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Swiss railway ambitions in Britain hit by new licensing changes

Stephen Byers, the British transport minister, has proposed changes to the franchise operating regulations

(swissinfo.ch)

Swiss Federal Railways' hopes of gaining a foothold in the British railway network may have hit the buffers after the British transport authorities announced plans to alter the franchise operating regulations.

The Swiss Federal Railways declared last September that it wanted to operate concessions - together with two British partners - on three separate rail lines for a maximum of 20 years, starting as early as 2003.

However Stephen Byers, the British transport minister, has proposed that the Strategic Railway Authority (SRA) should no longer grant long-term franchise licences to operate the networks.

Under the proposals, new licences would only run for five or six years, rather than for 15 or 20 years as originally envisaged.

Furthermore, the Swiss Federal Railways will have to postpone its plans to run one of the networks, Thames Trains, for another two years, because the SRA has extended existing operating licences by up to two years.

Ambitious proposals

The current situation is a far cry from the ambitious proposals unveiled by the Swiss rail company last September. In a joint venture with UK firms John Laing Investments and M40 trains, it announced plans to operate services on the Chiltern line, running out of central London to the west of the country, and to fuse these with two other networks, Thames and Wessex, to create a super-efficient network in the southwest of England.

The combined network would cover over 3,400 kilometres, with 300 rail stations along the way. Total Swiss investment in the project is budgeted at up to SFr200 million ($114 million).

However the partners were counting on a 15-year period in which to implement a highly regular and reliable train service. Even as late as last spring, the head of Swiss railways, Benedikt Weibel, jubilantly declared: "We will have a 20-year monopoly on a railway line in England."

Swiss Federal Railways' response to the announcement has been cautious and diplomatic, and the company is keen to stress that Byers' proposal has not yet been approved. Nevertheless, there is clearly an element of gloom.

"If this happens, it will be a very bad and difficult situation for us," said Roland Binz, spokesman for Swiss Federal Railways, in an interview with swissinfo. "We will have to consider what our new strategy will be, and, together with our partners, look at what's going on in the next few months."

New licensing regulations

It is not clear how long it will be before a decision is reached on the new licensing regulations, but the company says it will not alter its plans until then. "We haven't taken any decisions at this moment, as it is only a consultation period," said Binz.

A question mark now hangs over what action Swiss Federal Railways will take if the new licences are approved. "We don't yet know whether we would consider a new offer, or if we would withdraw our offer," revealed Binz.

The railways said it did not stand to lose any money should the plans be scrapped since the only investment so far had been in establishing a team to work on the project in Britain.

The development is likely to be greeted with a certain element of "schadenfreude" by Switzerland's rail union, which is strongly opposed to any involvement in Britain. Union leaders argue that the move will inevitably lead to investment in British rail infrastructure at the expense of the Swiss rail network.

However Binz reiterated that the venture would not in any way compromise its Swiss services. "We do invest a lot of money in Switzerland, far more than we would invest in England," he said.

Binz added that the rail company, which invests heavily in new rolling stock and infrastructure in Switzerland, would not pursue the same strategy in the UK.

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