SBB boss says ÖBB will survive

The head of one of Europe’s most successful railroad companies has said he is convinced that Austria’s Federal Railways (ÖBB) has a future.

Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) chief Andreas Meyer told Die Presse today (Fri) that “there might be synergies (in the next 20 years), but SBB and ÖBB will stay independent companies.”

SBB is widely seen as one of the best railway companies in the world. It manages to make a profit while counterparts in other European countries are forced to make cuts due to crisis-enforced losses and a slump in passenger figures.

Meyer told Die Presse that an essential aspect of his company’s solid economic condition was the common support of the people. The former Deutsche Bahn (DB) manager underlined that the state-owned firm held referendums ahead of the past decades’ biggest infrastructure projects like tunnel constructions to find out what residents of Switzerland thought about its plans.

The SBB chief – whose company was identified as a role model in many regards by ÖBB boss Christian Kern – said another important issue was reliable service which ensured a connection every 15 or 30 minutes throughout Switzerland. Meyer added that it was also vital that there was only one ticket for all of the non-European Union (EU) member state’s means of public transport including ships and mountain ropeways.

ÖBB has debts of around 20 billion Euros. The figure could increase to 30 billion Euros within 10 years due to rising infrastructure costs and several tunnel projects, according to experts. Austria’s budget deficit would shoot up were the performance of the ailing rail enterprise and motorway maintenance firm Asfinag considered.

Asked by Die Presse how ÖBB could get out of the red, Meyer said he did not want to give any advice. However, the businessman said that the strategy of holding referendums created a positive public attitude towards SBB in Switzerland. He added: “It seems to me that there is none such cooperation between the state and its provinces in Austria.”

ÖBB started using Railjet, its top-standard train model, on the Vienna – Villach link a few days ago. Kern argued the decision by making aware of “great potential” in southbound connections. Social Democratic (SPÖ) Infrastructure Minister Doris Bures made clear she backed ÖBB’s restructure plans to make a profit within the next years.

The minister underlined that the government would not neglect investments into railway traffic to ensure the service’s quality and improve Austria’s greenhouse gas statistics. However, the government’s recent accord to pick a stricter austerity path could axe the spending volume into some projects the minister considered as her chief priorities.

SPÖ leaders and the People’s Party (ÖVP) agree upon implementing a so-called debt limit to keep Austria from losing its AAA rating. The coalition wants to save nine billion Euros until 2017 when the budget deficit should make just 0.35 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP). Austria’s debts should decline quicker than initially planned as well, the SPÖ-ÖVP administration said last week. The EU country has debts of 215 billion Euros at the moment.

Martin Bartenstein, the ÖVP’s new traffic spokesman said yesterday ÖBB should participate by spending one billion Euros less to meet the debt brake budget target. He said the company should sell some of its factories and real estate. Bartenstein announced he also wanted ÖBB employees to retire later. The ex-economy minister explained he was not calling for an end of any current or planned infrastructure project, but called on Kern and Bures to reduce investments on such activities.