French rail strike squeezes grain exporters, processors


Rail strikes in France are disrupting the end of the grain marketing year in the EU’s largest crop producer, leaving exporters scrambling for backup transport and fearing lost shipments if stoppages persist.

Three months of on-off strikes launched last week by unions, in protest against a planned government reform of national rail company SNCF, have crippled train services on strike days.

Rail use varies widely in the French grain sector. Some firms like oilseed group Avril said trains play a limited role in their transport. But others rely on dedicated train lines and disruption has left them competing with other industries for free trucks and barges.

Grain handlers say the strike is particularly unwelcome, occurring just as France was seeing an upturn in exports after a poor marketing season, and as river traffic was curbed by high water levels and canal maintenance.

“There is very clearly the risk we won’t be able to guarantee ship loadings for our export customers and that these loadings will be switched to other countries,” said Alain Charvillat, director of cereals at port silo operator Senalia.

Senalia, which relies on rail freight for 15-20 percent of grain it handles at the northern port of Rouen, has received no more than half of its scheduled trains since last week, Charvillat said.

The company had enough grain for now thanks to stocks at Rouen and alternative arrangements with suppliers involving truck and barge combinations, he added.

At Dunkirk port, silo operator Nord Cereales has also organized truck/barge backup routes as it tries to gather 120,000 tonnes of barley to load two vessels for Saudi Arabia in late April, Managing Director Joel Ratel said.

Soufflet, one of France’s biggest grain handlers and exporters, said it had only been able to carry out one in four scheduled trains convoys in the first week of April.

Industries that process grain within France were also hit.

In Brittany, animal feed makers are more dependent on rail and the prospect of transport snags has pushed physical premiums well above levels elsewhere.

The worst-hit sector may be starch manufacturing.

Tereos could incur costs of 1 million euros ($1.2 million) a month in starch, with the need for 200,000 replacement trucks, a spokesman said.

However, the group’s main sugar business was not affected, he added.

French starch makers, which process crops like wheat and maize, rely on trains for half of their raw materials, Thomas Gauthier, director of industry association Usipa, said.

“There is the risk of being choked because we have big factories that operate round the clock,” he said. “From mid-May, it’s possible there could be production outages.”


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