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Drivers blow the whistle on their chairman

Swiss Federal Railways chairman Thierry Lalive d'Epinay has said he will not step down Keystone

More than half of the Swiss Federal Railways' locomotive drivers have called for the resignation of the company chairman, Thierry Lalive d'Epinay.

They say there is a chronic shortage of staff and that Lalive d’Epinay is responsible for the situation.

A petition signed by 1,662 drivers was handed in to the Swiss transport minister, Moritz Leuenberger, on Friday calling for Lalive d’Epinay’s replacement.

In an interview with the “Tages Anzeiger” newspaper of Zurich, Lalive d’Epinay said he was concerned about the drivers’ dissatisfaction but said his resignation was out of the question.

The drivers have complained they have to work many hours overtime, forego days off, as well as accept a situation in which training and instruction courses are cancelled.

Safety implications

They warn that the present situation could have a negative impact on rail transport safety.

The drivers are also angry that staff have been assigned to either passenger or freight duties, which they say makes their work monotonous.

However, Lalive d’Epinay said in the newspaper interview that the Federal Railways would not go back on this division of responsibilities because productivity had increased “massively” as a result of its introduction.

The chief executive of the Federal Railways, Benedikt Weibel, said measures to improve the situation had already been taken, with 500 new staff being employed between January and October.

Staff shortage

He explained that most of the new personnel were drivers now undergoing training, as well as staff for the customer department. He said the Federal Railways had a staff shortage of fewer than 500 people at present.

Weibel repeated his view that the introduction of a 39-hour working week was a mistake in hindsight, and he said that talks would be held with the unions next year on more flexible working times of between 36 and 42 hours per week.

He added that he hoped this system could be introduced in early 2003.

Earlier this week, an internal survey of the Federal Railways showed that staff were increasingly dissatisfied with their working conditions and salaries.

A survey among the 28,000 employees and filled in by 60 per cent of the workforce, brought to light that working conditions were viewed less favourably than in a similar poll last year.

In response, the Federal Railways said it was determined to try to improve the situation.

The Swiss Transport Union has expressed its “extreme preoccupation” in the face of the “continual degradation” of the working climate.

Cutting service

Earlier this month, the staff shortage prompted the Railways to make an unprecedented move in its almost 100-year history – by cutting a train service in western Switzerland.

“We are short of about 40 train drivers in the region of Lausanne and Geneva at the moment. In the whole of Switzerland, we are short of between 250 and 300 drivers,” Federal Railways spokesman, Roland Binz, told swissinfo.

He said it was difficult to predict whether other services might have to be cut as a result of the shortage.

“We hope we don’t have to cut any more but it depends on the state of the economy and the number of staff we have,” he said.

“At the moment, we are training about 200 train drivers and we hope to improve the situation as soon as possible,” he added.

There has been a dearth of drivers for some time, prompting the Federal Railways to hire staff from abroad, in particular from Germany.

However, once employed, it takes six months’ training for a foreign driver to be ready to climb the cab of a Swiss locomotive. The training time for a beginner usually takes 18 months.

swissinfo with agencies

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR