ÖBB unionist quits

Federal Railways (ÖBB) works council boss Wilhelm Haberzettl has decided to retire.

The Social Democrat (SPÖ) announced on Saturday it was “time for a change. Younger talents should come forward.” Haberzettl said he would quit as head of the ÖBB staff representation on 22 November. The 56-year-old left-winger added he had no plans to retire as a member of the federal parliament. Haberzettl cited “personal reasons” for his step. A spokeswoman for ÖBB said the company “regrets but accepts” his decision.

The Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) – which has called for a privatisation of parts of ÖBB – said Haberzettl was the perfect example for someone who blocked any kind of attempts to carry out reforms. The opposition faction also said he stood for the privileges of Social Democratic unionists.

Haberzettl emphasised his decision had nothing to do with alleged disagreements with the SPÖ board considering the future of ÖBB which has debts of around 20 billion Euros. Labour union officials have not yet revealed who will succeed Haberzettl. The Social Democrat headed strikes in 2003 to underline workers’ disagreement with regrouping procedures at ÖBB carried out by a government coalition of People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Freedom Party (FPÖ). Some of the ÖVP-FPÖ administration’s changes of ÖBB’s internal structure were taken back by the current SPÖ-ÖVP government later on.

Current ÖBB chief Christian Kern – who is close to the SPÖ – harshly criticised the disputed ÖBB reform of 2003. He said the splitting and outsourcing activities had cost the company a lot of money since several sections were dealing with similar or the same issues. Kern gave the ÖBB’s numerous legal departments as an example for what went wrong.

Haberzettl was reportedly on good terms with SPÖ Infrastructure Minister Doris Bures. Kern described his relationship with the politically muscular unionist as “correct”. However, Haberzettl warned in September ÖBB workers could down tools if Kern pressed on with attempts to change labour agreements. The company boss said he wanted to check whether paragraphs in employees’ contracts saving them from being laid off could be declared void. The businessman argued such a measure was needed to get ÖBB back on track. Representatives of ÖVP, FPÖ and BZÖ have appealed on Bures to act about the disputed contract agreements creating privileges similar to those of public servants. Haberzettl said he considered Kern’s announcement as a “declaration of war”. ÖBB has more than 40,000 employees. Around one in two workers’ contracts include the controversial anti-dismissal paragraph.

Kern called for more investments by the government into ÖBB to help the company making its services more attractive to people in times of rising car fuel prices and new competition by Westbahn, a private rail traffic operator. He said there was “great potential” in the track between Vienna, Graz and the Carinthian cities of Klagenfurt and Villach. ÖBB recently started using its premium train, the Railjet, on the route. The existence of a “strong axis into the south is essential,” Kern claimed.

ÖVP Finance Minister Maria Fekter made clear she was in favour of selling certain company parts to restore ÖBB’s finances. Bures and Kern rejected her suggestion. Experts have pointed out that ÖBB’s debts also keep increasing due to more and more infrastructure projects the firm is carrying out – and often financing – for the state. The current and most previous governments heaved more pressure on ÖBB, which counted 210 million passengers last year, by outsourcing public debts this way. The European Union (EU) reportedly wants state and government leaders to identify these sums in annual budget reports to avoid a further blurring of figures. Austria’s state debt –around 73 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) at the moment – would be twice as high if the losses of ÖBB and motorway maintenance company Asfinag were taken into account too.

Fewer than one in three Austrians support Fekter’s plan, according to a recent poll. Karmasin found that 32 per cent back the minister in this concern. A majority of 58 per cent said they were not in favour of a privatisation of certain sections of the railway company which also came under fire by the head of an upcoming competitor. Westbahn boss Hans Peter Haselsteiner said earlier this year his firm may take the state to court over ÖBB’s ticket prices.

The businessman – who also heads building company Strabag SE – said Westbahn was disadvantaged in a possible distortion of competition because of the high subsidies of its state-owned rival. He stressed ÖBB got 600 million Euros a year for running trains on unprofitable connections. Haselsteiner stressed he did not want any subsidisation, but disclosed he may sue the Republic of Austria. Ticket prices could increase by 15 per cent if Austria stopped funding ÖBB as strongly as it currently does, the Westbahn founder said.

Westbahn will operate 13 times a day between Vienna and Salzburg from next month. The link is the only service ÖBB – which made a loss of around 300 million Euros in 2010 – is earning money with. Haselsteiner promised Westbahn would remain an Austrian company as long as he was involved. Rumour has it that French railway firm Societe nationale des chemins de fer francais (SNCF) could increase its interest significantly if Westbahn succeeds. SNCF currently holds a stake of 26 per cent. Haselsteiner told magazine News: “SNCF was not a bad choice because they wanted to cooperate with us.”

Speaking about his firm’s services, Haselsteiner said: “Our trains will be state of the art. Our train is newer (than the ÖBB Railjet). We want to intensify on board services like selling tickets.”

Westbahn’s two-floor trains will feature smoker lounges – in contrast to ÖBB’s Railjet. The state-owned company’s trains feature premium, first class and economy compartments while Westbahn plans to offer first class and second class tickets. The private enterprise’s cheapest ticket will cost 23.80 Euros.

Haberzettl announced his decision to resign as head of the ÖBB works council only a few days after he said a comprehensive rail network was “indispensible”. Speaking to the Kurier, the Social Democrat said he was angered by certain aspects of the discussion about ÖBB’s current restructuring process. “There are many people making clear what they do not want – but not want they actually do want,” he claimed. Asked to give an outlook on ÖBB’s financial condition, Haberzettl said: “We are not back in the black but the general development must be seen as a positive one.”