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French rail strike to wreck half-term return for thousands of British families

Thousands of train staff working for SNCF (French Railways) will go on strike through the weekend, causing chaos for millions of passengers – including British families returning from half-term holidays in France.

Chefs de bord (train controllers) will walk out from 8pm on Thursday evening, 15 February, to 8am on Monday morning, 19 February, in a dispute over pay.

Half the planned high-speed TGV expresses and intercity services are expected to be cancelled. Slower trains operated by the Ouigo low-cost brand, as well as local and regional services, are unaffected.

SNCF is telling long-distance passengers: “Train traffic will be severely disrupted.”

Passengers are urged to postpone travel if possible. Cancellations will be announced by 5pm a day before departure.

While many local and regional services are planned to run with “driver-only operation”, TGVs and intercity trains cannot move without a chef(fe) de bord. SNCF says: “Their role is not limited to just checking tickets: they guarantee the smooth running of each customer’s trip and carry out security and safety missions. They give the starting signal to the driver.”

Travellers whose trains are cancelled due to lack of on-board staff will be able to switch trains if space is available – though only 300,000 seats on TGVs are available through the weekend, a small proportion of the number of cancellations.

Normally TGV expresses carry over two million passengers per day. Bookings over the weekend – which coincides with peak travel for many French families – are likely to be even higher.

By way of consolation, passengers whose trains are cancelled will receive a discount code for half-price rail travel on a future service.

Eurostar is not involved in the dispute, but many passengers booked on its trains between London, Paris and Lille will be planning to connect to or from SNCF services – especially families heading home from ski holidays in the Alps.

The cross-Channel train operator says: “Due to proposed strike action in France this weekend, we’re giving our passengers due to travel to and from London on Friday, Saturday and Sunday the option to exchange their ticket for free.”

For travellers who decide to switch to flights, air fares are extremely high – with easyJet charging over €400 (£340) for a one-way flight from Lyon to London Gatwick.

The French prime minister, Gabriel Attal, criticised the strike plan, saying “working is a duty”. He also told reporters that rail strikes over busy holiday times were becoming a “kind of habit.”

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