The cargo division of the Swiss Federal Railways is cutting more than 400 jobs across the country after suffering a loss of SFr190 million ($185 million) last year.
The state-owned company – which employs 4,600 nationwide – said that it would relocate another 200 jobs, mainly to the western town of Yverdon. Workers at one of the four affected sites immediately announced a strike.
In total, the move will affect 13 per cent of the enterprise's workforce.
Employees at the group's locomotive repair facility in the southern town of Bellinzona have called the move unacceptable.
The railway union called on the cargo division to reconsider their decision and announced a series of protests.
A spokesman announced that workers in Bellinzona went on strike immediately, saying workers would also block locomotives entering and leaving the site.
Friday's action marks the first time that employees of the Federal Railways have gone on strike since 1918, according to unionists.
Demonstrations are planned in Bellinzona on Saturday.
Politicians from the Ticino region, including Bellinzona, are calling for talks with the transport minister, Moritz Leuenberger.
Fabio Pedrina, a Social Democratic member of parliament, promised that he would raise the issue with the government, with the intention of overturning the state-owned company's decision.
However, cargo chief Nicolas Perrin argued that regional political interests should not influence company strategy. He said that the move was in the best interests of the company.
"Swiss Federal Railways Cargo is an business enterprise," he said. "We cannot make our decisions based on regional politics."
Market forces and international competition have put a strain on the Swiss Federal Railways over the past several years; it had been contemplating downsizing its cargo division since 2006.
Pushed by the market
"It is a really tough challenge because we have competition from trucks and we have extremely low margins," former Federal Railways head Benedikt Weibel told swissinfo in late 2006.
"There is tough competition between trains and trucks and between companies. We are very well positioned, but on a European scale we are a niche player."
The fortunes of the Swiss rail company – and its cargo division in particular – may be set to turn around, as authorities have been ramping up efforts to make shipping by truck a less attractive alternative to rail.
A comprehensive, SFr5.9 billion ($4.82 billion) renovation of the country's rail network is in the works and authorities have plans to sharply increase fees for truck traffic.
swissinfo with agencies
Trucks have taken a bite out of the Swiss rail cargo industry as of late, but this is likely to change.
Authorities are calling for most goods to be taken off the road and put on trains.
The number of heavy goods vehicles crossing through Switzerland is supposed to drop to 650,000 by 2009 (1.2 million in 2005), although the target that is unlikely to be met.
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