Bures rejects ÖBB sale suggestion

Social Democratic (SPÖ) Infrastructure Minister Doris Bures has labelled a debate over whether Federal Railways (ÖBB) should be privatised as “superfluous.”New People’s Party (ÖVP) Finance Minister Maria Fekter hit the headlines at the weekend by announcing she could imagine selling ÖBB to reduce the soaring state debt.Fekter said she “would have no problem” with privatising the loss-making railway operator. The minister added that she could also imagine seeking a partnership with a foreign rail firm to help ÖBB get back in the black.The Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) welcomed the suggestion, while ProBahn – a group representing train passengers’ interests – rubbished the idea as a “bad consideration”.Analysts assumed the government may get closer to sell ÖBB as the Social Democrats (SPÖ) failed to comment on Fekter’s statement straight away. Now Bures hit back by calling the discussion about a possible sale of the company as “superfluous”.Bures argued yesterday (Mon) ÖBB should continue restructuring measures to make a profit by 2013. ÖBB chief Christian Kern agreed with the infrastructure and traffic minister, saying: “We want to be back in the black in 2013. Then it’s up to the owner what should happen to the company.”Kern claimed it was “very unrealistic” to privatise ÖBB in the near future. Some economic experts explained selling some parts of the company should not be ruled out, but added that it was a bad moment to discuss such a move.Newspapers quote various analysts as saying that ÖBB should get its finances in order before eying up a potential investor. They also warned that the Republic of Austria should not act the way it did regarding Austrian Airlines (AUA). The former flagship carrier was taken over by Germany’s Lufthansa only after the SPÖ-ÖVP coalition poured half a billion Euros of taxpayers’ money into it around two years ago.ÖBB is especially challenged by the soaring debts of Rail Cargo Austria (RCA). The affiliate used to be a money-spinning asset of the company before it plunged into the red in the credit crunch.ÖBB achieved a turnover of 5.14 billion Euros in 2010, up by 6.4 per cent compared to the previous year. RCA burdened its annual performance. The cargo-managing subsidiary firm made a loss of 353 million Euros. Rumours that ÖBB considers selling RCA to a French or German competitor emerged long before Fekter’s latest appeal.However, RCA is not the only battlefield. Except its link between capital Vienna and tourism hotspot Salzburg, ÖBB has failed to make a profit with any of its passenger services. Experts point out that only few railway firms in Europe rake in money with their passenger transport operations which are often subsidised by national governments for this reason.Westbahn, a new rail firm founded by building industry tycoon Hans Peter Haselsteiner, will tackle ÖBB’s dominance between Vienna and Salzburg soon. The private company will operate 13 times a day between the cities from December. Westbahn co-chief Stefan Wehinger said the company’s target was to make an operating profit within 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,” the former ÖBB manager claimed.Recent performance reports show that ÖBB spent 3.5 per cent more on staff salaries in 2010 than in 2009 despite a decrease of its workforce. The company had 42,419 employees last year, down by 2.7 per cent compared to the year before.Opposition politicians and former ÖVP Financial Affairs State Secretary Reinhold Lopatka have attacked ÖBB for the low pension age of its employees for many years. The railway company’s employees retired aged 53.5 years on average in 2010. Lopatka – one of ÖBB’s fiercest critics – was removed from office as part of an extensive swap of responsibilities within the ÖVP’s cabinet of ministers and state secretaries in April.In what has been regarded as an attack by Lopatka, Kern said earlier this year: “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.”ÖBB’s works council branded Fekter’s suggestion to sell the company as “absurd” today. Already last month, the former interior minister said in a radio interview she wished to hold a debate “free from any taboos” about the possible sale of shares in various companies currently held by the state.The Greens claimed today that the ÖVP was also to blame for the dismal state the ÖBB was in today due to the various reforms carried out between 2000 and 2007 when the conservative party formed a government with the Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the BZÖ.