally, having made this decision under pressure, I later realised that I had several other alternatives (which may come in handy next time around):

1. I could have caught a plane from Paris to Bern on the 12th (although there may not have been any tickets left when I tried to book, as others used the same alternative). For some reason, I just never consider “short” plane trips in Europe, especially one-way trips which are almost as expensive as return trips (and sometime more so).

2. I could possibly have caught a bus (but I had no idea how or when or where)

3. I could actually have stayed at an CDG airport hotel for two days for less than the cost of the ticket change

4. I could have looked up who was staying on a barge in Paris, via the DBA website or Facebook page, and asked if they could have put me up for a couple of days. Having just run the DBA Members Survey, I’m sure they would have recognised my name!

Anyway, everything now looks OK for a strike-free arrival at CDG and a relaxing train trip to Bern. Unless, of course, they change the days for the strikes!

UPDATE #3: 15 June 2018

D-Day has arrived to see whether the trains are actually running. And thankfully, they were. A smooth trip from CDG to Lyon, and then a very scenic trip from Lyon to Geneva. But the train driver must also have been enjoying the scenery, and forget to keep to the timetable. As a result, we arrived 10 minutes late in Geneva and so my 12 minute transit time was cut to 2 minutes. Missed the connection but caught a later train, which had a trouble-free run up to Bern. All’s well that ends well.

EPILOGUE; 20 November 2018

I arrived in France to be greeted by a train strike, and am now leaving France in the middle of the “yellow vests” blockade. You gotta love the French and their willingness to bring the country to a halt, just because they want to flex their muscles.