Start-ups, smartphones help French dodge rail strike

Paris (AFP) –


French railway unions used to be able to cripple the country by blocking the train network. But when workers walked off the job on Tuesday, new technology helped reduce the misery for commuters and companies.

In 1995, when drivers and other staff on the national network downed tools, commuters faced hellish traffic jams for nearly three weeks, while companies struggled with absent staff and lost working hours.

Some Parisians remember hitch-hiking around the capital, standing on roads with their thumbs up and waiting for a ride.

Just over twenty years later, the internet, mobile phones and new ways of working meant that staff and travellers were better informed and better prepared as the massive rail disruption began.

After days of warning travellers about mass cancellations, state rail giant SNCF issued real-time information on their website and phone app, which helped reduce frustration at stations.

As a result, instead of the scenes of chaos on overcrowded platforms seen during major strikes in the past, most stations were surprisingly orderly during rush hour on Tuesday morning.

"I thought it would be chaos," a young optician in Nice, Chloe, told AFP at the station in the southern city. "People have anticipated it," she added.

Others turned to new car-sharing companies like market leader BlaBlaCar or competitor Karos, which connect drivers offering space in their cars to commuters needing a ride. Trips can be booked in a few seconds on a mobile phone.

That helped keep down traffic jams around major cities, which were larger than normal in the morning rush hour but far from record levels.

"We've seen an explosion in new users," a co-founder of Karos, Olivier Binet, told AFP. "In terms of the number of people using our system, we've seen a four-fold increase today compared with before the strike."

He said 380,000 drivers were offering spaces in their vehicles and the company expects many new passengers to become long-term users of the service having discovered its advantages.

During a one-day rail stoppage on March 22, "a few thousand people tried car-sharing for the first time and 50 percent of them continue to be active users even when there is not a strike," he said.

BlaBlaCar had a record number of new users sign up last Friday when 1.4 million people visited their website, a spokesman told AFP.

- Embracing the strike? -

Others simply decided to stay away from the office altogether, using their laptops and internet connections at home to work in a way that would have been unimaginable during the big rail strikes of 1995, 1986 or 1968.

The practice is being encouraged by the centrist government of President Emmanuel Macron which passed new labour laws last year that give workers the right to ask their companies to work remotely.

A range of start-ups offering shared work spaces in cities around the country also used the opportunity to promote their services to employees and companies alike.

Beewake, a company based in Paris, offers 2,000 work spaces that can be booked online, as well as an IT platform allowing managers to monitor and track their team members working from shared offices or at home.

"We've had almost twice the number of users between Sunday and Monday and we've also had a lot of companies contact us," co-founder Sebastien Trouillet told AFP.

"These are moments when you can get colleagues to embrace new ways of working," he added. "Solutions like car-sharing and office-sharing enable companies to decrease absenteeism."

Not everyone can work from home, of course, and disruption on the rail network could continue for months and accumulate over time.

Rail unions have announced strikes on two days out of every five until the end of June, raising the spectre of a long conflict that would have a severe impact on companies.

"The capacity to be disruptive is changed and challenged by new technology," labour market economist Andrea Garnero from the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) told AFP.

"I think the key will be if they (unions) manage to keep it going. A couple of days of strike, it's annoying but it's manageable. When it starts to be long-lasting it can be more problematic," he added.

Some lawmakers from Macron's Republic on the Move party urged company managers to see the bright side.

"Every strike on the SNCF enables us to develop new forms of organising our work lives a bit more: remote working, confcall, videoconf, coworking... we should almost say thank you," wrote MP Jean-Rene Cazeneuve on Twitter.