Westbahn wants Graz – Salzburg subsidies

A private competitor of Federal Railways (ÖBB) has claimed it would operate between Graz and Salzburg given that it gets as much financial support as the state-owned rail firm.

Westbahn said yesterday (Sun) ÖBB received five million Euros in public funds to offer a connection between the Styrian capital and Salzburg. According to Westbahn, ÖBB wanted another five million Euros from the state to offer better services at times when people commuting to work were travelling.

Westbahn – a company founded by construction business tycoon Hans Peter Haselsteiner – criticised ÖBB for planning to reduce its activity between Graz and Salzburg and said it would start its own service if the state backed the endeavour with 10 million Euros a year. It criticised the government coalition of Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the People’s Party (ÖVP) for failing to approach them over operating between Graz and Salzburg for less than ÖBB “in favour of doing business with a monopolist.”

The private railway enterprise explained it would “offer top quality with a top service” on the track including free wireless internet access for passengers “to provide a real alternative to motorised traffic.” ÖBB announced in August it would operate six times a day between Graz and Salzburg from December. The debt-stricken company – which wants to be back in the black in 2013 – currently offers 12 daily connections between Austria’s second-largest city and Salzburg, the birthplace of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

ÖBB argued it was forced to slash services on the link as it was under pressure by the government to operate profitably. Only 32 people were currently travelling between Salzburg and Graz using ÖBB trains a day on average, according to the firm headed by ex-Verbund AG manager Christian Kern.

ÖBB dismissed Westbahn’s latest claims today. The state-funded railway services provider announced Westbahn’s claim that its Graz – Salzburg service was backed with five million Euros of taxpayers’ money was “exaggerated”. ÖBB refused to disclose the correct sum. It claimed being willing to hold talks with Westbahn about cooperating about a possible service of the private company on the connection.

Westbahn – which has clashed with ÖBB in court over a whole slew of issues – will operate between Vienna and Salzburg from December. The company’s entering of the domestic rail traffic sector is expected to increase overall passenger figures. Westbahn officials have dismissed speculations the firm may offer extremely low prices. One ticket will cost 23.80 Euros, Haselsteiner revealed last month. He explained this was the sum ÖBB VorteilsCard owners have to pay to travel between Vienna and Salzburg on a train operated by ÖBB. The VorteilsCard is a bonus card costing 99 Euros a year enabling holders to buy tickets for half the price.

Westbahn, in which French railway company Societe nationale des chemins de fer francais (SNCF) grabbed a 26 per cent interest in August – promised to outdo ÖBB’s service considering catering, seating comfort and other aspects. A recent Austrian Traffic Club (VCÖ) poll showed that many ÖBB customers were dissatisfied with the cleanliness of the toilets on the trains. The check also revealed that 55 per cent of regular ÖBB passengers said the company’s punctuality had improved. Kern stressed ÖBB would react to news about widespread unhappiness about washrooms’ hygiene standard. The ÖBB chief emphasised how much he appreciated the survey since nearly 13,000 people were interviewed instead of a few hundred as is the case with most public opinion polls.

News that Westbahn is interested in doing business between Graz and Salzburg under certain circumstances comes just weeks after it presented plans to operate a coach service between Vienna and Klagenfurt, Graz and Linz, Klagenfurt and Salzburg, Linz and Czech capital Prague as well as from Salzburg to Franz Josef Strauss International Airport (MUC) near Munich in southern Germany as of December. Westbahn said that a sixth link may be added next year. Westbahn also said it could imagine to offer train services between Graz and Linz. ÖBB stopped offering a direct connection between the cities in 2010 due to weak demand. The decision infuriated local lawmakers.

ÖBB suffered a loss of 330 million Euros in 2010. Its debts range around 20 billion Euros. Kern has appealed to the SPÖ-ÖVP administration for a capital injection of around 400 million Euros many times in recent months, claiming that more money is needed to ensure progress in improving the quality of railway infrastructure.

SPÖ Traffic Minister Doris Bures said last month she planned to spend two billion Euros a year on modernising Austria’s railway network and stations. Bures said 100 train stations all over Austria would be renovated within the coming three years. The minister said ÖBB could operate 9,000 trains a day in 2025 instead of the current 7,000.

Meanwhile, the pressure on ex-SPÖ Traffic Minister Werner Faymann is increasing in the so-called insertion issue. Faymann is suspected by newspapers of possessing leaked documents applying pressure on ÖBB to place ads in dailies for millions of Euros. Faymann has been Austrian chancellor since December 2008.

The accusations refer to his one-and-a-half-year term as traffic minister which started in 2007. SPÖ State Secretary Josef Ostermayer – a close friend and political partner of Faymann – could also be entangled in the advertisement controversy. He was chief of cabinet of Faymann’s from 2007 to 2008.

Faymann reportedly wanted ÖBB to focus on newspapers which supported his agenda like leading tabloids Kronen Zeitung, Österreich and Heute when it came to placing ads about improvements and new services and promotion articles featuring a portrait picture of him. The chancellor – who denied any wrongdoing – could face abuse of office charges.

Kern said last month he had not been confronted with any attempted political intervention ever since taking office as executive manager of ÖBB. He pointed out that such efforts would be pointless at ÖBB nowadays. The businessman also appealed on the ÖVP to stop using ÖBB in its campaign. The conservative party has appealed to ÖBB to reduce its losses and workforce level of around 40,000 many times, while the SPÖ is traditionally close to the railway company. ÖVP Finance Minister Maria Fekter outraged Bures recently by suggesting privatising certain parts of the struggling company.