Swiss railways quietly celebrate century

The Swiss Federal Railways are celebrating their 100th anniversary Keystone Archive

On the eve of their 100th anniversary, the Swiss Federal Railways have decided to concentrate on their future, rather than look back at the past.

This content was published on December 16, 2001 minutes

As the head of the Federal Railways, Benedikt Weibel puts it, when the 125th anniversary comes around in 2027, people should be able to look back and say that the previous 30 years saw the Swiss rail network transformed into a modern transport system capable of meeting the demands of the 21st century.

That means that next year, there will be no ostentatious shows of celebration around Switzerland to mark the event. However, that should come as no great surprise.

"One reason is that we had big celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of railways in Switzerland in 1997. We also have the Swiss national exhibition in 2002 which will keep our hands full and I think as a company, our job is to look towards the future and not too much back in the past," Weibel told swissinfo.

Improving services

One of the tasks of the Swiss Federal Railways is to continue preparations for a second phase of the Rail 2000 project, which aims to improve services nationwide with more trains, shorter journey times and greater comfort.

On some of the most frequented lines, for example Bern-Zurich, half-hour services have long been introduced under Rail 2000.

"We are even thinking of introducing trains every quarter of an hour on some of the denser routes from 2010-2020," Weibel said.

Projected costs of the first phase of Rail 2000 are SFr6 billion ($3.65 billion), with about the same expected for the second part.

Boring tunnels

Apart from Rail 2000, there are other major infrastructure projects underway, including the two tunnels being bored at the Gotthard and the Lötschberg to pave the way for more North-South traffic, in particular the transit through Switzerland by rail of an ever-increasing number of trucks.

"The realisation of our ambitions will demand sacrifices...we have to make huge investments for the transport of freight at a time when the future of the economy is anything but certain and competition is increasing," he said.

"I hope especially that we can develop the North-South corridor for freight because there we have a tremendous task not only for Switzerland but also for Europe," he added.

Full agenda

The agenda of the Swiss Federal Railways for the future is not short. A new agreement needs to be reached next year with the Confederation on performance targets, and a ceiling has to be set on spending. The second phase of rail reform in Switzerland is also in the offing after the Federal Railways became a private company in 1999.

The Federal Railways also have to complete the first phase of Rail 2000, planned for 2004, as well as set up or extend five commuter networks in large conurbations and increase international traffic in border regions.

Weibel said that from a budgetary point of view, the situation was not rosy.

"Our revenues are suffering from the decline of the economy, while the investments we have to make are in the billions, for example to finance new rolling stock, the renovation of 600 stations and the setting up of the new Railcontrol Centre," he commented.

"Our financial cushion isn't very thick. It's not a new situation but something that has cropped up time and again throughout our history and we shall have to deal with it once again."

Love of trains

However, Weibel can take satisfaction that the Swiss in their vast majority love their railways.

"By their massive 'yes' to the question of public transport financing three years ago, the Swiss provided solid support for the continued development of the rail network," he said.

Weibel told swissinfo he was not going to be overawed by being the head of the Swiss Federal Railways in its 100th year of existence.

"That's really not my first consideration. I'm always concerned by the future and in such a big company as this there are always a few problem areas and it's my task to cope with these challenges," he said.

But asked whether he could imagine being head of another transport company, such as an airline, Weibel, is in no doubt that the railways are part and parcel of his life: "Actually, I have to accept that as my destiny and I don't imagine anything else," he told swissinfo.

"I guess there's nowhere else in the world that there's such a strong relationship between the people and their railways. Maybe it's because we don't have a car industry. It's a marvellous feeling to have the support of the whole population of Switzerland," he said.

by Robert Brookes

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