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French senators urge funding freeze for new high-speed rail links
September 29, 2016 / 11:16 AM / 10 months ago

French senators urge funding freeze for new high-speed rail links

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PARIS, Sept 29 (Reuters) - French lawmakers on Thursday urged the government to freeze state funding of new high-speed rail links for 15 years in order to free up resources to upgrade the existing, aging rail network.

Apart from being a nuisance for travelers, France's decaying rail network - the second-largest in Europe, covering more than 29,000 kilometers - is also a security risk, a group of eight senators from across the political spectrum said in a report.

"In focusing all financial resources on high-speed links, our country has severely neglected other parts of the rail network," Marie-Helene Des Esgaulx, the Senate Finance Committee Vice-President told a news conference.

"We need to massively invest in maintenance, and this means freezing high-speed links for 15 years," she said.

The group of senators, who represent different regions of the country, said in the report that an extra 1 billion to 2 billion euros must be dedicated to modernise the nationwide rail network, which is on average 32 years old.

This would lift funding commitments by the state and state-owned rail operator SNCF to 3.5 billion-4.5 billion euros a year over 15 years.

Des Esgaulx cited a July 2013 accident in Bretigny-Sur-Orge outside Paris, which left seven people dead and a dozen injured. A team of experts investigating the accident cited poor maintenance as a cause.

The senators also recommended that the state take on at least some of SNCF's debt, which now exceeds 44 billion euros.

Their report is not binding for the government, but it touches on a sensitive topic in a country that prides itself on its transport infrastructure but is at the same time under pressure to cut its public deficit ahead of next year's presidential elections.

A government report said earlier this month that now was not the right time to pick up the debts of the SNCF.

Transport infrastructure investment in France accounts for roughly 1 percent of economic output.

In 2014, the government suspended plans for an ecotax on heavy goods vehicles, initially aimed at raising 1 billion euros a year to finance rail infrastructure projects, after nationwide truck driver protests. (Reporting by Dominique Vidalon; Editing by Ingrid Melander and Hugh Lawson)

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