ÖBB to train rival’s staff

Federal Railways (ÖBB) boss Christian Kern has revealed that his firm will begin training the train drivers of a rival company.Businessman Hans Peter Haselsteiner and former ÖBB manager Stefan Wehinger’s Westbahn project will start offering around daily connections between Vienna and Salzburg this December. Wehinger recently told Die Presse newspaper: “We expect to achieve operative profits after five years. I have to say that I think many of those who have been in the business for a long time are underestimating us.”Now Kern has disclosed that ÖBB will train the staff who will operate the rival service. “We will educate train operators for Westbahn, because we don’t want to be accused of trying to hinder a competitor in any way,” he said in an interview with the Wiener Zeitung newspaper today (Thurs).Kern added that he was “convinced” ÖBB’s Railjet was a better train than the vehicles Westbahn will use. “Westbahn claims all of its seats on sale will guarantee a first class service, whereas I would in fact categorise them as as second class,” the former Verbund manager, who has headed ÖBB for half a year, said.The ÖBB CEO claimed the “real battle” would not happen between his company and Westbahn but between railway service operators and individual car traffic. He said: “What I appreciate about Westbahn’s presence in the news is that there seems to be more consciousness of railway traffic now.”Kern defended his firm’s performance against critics who have accused the state-owned business as a “money sink” which works inefficiently. The ÖBB chairman told the Wiener Zeitung: “We have more passengers in six weeks than AUA (Austrian Airlines) does in a whole year. We are a company which is really in touch with the people and the economy. Everyone has their experiences which they then share.”In what is considered as an attack on People’s Party (ÖVP) Finance State Secretary Reinhold Lopatka, Kern said: “The political situation regarding ÖBB is unacceptable. The ÖVP speaks badly about the firm all the time. You could argue that we are being defamed and slandered.”The ÖBB boss added: “I’ve never experienced an owner who treats his possessions as badly as some representatives of the ÖVP.”ÖBB works council chiefs turned their guns on Lopatka after he recently called on the firm to restructure its pensions system. The ÖVP official also accused Kern of “presenting fake figures”.Kern said last weekw that the average retirement age of ÖBB staff was 54.8 years in 2010. Lopatka challenged the statement by claiming ÖBB workers were still retiring at an average age of 52 as in 2009. The state secretary added: “Austrian taxpayers had to fork out more than 2.2 billion Euros for the pensions of 72,000 retired ÖBB employees last year.”The Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the ÖVP, which form a federal government coalition, have been at odds over the amount of subsidies for ÖBB for months.While the ÖVP launched several attacks on ÖBB’s board, the SPÖ has been rather reluctant about criticising the debt-ridden company in public. Kern told magazine profil earlier this month he hoped the SPÖ-ÖVP coalition will pour an additional 400 million Euros into ÖBB this year. Kern said such an investment would increase the company’s brand value from 150 million to one billion Euros.Kern announced today that only two per cent of ÖBB’s short-distance trains suffered delays in the first half of this month. He added that just 10 per cent of ÖBB trains in long-distance service were late in the same period. “We’ve reached Swiss standards in this regard,” he said, referring to neighbouring Switzerland’s railway network which is seen as the best in Europe.ÖBB’s debts range around 16 billion Euros. Economists pointed out that the Austrian state debt would be significantly higher were the debts of ÖBB and motorway authority Asfinag considered in the official statistics.European Union (EU) financial issues authorities are tipped to introduce tougher regulations this or next year which could ban member states from leaving the business figures of state-funded firms out of their annual budget reports.