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Swiss Railways heads towards its limit

(Keystone)

Delays, cancellations and overfull trains and stations – these are scenarios that are not normally associated with the Swiss train service.

Swiss Federal Railways has extended its network and attracted thousands of new passengers. But infrastructure has been neglected and the company now needs an extra SFr1 billion ($970 million).

"Our offer has simply grown over the last years and this has led to the situation that we are, in reality, at our limit," Federal Railways spokesman Reto Kormann told swissinfo.ch.

Around 900,000 people take trains run by Federal Railways and 1,000 trains leave and arrive at the main stations every day. The network is said to be the most densely used in the world.

There are no more disruptions than before, says Kormann, but they have a knock-on effect on the tightly planned timetable.

"When everything works this is an advantage for our clients, when it doesn't it can become uncomfortable for our clients and we understand if some of them become annoyed," said the spokesman.

For example, a problem on the heavily used Bern-Zurich commuter route can mean hours of delays and other trains being cancelled.

Maintenance lag

The rail network may have been extended, but the maintenance of the infrastructure has not, which the company has recently acknowledged. However, it points out that the overall quality is still high.

Federal Railways, which is government owned but operates as a private company, at the end of September asked for SFr1 billion for immediate repairs and a further SFr100-250 million per year for future needs.

Experts say that the problems started in 2004 when the Rail2000 rail extension project resulted in an explosion of passenger numbers, almost twice the number expected.

"What we are experiencing now is a little bit the bill for this big jump, we did it very quickly and caused a lot of new transport and mobility. Now we feel the capacity problems in each section of the rail transport sector," said transport economist Markus Maibach, who works for the Infras consulting company.

"If you ask whether we are at the limit, I could say that the rail system is a little bit the victim of its own success," he told swissinfo.ch.

There are now 17 per cent more trains on the network than six years ago.

Savings

Walter von Andrian, chief editor of the Swiss Railway Review, said in recent years Federal Railways has been saving money instead of preparing for greater usage of its network.

"It shed reserves everywhere, in staff, in rolling stock, but it also saved money in infrastructure maintenance of tracks, signals and catenaries [overhead electrical contacts]," he said.

The company has continued to expand its network. In eight years the Gotthard base tunnel, key for Switzerland's policy of moving from road to rail across the Alps, will be opened.

Passenger numbers are also expected to rise by around 50 per cent by 2030. according to the railways. This could be a 100 per cent increase in the big agglomerations.

Stations are already feeling the squeeze, to which anyone who has witnessed Zurich main station in the rush hour can attest.

Improvements

"Federal Railways must straightaway improve its infrastructure, this costs money which will affect its results in the short term, and the government must increase its contribution for infrastructure again," said von Andrian, who along with Maibach believes that, at present, the company will find it hard to finance the infrastructure measures required.

"To get the necessary additional trains the Federal Railways will perhaps have to increase tariffs," he added.

The financing is complex – the government is responsible for the tracks, Federal Railways for the vehicles, and the cantons have a say in the regional trains.

The railway company says that apart from the infrastructure issues, it is working on improving station conditions, and will invest SFr20 million in new trains by 2030. Kormann says that a rise in ticket prices cannot be discounted, but that this won't happen before the end of 2010.

Transport Minister Moritz Leuenberger recently mooted a limited rise in VAT to fund public transport infrastructure costs.

The Swiss situation may not seem as bad as in other countries – neighbouring France has needed around €15 billion (SFr23 billion) to plug its infrastructure gap over the past decade.

But Maibach says the rail issue is key for densely populated and environmentally aware Switzerland.

"I'm glad that the Federal Railways has started to recognise that it's not just a wonderful thing to have new infrastructure but it's also important to maintain the quality which is already at a very high level in Switzerland," he said.

Isobel Leybold-Johnson, swissinfo.ch

Rail champions

The Swiss are the world champions when it comes to taking the train – last year they travelled on average 2,422 km per person by rail, according to figures of the Swiss Information Service for Public Transport at the end of September. These drew on International Union of Railways figures for 2008.

This is 300km more than in 2007. Only the Japanese come close to the Swiss total at 2,010km, with France in third place at 1,377km. Trains are least used in Lithuania at only 112km per person in 2008.

The Swiss top the European list in terms of number of times the train is taken, at 50 times per annum. The Japanese lead the world rankings at around 70 times a year.

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Railway network

Around 9,000 trains travel the Swiss Federal Railways network every day. 1,000 trains arrive at and depart from major stations daily and heavily used track sections count 500 trains a day.

Federal Railways says that its network has the highest density of traffic in Europe. Nevertheless, it says that 19 out of 20 passenger trains arrive at their destinations within four minutes of the scheduled time.

The company reported a nearly 27 per cent rise in profits for the first half of 2009 to SFr132.8 million ($127.5 million). Operating expenses fell by SFr201.2 million, it said in September.

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